Keen on the Past

Hey kids, it's another Robert Earl Keen album. Time to crack some brewskis, get rowdy and howl at the moon as you pilot that pickup toward some border town. Better be ready for some serious scrapes with trouble, right?

Not exactly. As the title of Walking Distance implies, Keen has down-shifted from leading the Texas frat-boy homecoming parade to a more relaxed and meditative amble through the Lone Star musical landscape. It may be more the result of circumstance than any grand plan, however.

"The main thing was, I had very little time to put this together," Keen says simply.

For the past three years or so, Keen has been one busy road dog. Being a bit of a Deadline Charlie when it comes to writing, "when I sat down to do it, I kinda banged around on the guitar a little bit, and thought, man, if I'm gonna get this done -- and it's gonna come out okay at all -- I'm just gonna have to really just write songs that I'm enjoying writing, and really not [go] against the grain too much or [have] a chip on my shoulder."

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Instead, Keen's intent was "just trying to get a good story line out and a nice hummable melody. And that's what I did, and I was real happy."

Co-producing Walking Distance with former Lucinda Williams cohort Gurf Morlix, Keen entered the studio with his well-oiled road band and followed his instincts: "I think if I'd been trying to write for a certain audience or get on the radio so much, I think it would have been a total failure."

By contrast, Keen's last effort, the major-label debut Picnic, played into the expectations of both the music industry and his party-hearty fans, making it his least-satisfying release to date. He acknowledges the pressure to satisfy the rabid crowd of collegiate cowboys who have helped him become one of the most popular live attractions in Texas.

"I know what they want," he says. "They want the loud, sort of drunken, fast things, and I just felt like that would be real fun, if I really felt like that, but at the time, I certainly didn't feel like that. I felt kinda at the end of a trip, and I just wanted to sit down and recapitulate, and write what I felt good about.

"I just blocked that out of my mind, blocked radio out of my mind, blocked the label out of my mind. The only thing I wrote for was me."

The result is a return to some of the gentler, more poetic and romantic strains heard on No Kinda Dancer and other earlier Keen efforts. It's a set of songs that feels truer to Keen's genuine artistic soul. This is especially apparent on the back end of the disc, where the tracks "Carolina," "New Life in Old Mexico" and "Still Without You" are bracketed by the theme tune "Road to No Return."

"For quite a while, I've wanted to create my own little sound play," Keen explains. "It was kind of a fantasy of mine: Can I do this? Can I make this work? When I played it for Gurf and the band, I was kinda like, 'Okay guys, here's something that's gonna be a little different.' I played the whole thing for 'em, and everyone went, 'Hey, that's cool, we're all into it.' I said, 'Great, at least it passed the first test.' "

Simply put, Keen has rediscovered himself after getting lost in the rock-and-roll grind, and he now realizes it's most important to please himself. "I've just been playing so hard, and just getting locked too much into going out there and pounding out the songs, and losing the meaning, and wondering, what was I thinking when I wrote that?" Keen admits. "Because with all my really good songs, I have these great pictures in my mind when I sing them, and I was starting to lose contact with all that. And I just felt like I needed to write stuff that totally meant something to me."

"Not that the other stuff didn't," Keen clarifies. "But sometimes it started to get disconnected, in a way. I needed to come back to a real good point of reference."

Keen confesses that his burgeoning success may have affected his focus: "I'm not a great emulator, and I'm not a great second-guesser, and sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking you are. So I just went back to: Look, this is how I do things. A lot of it just had to do with the fact that I like to sit around and play medium-tempo songs and finger-pick, which I never do. It's gotten to the point where I just strum things. So I sat around and finger-picked all these things."

Still, even if Keen is bringing it all back home on Walking Distance, the restlessness that has marked much of his work remains. But instead of amplifying that strain, he's stretched it out to explore its subtleties. "I've always had some traveling and moving themes going in my songs," he notes. "So I decided, I'll make it the entire thing. The whole theme will be this idea of people moving around, different little vignettes."

All of which gives Walking Distance its subtle but persistent kinetic energy. But Keen emphasizes that he is "not restless within my soul. It really put me at peace, actually."

And anyone who has followed Keen since his early years ought to be glad to hear that he's come all that distance only to rediscover himself.

Robert Earl Keen performs Saturday, October 24, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $23.50 and $29. Greg Trooper opens. For info, call 629-3700.

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