Music News & Reviews

A wintry mix works for Robert Earl Keen's music

Robert Earl Keen will be back in Lexington on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. show at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.
Robert Earl Keen will be back in Lexington on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. show at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy of William Morris Endeavor

Among the entries making up the sterling Lone Star State catalogue of Robert Earl Keen is a recording called Marfa After Dark. It's not one of the better-known albums issued by the veteran songsmith during the past three decades, but it's a fitting one to examine as Keen makes his way back to Lexington this weekend.

The record chronicles a live Saturday night show during the dead of winter in Marfa, one of the few locales in Texas that knows what it's like to feel a seasonal chill.

"Marfa is out in the Trans-Pecos area, which is way out west near El Paso," Keen said. "It's somewhat mountainous and does get really, really cold in the wintertime. It doesn't stay cold 'cause we're not that far north, but it probably gets as cold there as any place in Texas. It's up above 5,000 feet, and there is no cloud cover out there. It gets down to zero occasionally."

The majority of Keen's studio works — from his 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer to the 1994 breakthrough Gringo Honeymoon to his most recent record, 2011's Ready for Confetti — color dance hall and folk charm with story lines that are alternately whimsical, wistful and sobering.

But Marfa After Dark — initially issued by Keen as a free download and now as indie item through his website — puts a spin on his songs that differs even from a conventional live record. The juxtaposition of Marfa's remoteness with the wintry Saturday setting provides the album — which includes the country surrealist saga The Great Hank, the bittersweet on-your-own reflection Lonely Feeling and even the amusing between-song travelogue The Annux — with a campfire feel.

"It was made in the third week of January in whatever year that was," Keen said. (It was 2008.) "It was in January and it was really cold."

Now we have Keen back in Kentucky on the fourth Saturday night of 2014. While the Lyric Theatre might be a far cry from the Marfa Ballroom, a little of the recording's wintry charm will almost unavoidably be present.

"I do think that element plays into the show," Keen said. "People are all hovered around the old campfire in a way. You gain their attention a little bit quicker, I believe, with this kind of indoor setting. Consequently, it allows me to relax a little bit. I don't feel like I have to be competing with 10 other things that are happening right outside the window. I do tend to relax in the wintertime. I like these shows. They always have this certain intimate feel that you don't get in the summertime."

While Lexington's wintry Saturday setting coincidentally recalls the campfire mood of Marfa After Dark, the recording on which Keen is working brings the celebrated Texas songwriter stylistically closer to Kentucky. Specifically, Keen is doing a bluegrass recording.

"There is a joke I tell onstage that starts out, 'Although Texans know everything about everything, they don't know squat about bluegrass.' But I picked it up somehow when I was in college and listened to all those Flatt & Scruggs and Stanley Brothers records and found a group of like-minded people that loved it.

"You know what the appeal is? It's this great communal kind of thing. If I played jazz, I think there would be a similar feel when you get together with people that can play. In bluegrass, you know almost everybody that plays and sings has a part. If they're playing a dobro, they're playing different dobro licks. If they play the mandolin, their repertoire might take on those really great high lonesome songs of Bill Monroe. There is always a place in bluegrass for somebody who just enjoys music."

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