This week marks the welcome return of ‘Essentials’ the series in which we ask our writers to select either their Top 10 albums or Top 10 songs from a single artist or group of related artists. It proved to be so popular last time round that we just had to run it again. AUK’s Features Editor Clint West kicks off the new series with a look at the best albums of Robert Earl Keen.
Number 10: ‘What I Really Mean’ (2005)
From ‘Farm Fresh Onions’ in 2003 through to ‘Ready for Confetti’ in 2011, Keen’s albums were somewhat patchy. A couple of superfluous live albums and 2009’s ‘The Rose Hotel’, arguably Keen’s least distinguished release, saw Keen tread water. However, one album stood out during that relatively barren period. ‘What I Really Mean’ was recorded in Austin, Texas and produced by Rich Brotherton. There are 11 songs, all but two written by Keen. Of the others, one is traditional whilst the other is an old Jimmy Driftwood tune. ‘What I Really Mean’ is something of an oasis in Keen’s early 21st century desert.
Number 9: ‘Live Dinner Reunion’ (2016)
Twenty years after recording ‘No. 2 Live Dinner’ Robert Earl Keen returned to the same iconic venue, John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas to record a live follow-up. Featuring many of the same songs but with a sprinkling of new ones also thrown in, the album is a celebration of Keen’s music and features a number of guests including Lyle Lovett and Joe Ely. What comes across most on the recording though is the sheer joy of the occasion. Keen has sadly now given up performing live, but this record serves as a reminder of what a great performer he was, even in his later years.
Number 8: ‘Gravitational Forces’ (2001)
Without a record deal after leaving Arista, Keen hired the services of Gurf Morlix as producer and began work on a new album anyway. Morlix reset Keen’s sound and steered it back towards a more traditional country sound with lashings of fiddle and a good portion of pedal steel. This approach reinstated the freshness and vitality of Keen’s earlier recordings. A strong set of songs which continued Keen’s preference for character and narrative based songs added to the feeling of reinvigoration. The record was subsequently released by Lost Highway and earned Keen his highest ever placing on the Billboard Country Chart.
Number 7: ‘Walking Distance’ (1998)
For all the supposed limitations of his voice (which I don’t necessarily agree with) the strength of Keen’s songwriting has invariably carried him through. The set of songs presented on this album are a match for any Keen collection. There isn’t a weakness to be found as Keen’s narratives and characters dominate an album that is musically unadventurous. His ability to bring wry humour to his observations is also ably demonstrated on this album which keeps growing with every listen.
Number 6: ‘Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions’ (2015)
After decades of establishing and solidifying his reputation as a songwriter, Keen came up with the idea of making a bluegrass record. Furthermore, he chose to make it a record entirely made up of covers. This might have been seen as risky, but with Lloyd Maines on production duties and a whole host of leading bluegrass players and guests deployed, Keen is inspired to give quite possibly the best vocal performance of his life. The record is an absolute joy and went on to be the joint best-seller of Keen’s career.
Number 5: ‘West Textures’ (1989)
Keen’s second studio album was released some five years after 1984 debut with an undistinguished live album in between. Although notable for hosting ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ which became Keen’s signature song and live favourite, the album is far more than that. Whilst the sound is very much traditional with acoustic guitars, dobro, fiddle and accordion all prominent, it’s the songs that once again catch the attention. Keen’s ability to turn his observations of life and people into a finely crafted song is demonstrated throughout in songs like ‘Mariano’ and ‘Leavin’ Tennessee’. The inclusion of three perfectly chosen covers, most notably Blackie Farrell’s ‘Sonora’s Death Row’ also illustrate Keen’s ability to absorb a song and make it his own.
Number 4: ‘No.2 Live Dinner’ (1996)
What does Robert Earl Keen have in common with Peter Frampton and Cheap Trick? Well, they all have live albums at the top of their sales charts. Whilst this one might not have reached the blockbuster proportions of ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ or ‘Live at the Budokan’, it knocks the others into a cocked hat in terms of content. In a joyous run through of his best-known songs Keen demonstrates his abilities as a great live performer, not only in bringing a freshness to his catalogue but also demonstrating his supreme stagecraft and storytelling. As well as his great characterisations, nowhere is the dry wit and humorous side of Keen’s writing better illustrated than on this collection.
Number 3: ‘No Kinda Dancer’ (1984)
Keen’s debut album may have a few rough edges, but in many ways, they only serve to emphasise the journey that he took thereafter. However, what it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in charm, excitement, and great songs. Featuring co-writes with both Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, it was clear at that early stage that Keen had won himself important friends and admirers and that in all likelihood he would move on to greater things and with the next two albums he did so. However, ‘No Kinda Dancer’ remains a firm favourite amongst Keen afficionados many of whom would argue that not too many subsequent releases carried the same impact as it did.
Number 2: ‘Gringo Honeymoon’ (1994)
There is little doubt in my mind about the identities of the top two albums in this list and arguably they could go either way round. ‘Gringo Honeymoon’ represents a mature and confident songwriter brimming with creativity. There are ten tracks, nine of them written by Keen himself and one (Tom Ames Prayer’) by Steve Earle. The iconic ‘Merry Christmas from The Family’ sits alongside other equally great compositions like the title track and the album closer ‘Dreadful Selfish Crime’. The album’s consistency across all songs is remarkable, particularly for an album that clocks in at over 53 minutes.
Number 1: ‘A Bigger Piece of the Sky’ (1993)
Released a year before ‘Gringo Honeymoon’ this album just squeezes it out from top spot. When featuring it in AUK’s ‘Classic Americana Albums’ series back in June I said this:
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’m happy to stand by those words and let the music speak for itself.
I have one R.E.K. album — Picnic love his version of Levelland
Give some of the others a listen. Picnic is OK with some good songs, but for me not amongst his best. It was his first album for Arista who tried to smooth off the edges and make him sound more palatable to radio stations.
I listened to an awful lot of REK in the 90s. Can’t argue with top 3. I think one and two are interchangeable.
Thanks John. Agreed – you can hardly put a rizla paper between the top two.
I regularly, and I mean every other day find myself singing “Paint The Town Beige”. One of the most hair tingling moments of my more-than-50-years gig-going life was hearing REK play it in The Weavers Arms back in the early 90s…almost in tears at the memory of that show. One and two are fine by me, but I also love West Textures…
I’m just away to find a copy of Happy Prisoner which I’m ashamed to say has not blipped my radar. No need to check it out.. if you say it’s that good, that’ll do for me.
I feel a REK day coming on.
Thanks Harry. One of the nicest comments i’ve had in response to anything I’ve written. I sadly never saw him live, so I’m very envious. I’m not sure why he didn’t make it back over here very often, I kept hoping. I’m confident that you won’t be disappointed by Happy Prisoner by the way. Enjoy your REK day – wish I could join you!