Already a monster act in his home state of Texas, singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen is making serious inroads in many other markets. Hopes are that Keen’s new Lost Highway release, “Gravitational Forces,” is the catalyst that will pull even more believers into his growing fan base.
Keen has high expectations of his new record, due Sept. 11. “If we could sell half a million copies, I’d be really, really happy,” he says. “If I could get a gold record out of this, I would kick back by the pool and have a cigar.”
Regardless of its success commercially, Keen and his new songs fit label chairman Luke Lewis’ vision for Lost Highway. “When we were looking at forming this label, Robert Earl Keen was definitely at the top of the list,” Lewis says, adding he was turned on to Keen by his college-age children. “I went to see Robert here in Nashville last year, and the room was packed with a really wide demo. He’s a real generation jumper.”
Keen is equally impressed with Lewis, whose enthusiasm brought Keen to Lost Highway after two albums on the now-defunct Arista Austin label. “Luke was enthusiastic and sincere,” Keen says. “He said, ‘You do what you do, and I’m here to expand your career by selling records.'”
Co-produced by Keen and Gurf Morlix (Lucinda Williams), “Gravitational Forces” is populated with the gritty, down-and-out characters that Keen has offered up in the past, but doesn’t have some of the more violent imagery he’s previously recorded. While often still dark in tone, the characters are more beaten down than openly desperate, and Keen doesn’t get around to killing anybody off until three tracks in.
“Yeah, the body count’s a little lower this time,” he says with a laugh. But he admits that he still enjoys employing lowdown characterizations in such songs as “Wild Wind,” where Keen intones, “That’s a song I been singin’ for years/That’s the way the wild wind blows.”
The opening cut and first single, “Hall of Fame” by Joe Dolce, is one of five well-chosen covers on the album, which also features songs by Johnny Cash, Terry Allen, and Townes Van Zandt. Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” is bookended by Keen’s own “Not a Drop of Rain” and “Fallin’ Out,” creating a triumvirate of dark, moody songs that fit together perfectly in tone.
“For my money, ‘Not a Drop of Rain’ is my favorite lyric on the whole record,” Keen says. “It’s a very emotional song, written out of thinking what would happen if I lost everything I have.”
Keen says the song’s structure, which eschews the traditional verse/ chorus/verse style, is a method that suits him as a songwriter. “That’s the most natural kind of writing style I have — not necessarily that tone or sentiment, but the cadence of the words.”
Other highlights include a rowdy, back-porch take on the traditional “Walkin’ Cane” and a subtle, touching reading of Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton,” long a crowd-pleaser at Keen’s live performances. He closes the record with the title cut, a bizarre, spoken-word backstage rumination that evokes crimson aliens, Airstream flying saucers, and plastic asteroids that “look like giant turds.” Keen says the track is a poem he wrote about a “real place” in El Paso, Texas, and its recording is a good example of the type of experimentation that went on in the studio.
“I know they must have been thinking, ‘He has completely lost his mind,’ with that song,” Keen admits. “This record, by the way, is almost 100% a band record, with my road band, me, and Gurf Morlix.”
The vibe in the studio was very relaxed, Keen says. “When we started this project I hadn’t made a deal with any record company — I just knew I would have a deal one way or another.”
Keen’s new label is similar to Austin Arista in that it is an offshoot with major-label backing. “We did fine [at Arista Austin], but it was a situation where I don’t think they even knew what they were trying to do half the time,” Keen says. “Lost Highway is so much more focused and dedicated to one theme, and that’s to take this alternative music that so many people love and try to bring it to even more people.”
Lewis believes the “young music junkies,” including Keen’s fans, will understand what’s going on at Lost Highway. “Robert has such an incredible touring fan base, and he works real hard out there,” Lewis says. “Our job is mostly a matter of spreading from a really solid fan base.”
Many feel that a Texas/roots music scene, propelled by straightforward songwriting and strong musicianship, is bubbling under the surface and about to burst forth in the same way that the Outlaw movement did a generation ago. If that’s the case, Keen seems to be at the forefront.
“When you look at the roster of artists that are coming out of Texas, there couldn’t have been a more obvious choice [for Lost Highway] than Robert,” Lewis says. “He’s the lead dog. Now there are some powerhouse radio stations in Texas that could take him to another level.”
Keen, too, senses that a bona fide “scene” is in progress. “This Texas thing has exploded,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to headline a show recently in Austin with Charlie Robison, Jack Ingram, Reckless Kelly, Pat Green, Mark Chesnutt, [and other Texas artists], and when we pulled up, it was like, ‘Happy New Year, 1975.’ There were all these redneck girls in wife-beater T-shirts with no bras on, and everybody with a beer in their hand — all these 18- to 25-year-olds. It was yee-haw to the max.”
“Walkin’ Cane” and “Hall of Fame” have both been released as leadoff singles, and at deadline, consideration was being given to the artist re-recording his signature song and live staple “The Road Goes on Forever,” and including it as a bonus cut on “Gravitational Forces.”
And while mainstream success would be nice, Keen admits that he doesn’t feel much kinship with most of country radio. “I don’t write that many love songs,” he says. “I think right now, country music focuses too heavily on love songs, but it is what it is, and it will change. Whenever you love it, it changes to something you hate, and just when you think you hate it, they’ll change to something you love. I’m just going to keep playing those shows. Just like my Uncle Bill says, ‘We’ll get there through brute force and ignorance.'”