Classic Americana Albums: Robert Earl Keen “A Bigger Piece of the Sky”

Sugar Hill Records, 1993

‘A Bigger Piece of the Sky’ is Robert Earl Keen’s third studio album released in 1993 on Sugar Hill Records. Any discussion of Keen’s best album invariably boils down to shoot out between this and its 1994 follow-up ‘Gringo Honeymoon’. Quite a number of Keen’s fans also profess a love for his 1984 debut ‘No Kinda Dancer’ which although raw, being self-recorded and self-produced, has some very strong songs that became staple parts of Keen’s live show for many years. However, for me ‘A Bigger Piece of The Sky’ just shades them out.

Having released his debut album in 1984 things didn’t move too quickly for Keen. His next release was ‘The Live Album’ some four years later. It was a reasonable live document but ultimately unremarkable. ‘West Textures’ followed a year later in 1989 and began to fulfil the promise of his debut some five years earlier. The song ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ from that album became Keen’s signature tune and was widely covered by other artists including The Highwaymen and Joe Ely.

It was then a further four years before ‘A Bigger Piece of the Sky’ was released. Where his previous releases had quietly marked him out as an emerging talent, this album shouted it out loud and clear. Recorded in Nashville the summer before, the album was produced by the relatively unknown Garry Valletri, a friend of Keen’s who had no musical training and didn’t play an instrument. His main job was as a music publisher and he had very little of note on his production CV other than John Stewart’s 1987 release ‘Punch the Big Guy’, one of his better later period albums. Valletri went on to produce only one more album – Keen’s ‘Gringo Honeymoon’ before disappearing into the murky world of publishing, management, and record distribution.

The original album opens with ‘So I Can Take My Rest’ but re-issues since 2004 have been re-sequenced with Keen claiming that “I was never satisfied with how this record was originally sequenced, but this new re-issue features the songs in the order they were meant to be heard”. And thus, the original opener is moved to become the penultimate track and the new opener becomes Keen’s cover of Terry Allen’s ‘Amarillo Highway’. If you did want the original running order you can always re-sequence it back digitally or buy a second hand copy of the original CD which are available for around four or five pounds. The album was re-issued on vinyl for the first time in 2018 with the new sequencing and quickly sold out. As I write there are currently no copies available in the UK on Discogs or Ebay. If you want to ship one over from the States be prepared to hand over upwards of £50.

What ‘A Bigger Piece of the Sky’ has over its two predecessors is consistency. Where ‘No Kinda Dancer’ and ‘West Textures’ both contained some exceptional songs, but also some rather less memorable ones, Keen’s third release sees him mature as a songwriter to reach a point where each track is so thoughtfully constructed that it becomes hard to pick out highlights. The whole album is a highlight – in whatever sequence you put it. In ‘So I Can Take My Rest’ Keen captures the feeling of knowing that a relationship has run its course “the time for us is near/the lightning streaks the sky/thunder in my ears/echoes with goodbye”. The songs are deeper and more personal. The standout track for me is ‘Paint the Town Beige’ which looks at life from the point of view of a man who has swapped an urban life for a quieter country existence, yet still has a certain yearning for his old life, only to feel disappointment when he actually revisits it. “I gave up the fast lane for a blacktop country road…I traded for a songbird/a bigger piece of sky” which then leads into “Still I get restless/and drive into town/I cruise once down Main Street/and turn back around/It’s crazy but God knows/ I don’t act my age/like an old desperado who paints the town beige”. The next verse paints an idyllic picture of country life “down along the river/and past the swimming hole/you can find your piece of mind/with just a fishin’ pole”, before the doubts once again set in at the end “deep down in the winter/time slows to a crawl…it’s then I get to thinkin’/I must have gone insane/old memories roll through my mind/like a long, slow railway train”.

Songs such as ‘Corpus Christi Bay’, ‘Whenever Kindness Fails’ and ‘Jesse with the Long Hair’ are similar examples of the growing strength of Keen’s songwriting encapsulated on the album. But really there’s not a bad track on the record, Keen even manages to add a new dimension to the Terry Allen classic ‘Amarillo Highway’ by reconfiguring it as a more percussive, high-speed stomper that rattles along like a stoked-up steam train.

Sadly, Robert Earl Keen has announced that he is to quit touring from September 2022, although he is working on a new album and has various other musical and non-musical projects that he wishes to pursue. Any hopes of him ever returning to Europe after such a long gap have now gone. However, he does leave a legacy of many great songs and albums with ‘A Bigger Piece of the Sky’ up there on top of the pile.

About Clint West 321 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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The musicfest tribute double album is superb. As you would expect from such great songs. I liked his recent live album as well. I’m just disappointed that I’ll never get to see him live.

Alan Peatfield

I too have been a long time fan and was lucky enough to see him at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco about 8 or 9 years ago. A fabulous set that still today remains a vivid memory.

Harry Scott

I saw a couple of shows…the first at The Weavers Arms was incredible. I was recording the show and got so involved that I forgot to flip the tape (remember cassettes?), not once but twice. The biggest disaster is that “Paint The Town Beige” is one of the missing songs…