Some guys are just meant to have grit in their teeth. They dream about white lines flashing by at a steady hum. They hear the call of the road like a phone ringing. Eventually they have to answer, something deep in their bones forcing them to move forward.
Robert Earl Keen has heard that bell ringing for years. The Texas-bred songwriter has spent the last decade trying to catch the horizon, traveling virtually non-stop. It started when he and college neighbor Lyle Lovett began writing songs together, eventually leading to small tours around the Lone Star circuit. Ever since, it’s been a different town, a different club, a different crowd. There’s been fights, liquor and missed family functions—all stuff that has seeped into Keen’s songs more than once. But that’s the game. Keen just accepts it. If he stops, that’s it. Everything he’s built—fans, friends, a career, a catalog—will disappear like the last town in the rearview mirror.
“I always chuckle at musicians who say they’re going to take a year off. Good luck on coming back,” Keen says with a slight draw. “Sure, I’ve got enough money to do it if I wanted to. But there’s no coming back from that. You stop when you’re ready for the nursing home.”
It’s really the only thing Keen can do. One of a growing number of acts that survive on the fringe of mainstream country, Keen gave up his dreams of selling millions of albums, gobbling Grammys and retiring to Branson years ago. His music isn’t safe enough for country radio, too hillbilly for the crossover set. His only real hope lies with his tour bus and pressing the flesh. Like he says in “My Home Ain’t In the Hall of Fame,” the opening track of Gravitational Forces, “I’m a highway bum ... My songs don’t belong on Top 40 radio.” He has to hustle for every fan he has, selling his subtle mesh of folk, blues and twang from the stage like it’s the sweetest snake oil ever made.
And it’s worked. In the near 20 years Keen has been wooing juke joint mavens, he’s built a rabid fan base that cares more about songwriting than a slick Nashville package. Real country fans—not Stetson-wearing stockbrokers, but folks who still mourn Hank Sr.’s death—see Keen as an unsung hero. Critics treat him like a hard-luck god. And in his native state, Keen is virtually a legend, nearly every Texan boasting at least one Robert Earl disc in their collection. But because he has never been willing to play the Nashville game, even when he was signed to a major label, Keen has always floated just below the radar.
His new disc might change that. Part of the reason: Keen has just signed on with New York-based Lost Highway, Lucinda Williams’ haven for artists who would rather write songs than worry about market share. Sure, at first glance, it seems like something that would only matter to music geeks. But with the success of Ryan Adams’ breakthrough disc, Gold, the label suddenly has the power to push product, and maybe score Keen the exposure he has long deserved.
Not that Gravitational Forces would be a hard sell. Possibly Keen’s best record to date, the album is a bittersweet and subtle set that begs for hours of careful listening. Tracks have more layers than a baby in a snowsuit. Yeah, some can be taken at face value: There’s not much subtext to the simple sex and glee of “High Plains Jamboree” or the boisterous blues of “Walkin’ Cane.” But then comes the haunting folk of “Not a Drop of Rain” or the rambling “Hello New Orleans.” The songs reveal themselves slowly, like a carefully choreographed striptease. Each listen, something new pops out. Keens says that’s the only way a song should be.
“Songwriting should be about more than she’s beautiful, I love her stuff. I’m into keeping people guessing,” Keen says. “I’m not pasteurizing milk here. I’m in this for me ... I try to write songs that open up in places that you’re not always expecting.”
And to do that, Keen has to be continually reinventing himself. He’s always trying to find a new twist. This time around, it’s a rosier view of the world. Keen’s other eight discs need to be taken with Valium. Gravitational Forces is a skip through the park by comparison. Sure, there’s no real shiny, happy moment. But for Keen, songs like “Not a Drop of Rain”—“I could try to find a bottle or try to find a priest/Salvation won’t be traveling either road I take”—are as perky as a high school pep rally.
“I just thought that in all the things I’d done, I’d never gone for truth and beauty,” he says. “I wanted to throw it out there and see how it works. This time I think it works really well.”