Robert Earl Keen is one of the legendary Texas singer-songwriters, and he’s long been a personal favorite of mine. Musically, he’s impossible to pigeonhole; I suppose “Americana” would be the most apt label, but on balance he’s probably closer to mainstream country than many artists that fall under that umbrella. He has written songs that are about as thematically complex as songs can get, but also plenty of tunes that sound like they could be a particularly smart Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw single. He has a very odd discography, to be honest, but in a good way.
I can’t help but feel REK is a little underrated today outside of Texas music circles, and there’s a few obvious reasons why that is. His best work arguably was released in the ’80s and ’90s, he hasn’t released an album of mostly-original material since 2011, and while his songs have been cut by mainstream artists on numerous occasions, none of his compositions have ever been a huge hit single. As a result, he might not have the same level of name recognition as many of his songwriting peers like Guy Clark, Steve Earle or Rodney Crowell. He remains highly influential, though, as some cursory Googling reveals that younger artists like Tyler Childers, RC Edwards, William Clark Green, Wade Bowen, Cody Canada, Jason Eady and numerous others all cite him as an influence in articles or interviews.
Anyway, here I am with Fifteen Favorites: The Robert Earl Keen edition.
Note that Keen has recorded worthy covers of numerous great songs over the course of his career, including but not limited to Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July”, Terry Allen’s “Amarillo Highway”, James McMurtry’s “Levelland”, Todd Snider’s “Play a Train Song” and Steve Earle’s “Tom Ames Prayer”. In order to make things easier on me, I have elected not to consider songs primarily associated with other artists, as well as material from his many live albums.
Also note that the following songs are simply my personal subjective picks. As always, we’re far more passionate about the songs than the order in which they are ranked.
All songs written by Robert Earl Keen.
No. 15, “All I Have is Today”
I’m not the biggest fan of 2003’s Farm Fresh Onions. It’s just a little bit too goofy and gimmicky overall for my taste. It does, however, contain a few excellent tracks, of which “All I Have is Today” is likely my favorite. With its bright, vigorous, percussion-heavy production and earworm chorus, it’s among the tracks in Keen’s repertoire I could most imagine as a hit single in an alternative universe. It offers a fine life lesson as well. None of us can change the past or predict the future, so all we have is today.
No. 14, “What I Really Mean”
This is a pretty strong lyric about a musician living life on the road and wishing that his lover could be with him, but it’s that sweet banjo-and-saxophone combination that make this song among the most distinctive and pleasant-sounding songs in Keen’s catalog. It’s also one of those songs where the melody grows on you with every listen.
No. 13, “The Armadillo Jackal”
REK’s first few albums are well-regarded, and for good reason, as they feature some truly stellar songwriting. But personally, I’ve never been as high on them as most because I feel Keen hadn’t yet found his artistic identity, and that the production and performances on his early releases lacked that little bit of spark he wouldn’t find until later. Just like Gary Allan didn’t really become Gary Allan until Smoke Rings in the Dark, in my opinion Robert Earl Keen Jr. (as he was initially credited) didn’t really become Robert Earl Keen until 1993’s A Bigger Piece of Sky.
However, this markedly strange track from Keen’s debut album, 1984’s No Kinda Dancer, is certainly a keeper. The titular Armadillo Jackal is a creepy and probably insane man who apparently spends his time running over armadillos on the highway and selling their hides. He seems to take sadistic pleasure in causing their suffering until one day he gets his comeuppance in a surprising way. One of the most unusual aspects of this song is how it abruptly changes from the first to third-person perspective the moment the Jackal loses control of his situation. Just a really well-done story song that feels like something out of Tales From the Crypt or the Mad Max universe.
No. 12, “The Road Goes on Forever”
I confess I initially didn’t have Keen’s signature song on this list due to being completely burnt out on it, but revisiting it for this feature and attempting to set aside any personal biases, I’m reminded of what a sterling composition it is.
“Road Goes On Forever” describes two small town losers who meet serendipitously and find kindred spirits in one another. After a torrid love affair in which they blow what little money they have, they decide to score some cash by ripping off some Cuban drug dealers in a meeting that turns out to be a police sting. By the end, the couple are left with diametrically opposite outcomes. One of the great things about this song is how open to interpretation it is despite being extremely detailed. Did Sherry wind up with the money and get away scot-free purely by happenstance, or was she subtly manipulating Sonny the entire time?
When the freakin’ Highwaymen cut your song, you know you’ve made it. It’s just been recorded and re-recorded way too much – both by other artists and Keen himself – for me to honestly rank it too high.
No. 11, “Wild Wind”
This song served as my introduction to Robert Earl Keen when I heard it on satellite radio at some point in the late 2000s. Therefore, I may be overrating it a bit here out of nostalgic sentiment, but it’s my list and I’ll overrate “Wild Wind” if I want to.
