Robert Earl Keen at the Lyric Theatre: The peculiarity of a songwriter long associated with the musical ways and means of Texas approaching the string music traditions of bluegrass in a Central Kentucky concert hall was not lost on Robert Earl Keen.
“What we do is Ray Price,” he said during this return to the Lyric, referencing the late Lone Star-born country giant. “So to be doing Bill Monroe up here is a little strange.” With that admission behind him, Keen and his six-man band slid into the Monroe classic Footprints in the Snow, one of the cross-generational bluegrass standards featured on his recent Happy Prisoner album.
While it was refreshing to hear exclusively acoustic instrumentation frame Keen’s songs, the Texas accents within this music were far too pronounced — from the raconteur-like stage manner to the emotive leap-frogging his songs took — for this performance to pass as bluegrass. Luckily, that proved to also be one of the show’s great charms.
Keen has always possessed a knack for flipping, often abruptly, the sentiments of his songs with remarkable ease. He transformed the murder/prison ballad 99 Years (and One Dark Day) into a surprising chipper acoustic romp while the Keen original Not a Drop of Rain was so rich in melancholy and ghostly ambiance that it could have been a product of the Dust Bowl era. Of course, Keen couldn’t help but preface the song with a whimsical reflection of his childhood in the Texas town of Bandera (“Where any male over the age of 15 had no visible means of support”).
Keen’s most popular works — Copenhagen (an ode not to the city but to the chewing tobacco) and the woozily dysfunctional sing-a-long Merry Christmas from the Family — similarly danced along the generous borders the performance established between bluegrass and Texas Americana music.
The performance took the red eye back to Lone Star country for the show-closing encore of The Front Porch Song, a tune that still reveled in extended yarn-spinning between verses. With bluegrass now fully at bay, Keen was free to champion the high times and lasting friendships of his college years. Not surprisingly, it was delivered with the almost romantic candor of an elder song stylist and the honest cheer of a scribe still proudly young at heart.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com