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Robert Earl Keen is a paradox. On one hand, he’s a careful writer who spends hours crafting his songs, the best of which are like Flannery O’Connor short stories set to music. Yet he doesn’t seem to care whether anyone actually listens to them. He and his band would rather play to “crazy, rowdy, drunk crowds” than to attentive audiences.
“Getting up for [a quiet audience] is a little more difficult than riding the wave of a crowd of screaming, yelling, happy people,” he told blogger Blake Phillips in a candid online interview. “You’ve got to be a little more on your toes with a crowd that really listens.”
At their best, Keen’s songs are epigrammatic, sometimes Southern Gothic short stories. Take “The Road Goes On Forever (And The Party Never Ends).” If you only pay attention to the chorus (as I did for a long time), it’s a party song; a rambunctious ode to licentiousness. It’s been the centerpiece of his sets for years, but for a time that chorus backfired on him.
Many of the people coming to his shows assumed that he lived the life he celebrated in his songs. “A lot of frat kids started showing up at shows, and it was a double-edged sword,” he told an interviewer on his website. “They were energetic—maybe too energetic—and that drove off the other people. And here are all these guys saying, ‘He’s really drunk tonight’ or somebody writing I was drunk on stage. I never drink a beer before or during a show. I might have a beer or a cocktail afterward, but people had this perception about me being drunk.”
He’s a walking contradiction whose stories are partly truth and partly fiction. “I think that every good piece of fiction stems from a true story,” Keen told Phillips. And when they’re spiced with a little imagination, the stories are that much better.
Keen learned that lesson long ago, along with his friend Lyle Lovett, when he was an English major and Lovett was studying journalism at Texas A&M. When they weren’t in class together they often sat talking about songwriting and playing their guitars on Keen’s porch, wearing little more than their underwear (much to the dismay of the churchgoers across the street).
Lovett had a profound influence on Keen’s writing, and eventually the two wrote a song together (that Lovett included it on his first album suggests the respect was reciprocal). Called “This Old Porch,” it details the reasons they both always return to their small-town roots. The first two verses celebrate the world they knew growing up, while the third and fourth lament its rapid decline. But the closing verse, repeated to press the point, is a paean to that peculiarly stubborn Texan spirit of revival, “And this old porch is just a long time of waiting and forgetting / And remembering the coming back and not crying about the leaving / And remembering the falling down and the laughter of the curse of luck / From all of those passersby who said we’d never get back up.”
That same spirit animates many of the characters found in Keen’s songs. Sherry and Sonny, the two small town kids in “The Road Goes On Forever (And The Party Never Ends)” are a great example. Sherry’s a waitress in a local bar, Sonny deals dope trying to get by while trying to pass the test to get into the Navy.
One night when a guy who’d had too much to drink stepped over the line with Sherry, Sonny “took his pool cue (and) laid the drunk out on the floor.” They took off together, ending up in Miami Beach. Money was tight and Sonny fell in with “some Cuban refugees” dealing “in contraband.” But just as he was about to consummate the deal, the house where they were meeting was raided. Sonny jumped out of the back window with a suitcase full of cash into the arms of a cop. Sherry had pulled the truck into the alley at the back of the house and she shot the cop.
The twist in the tale—with Keen there’s always a twist—comes when Sonny gives Sherry the cash telling her he’d pulled her into this mess and she should just go back home. The tale ends with Sherry, driving a Mercedes, reading in the local paper that Sonny’s on death row.
I must have listened to that song—and sung along with the chorus—a hundred times, but until I began writing this piece I’d never listened to the story between the choruses. According to the faithful, “true Robert Earl Keen fans” listen to the lyrics. That may be true, but even if you don’t it’s still a hell of a party.
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.