This mordant and amusing small town character portrait introduces us to a gaggle of local characters who harbor a dark secret or are otherwise a little bit messed up, from a bum who squandered the family fortune to a rich old woman who knows how to deal with her greedy suitors to a doctor who “wrote prescriptions and made a lot of friends”. Is all of this dysfunction a new problem we should be concerned about? Nope. “That’s the way it goes around here“, Keen winks, “I think everybody knows”.
Sonically, the song is characterized primarily by a harmonica played by a then-mostly unknown Cody Braun of Reckless Kelly. Keen’s twangier-than-usual vocals, Braun’s wheezing harmonica and the song’s singalong chorus make this a riotously good time every time. If you enjoy mainstream country singles like Miranda Lambert’s “Famous in a Small Town” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Mary Go Round” that have dealt with similar themes, it’s well-worth checking out “Wild Wind”.
No. 10, “Think It Over One Time”
My favorite love song in Keen’s discography, “Think It Over Time” involves the narrator pleading for his partner not to abandon the love they share and the life they’ve built. It’s a simple style of song done exceptionally well, and contains one lyrical gem after another. My favorite? “It’s only you for me, just like that whooping crane, who has one wife for all his life and if she dies, he’ll do the same.” Reckless Kelly deliver a superb cover of this song on the REK tribute album, by the way.
No. 9, “Mariano”
“Mariano”, from 1989’s West Textures, is an absolute stunner. I feel like I’d be punching above my intellectual weight discussing it in detail, but I’ll just say it has a lot of profound things to say about the plight of illegal immigrants, familial bonds, the connection to one’s homeland, and many other subjects. With a dobro and violin-heavy production that borders on vaguely sinister, this is one unforgettable track.
No. 8, “Gringo Honeymoon”
The title track to 1994’s Gringo Honeymoon (Keen’s most consistently great album, in my opinion) is an atmospheric and immersive story song like no other. Ostensibly describing a couple on their honeymoon in Mexico, the song details their various activities and the people they meet during their adventure. From rowboating across the Rio Grande, from encountering a smoke ring-blowing cowboy who’s on the run from the law, from visiting the town’s best bar and listening to a caballero who plays an old gut string guitar and sings like Marty Robbins, this song is teeming with indelible imagery. Robbins was clearly a significant influence on Keen, and it’s not just because he’s given a particularly tasteful name drop here.
This song’s about having a once-in-a-lifetime experience you know you’ll cherish for the rest of your life but will never be able to recapture or replicate. It’s about being as close to Heaven on Earth as possible, but the experience is rendered bittersweet because you’ll know you’ll soon have to return to reality. This is one of the harder tracks here to describe, but it’s an absolute beauty that never fails to move me.
No. 7, “Feelin’ Good Again”
Jason Eady summarized the magnificence of this song far more eloquently than I ever could, so I’ll let him take it away. I’ll just say it’s a song I always think of whenever I’m in a great mood or seem to be on some kind of winning streak, when everything seems to be going my way. You know it’s not going to be this way forever, but dammit, you’re not going to think about that now. The highly distinctive guitar riff alone makes this song magical. Given that there’s cover versions online from everyone from Evan Felkner to Shane Smith to the Watkins Family Hour (whose version I have to admit really struck me), I imagine this would be many people’s #1, and understandably so.
No. 6, “The Raven and the Coyote”
In the write-up for “Gringo Honeymoon”, I mentioned Keen’s Marty Robbins influence, and nowhere is that influence more evident among Keen’s own compositions than on the sweeping epic “The Raven and the Coyote”. A work of historical fiction set in a unspecified time and place, this song tells of a young man who has just found love with a girl named Angelina. However, their newly married life is interrupted by the civil war that is breaking out in their country. He feels compelled to enlist in the army despite Angelina’s objections, as he has unshakable faith that God will protect him. The dastardly rebel leader Juan Miguel Ramos Montoya is steadily closing in and may have other ideas, though.
But it’s that haunting, hair-raising refrain of “the raven flies, the coyote cries” – which doesn’t really relate to the rest of the story, but seems to make perfect sense anyway – that takes this song to the next level. It combines with the highly befitting presentation of soaring violins and sizzling percussion to mentally transport you to a different time and place. Listening to this song repeatedly and absorbing every detail is like reading a particularly satisfying novel, and it has an immensely satisfying conclusion I will not spoil. This song isn’t in the same league as Robbins’ “El Paso” – no song is – but for my money, it comes mighty close.
No. 5, “Shades of Gray”
For most of its duration, “Shades of Gray” may seem like a fairly standard albeit particularly well-written character sketch detailing the adventures of an immature and directionless but ultimately good-natured young man as he falls in with the wrong crowd and gets into a series of misadventures that gradually escalate in intensity. Then an utterly bizarre encounter with a group of mysterious men occurs where even the characters in the song don’t understand what’s happening. Then the final line is sung which reveals when and where the song takes place, and it completely changes your interpretation of everything else that came before. The “reveal” is extremely subtle and something many people won’t even notice. It’s an incredible piece of storytelling and I’ve never experienced anything else quite like it.
