Did you ever hear a song on the radio that was so good you just had to keep driving around till it was finished? Then you had to drive around some more to find out WHO WROTE, AND PERFORMED, THAT SONG?
Before all the music you wanted was on your phone – when people listened more to their non-Satellite FM car radio and definitely bought more CDs – I was heading back to my office in Hicksville, Long Island after a lunch break when I had to make some extra time for the reasons stated above.
I was listening to this beautiful little acoustic song that was perfect, to me, in its simplicity. There was a guy returning from some rough years on the road to reconnect with friends at a local bar. Everyone was singing along with his favorite band, which was playing an Otis Redding song (which I later found out from the artist himself, after a concert, was ‘Dock of the Bay,’ one of my favorite songs). This person was just so happy to have some money in his wallet to buy his friends a round of beer. And overjoyed to see one extra-special person across the room right at the end. The chorus says it all – “It feels so good feeling good again.”
I immediately connected with the singer’s voice, the guitar and mandolin accompaniments and the lyrics. He had me at “Standing out on Main Street across from Mr. Blues …” (It was kind of like the first time I heard “Losing My Religion” a decade or so earlier and became a lifelong R.E.M. fan.)
That was my introduction to Robert Earl Keen, who has since become one of our favorite artists of all time. The song, “Feeling Good Again” is from an album I would definitely label a desert island disk – that essential music CD you would want with you if you were stranded on a desert island. It’s called Walking Distance and just about every song is a gorgeous lyrical journey and poetic story:
“The sweet smell of nighttime rides on the breeze. The river is winding through the hickory trees …”
“Out along the road to no return, silence rules the day and knows no friend. The troubled past and all her tribe adjourn to watch your dreams unravel in the wind. But each new morning sunrise is just as good as gold. And all the hope inside you will keep you from the cold …”
I picked up the CD the same evening I heard the song – from a small store that used to be around the corner from me called ‘Dick’s Discs’ (try saying that even one time, any speed!) The owner, Rich, sold a lot of esoteric, non-mainstream stuff and totally sold me on Mr. Robert Earl Keen, even giving me a live, bootleg album he had made.
Amazingly, within the same year, our newly discovered Texas singer-songwriter was going to be playing up in our neck of the woods, at a great small venue known as the IMAC Theater (now the Paramount) in Huntington, LI. We had front row tickets and that’s when I discovered that the gentle sounds of Robert Earl Keen on the radio, and my one CD, represented just one side of this versatile individual and performer.
In one of the best concerts we’ve ever seen, we got to experience an incredible energy and excitement that kept building throughout the three or so hour show. Texas-sized fun! We were two of the only audience members not singing along with every word and yelling out special lyrics. But we knew we were on to something. And years later, with about seven or eight concerts under our belts and every R.E.K. CD on our shelf, we’ve become those fanatical fans who know every chord, lyric and nuance from this fantastic storyteller and his band.
Being at a Robert Earl Keen concert is like being at an amazing party where a couple of hours feels like a few minutes. You’re going to hear acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, drums and steel pedal guitar from an incredibly tightly knit, super-talented band of longtime friends. Depending on the night, there may be a dobro, stand-up bass, fiddle, mandolin and/or banjo. A harmonica might even make a brief appearance. The music gets fast and furious, with long jams and electricity that, at times, rivals a Springsteen experience – I’m not kidding. And then there are still those beautiful, mellow moments from songs like “Feeling Good Again” and “I’m Coming Home.”
We’ve also seen him play with his lifelong friend, Lyle Lovett, and fellow musicians/friends Bruce Robison and Todd Snyder in some really memorable evenings at small venues on Long Island and in New York City.
So why am I so enamored with this 63-year-old singer-songwriter from the Lone Star State? I think it’s because R.E.K. is so multi-faceted and I love every facet … from the sweet love song I first fell in love with on Old Country Road to the rowdier, beer-drinking, barbecue-eating, down South fun. And from the admirable, struggling characters to some much darker, shadier, down-and-out figures, all etched upon the landscape of his down South homeland.
Robert himself appears to be a conglomeration of different people all at once: He’s deep and introspective, but wildly gregarious; he’s funny but super serious; he’s smart and highly literate but down-to-earth. And even Wikipedia had trouble fitting him into a musical genre, labeling him part country, bluegrass, rock and folk, finally settling on ‘Americana.’
Thirty or so years into his career, I’m happy to say Robert Earl Keen is rocking as hard as ever, a fact I was able to verify just last Thursday, when he played Town Hall in NYC right on my birthday! And guess what the very first song on this magical night was? You got it … it was the very first song I ever heard him sing on the radio that fateful day.
To quote one of his most famous songs, which has been covered by country music legends over the years, I hope “The road goes on forever and the party never ends” for Robert Earl Keen and super fans like me.
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