Robert Earl Keen enlists in the Townes Van Zandt admiration society on his new album, The Rose Hotel (Lost Highway Records). He turns in a chunky, driving re-imagining of the mournful Townes ballad “Flying Shoes.” Another thing that Keen shares with his Texan contemporaries is a wicked sense of humor, and it’s on display on the uproarious “10,000 Chinese Walk Into A Bar,” which features vocals from none other than Billy Bob Thornton.
In addition to the love for Townes Van Zandt, and the ironic sense of humor, the Texans are adept at storytelling, and Keen may be the king of that particular skill among his peers. Sometimes the tales are of the tall variety, but “The Man Behind the Drums” is the true-to-life story of Levon Helm, inspired by a visit to one of Levon’s Midnight Rambles.
A song that will bring a tear to the eye of my friend and colleague Matt Wardlaw is the fine honky tonk weeper, “Goodbye Cleveland.” Greg Brown swaps verses with Keen on a song Brown wrote called “Laughing River.” The wistful “Village Inn” and the hysterically funny “Wireless in Heaven” close the album, and leave things in a very good place indeed. The Rose Hotel was nicely produced by Lloyd Maines, who has worked with his daughter’s band the Dixie Chicks, and many others. “I wanted to do one (album) that sounded rich and robust. I wanted it to sound big,” says Keen. Mission accomplished.
Robert Earl Keen has been at it for more than 20 years now. He is one of the pioneers of the Americana music movement. Most of these guys have forgotten how to make a bad album because they are not slaves to trends. They do what they do, what they’ve always done, and most of the time that’s more than enough.