Rubrics and Tendrils of Richard Gehr

Robert Earl Keen

31 October 1994

Once or twice a year I can count on a new country album to sidle up and tear apart my cement-encrusted heart. More often than not, it's by a former resident of Lubbock, Texas--dusty jewels like Honky Tonk Masquerade , Own and Own , After Awhile , or Across the Great Divide . Absolved of the K-Mart sentimentality and feel-good line boogie that renders most Nashville product unlistenable, the latest Generation Tex talk it like it walks it. They're unafraid to swing it like Bob Wills or sing it like they may have cracked open a book or two in their day.

Though not from Lubbock (he's from Bandera), the latest addition to my Texcellent pantheon, he probably deserves honorary residency. Robert Earl Keen took over the role sagebrush spiritualist Jimmie Dale Gilmore had played in Terry and Jo Harvey Allen's Lubbock-centric musical, Chippy . And Keen's new album, Gringo Honeymoon (Sugar Hill, PO Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300), is as impressive a breakthrough as Gilmore's After Awhile . He can also write as witty and arch a lyric as Terry Allen, and leads a wonderful band whose steel and electric guitar magic rivals Ely's classic Lloyd Maines/Jesse Taylor unit.

Gringo Honeymoon is Keen's fifth album since his 1984 Philo debut, No Kinda Dancer . Each contains a couple of gems, a couple of clunkers, and at least a couple of country clichés turned sideways. Now in his late 30s, Keen has discovered a deeply nuanced writing voice over the course of a decade. The down-home nostalgia of his early songs eventually gave way to some of the most dramatic outlaw music ever written, and bittersweet leaving songs made way for unadorned, clear-eyed meditations on loneliness, marriage, and wasted time that sound as candid and honest as photos shot late into a dysfunctional family picnic.

Last year's A Bigger Piece of Sky , Keen's cathartic exploration of loss, regret, and violence; the album's bitter central refrain--"'cause they'd just as soon blow you away"--lodges like gristle in the national soul. Gringo Honeymoon 's mood may be less mordant but its truths are equally unsettling. At its heart is an eight-minute "Lonely Feelin'" that hits rock bottom before launching into a slowly spiraling, epiphanic guitar duet. Another type of magisterial misery lies in the title track, whose honeymooners cross a Styx-like Rio Grande to plant the seeds of their marriage's demise. The album ends with about the loneliest, most universally applicable c&w chorus I've ever heard, delivered as an aging protoslacker's coulda-been lament: "I am guilty of a dreadful selfish crime/I have robbed myself of all my precious time."

While crafted to a Texas T, Keen's less personal material--the Mexicali melodrama of "The Raven and the Coyote," the O. Henry turnaround of "Lynville Train," or his buoyant cover of Steve Earle's "Tom Ames' Prayer"--lacks the epic swing of, say, "Think It Over One Time," in which a perhaps too-clever lover makes a last-ditch effort to keep his "little girl" from ankling with suave pleas like, "I've read a thousand books/I've been behind the wheel/I've known you all my life/But still I can't feel how you feel."

With the possible exception of the throwaway "Barbeque" (hey, it's a 53-minute country album for godsake), nothing on Gringo Honeymoon lacks wit or deep appreciation for what makes country tick--especially its comic reprieve, the brilliantly inebriated "Merry Christmas From the Family," the trash-perfect chorus of which goes, "Send somebody to the Quik-Pak store/We need some ice and an extension cord/A can of beandip and some Diet Rite/A box of Tampons and some Marlboro Lights". Pure poetry, in my opinion. Nope, Robert Earl Keen may not be from Lubbock. But he sure makes me wonder what else is going on in Bandera.