And musically, the song is excellent as well. Bluegrass legend Tim O’Brien’s mandolin playing gives the songs its sonic hallmark and interacts beautifully with the drums and electric guitar. The emotionally intense chorus is one of my all-time favorites.
No. 4, “Jesse With the Long Hair”
This intricate, sprawling multi-suspect murder mystery instantly invites comparisons to Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts“, but it’s an amazing song in its own right. Like “Shades of Gray”, this song continues the Keen trademark of an insanely catchy and poignant chorus buttressed by dense verses of storytelling. Just who saved Luann from Mr. Brown and why is something I didn’t fully grasp until I got older and heard this song many times. This song says a lot about how personal connections between people can mean more in determining how we view one another than the societal roles we’re thrust into – the cop and the criminal might actually understand each other a little bit, and could even become friends under different circumstances.
No. 3, “Corpus Christi Bay”
“If I could live my life all over, it wouldn’t matter anyway” goes the famously exuberant, rousing chorus to “Corpus Christi Bay”. That notion is never fully expounded upon, but everyone understands exactly what’s he saying: that even given what we know now, if we had to do it all over again, most of us would make the exact same decisions and wind up in exactly the same place.
The brilliance of this song is that it takes a highly specific situation – very few of us will ever be an aimless, borderline alcoholic oil rig worker who has a more responsible brother we wish we could be more like (and who, in turn, probably wishes he could be more like us) – but makes it universally relatable. Simultaneously a celebration of carefree youth and a subtle examination of its potential pitfalls, it’s easy to see why this is among Keen’s most covered tracks – even Johnny Rodriguez of all artists saw fit to cut it and give it a traditional country arrangement. I’ve relegated some of Keen’s other most popular songs to Honorable Mention status so I could highlight some lesser-knowns, but I absolutely had to include “Corpus Christi Bay” here. It’s the Keen track that exhibits the most wisdom, and is ridiculously fun to boot.
No. 2, “Whenever Kindness Fails”
I have to get a little anecdotal here, but this song absolutely melted my 19 year old brain when I first heard it. This darkly comic work of historical fiction from 1993’s A Bigger Piece of Sky seems to be a first-person account of a psychopathic John Wesley Hardin-esque figure riding a passenger train in 1891. After being rebuffed by some of the other passengers, he murders everyone aboard, and the lyrics consist of him nonchalantly describing his thought process and simple life philosophy: he’ll use his gun, but only when kindness fails. Okay then.
Garry Velletri’s overall production is what really makes the song: unnerving, repetitive percussion that clicks along in the background, the occasional well-placed steel guitar lick, sweeping violins, an electric bass and more all create a unique and downright unsettling aesthetic experience. This song is absolutely not for everybody, but if you enjoy media like Blood Meridian or Red Dead Redemption, definitely check it out. It’s worth noting, however, that Joe Ely delivers a splendid version that I daresay equals or even surpasses Keen’s, and that fact keeps this song out of the top spot for me.
As always, before the #1 selection is revealed, here are a handful of honorable mentions, in chronological order.
Love’s a Word I Never Throw Around
A breathtaking composition, but I feel Keen later explored this theme a hair better with “Think It Over One Time”, and I didn’t want to be repetitive. Here’s a fine cover by John Baumann, by the way.
Merry Christmas From the Family
If you only know one REK song, it’s probably this one. This hilariously realistic depiction of an ordinary, slightly dysfunctional family’s Christmas gathering is Keen’s best-known song and a staple at his live shows. Almost everyone who hears “Merry Christmas From the Family” will find something to relate to their own experience, and that’s what makes it the enduring classic it is.
I’m Comin’ Home
Keen’s effervescent delivery of the simple mission statement “I’m comin’ home, made up my mind that’s what I’m gonna do, can’t love nobody on the telephone, I’m comin’ home to you” completely wins me over.
The opening track to 1997’s Picnic is a rattling, rapid-fire narration of a man whose life is spinning out of control.
Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear
One of Keen’s most idiosyncratic compositions, this inexplicable, cheery fairly tale starring anthropomorphized animals sounds like it could be theme song to a children’s animated TV series, if only the lyrics didn’t deal with topics like murder, drug use and political corruption. What.
And, now, my No. 1 pick.
No. 1, “Lonely Feeling”
There’s been a lot of gut-wrenching songs in country history that deal with abject loneliness, and I submit “Lonely Feeling” as belonging to that grand tradition. My pick for Keen’s best and most underrated song, the six verses describe numerous people, things or situations that may represent or result in loneliness, and not a single word rings false. The hugely climatic electric guitar solos are wonderfully cathartic and never feel out of place or self-indulgent. This song doesn’t have a chorus and it’s extremely long, but it’s among the most entertaining and moving songs I’ve ever heard. Eight minutes fly by. It’s a lonely feeling, like it or not, it’s what you’ve got.