I’m embarrassed to admit that I sometimes forget about Robert Earl Keen. I don’t know how it happens, but for periods of time he seems to slip right through the middle of Spotify’s triangulation of my listening interests to create those daily mix playlists and slip down the chain of Pandora radio stations so I don’t see him there towards the top when choosing the next one. On blind grabs, my koozie drawer seems to offer up a REK koozie less than I’d suspect was statistically warranted. Ditto for country t-shirt grabs.
But each time REK does come back around – this time it was thanks to the Jason Boland/Cody Canada cover of Shades of Gray from Undone coming on – it’s a lightening bolt reminder of not only how great he is, but also of some of the very best things about country. No matter how many times I hear his songs, his content is fresh and original – he tells stories with ups/downs, characters and emotions. And picayune details. The stories feel authentic. They do not feel like they were written to trend on twitter. His content is funny, sometimes it’s a poke of darker irony, but more often it’s silliness – either cleverly woven into the fabric of a story or sometimes just for its own sake.
Performance is important too. The same song can take on very different feels, depending on tempo, instruments, delivery, etc. But back on lyrics and content, most REK songs make me feel like he’s capturing experiences, rather than performing. It feels like what he has to sing about is unlimited. Probably a couple other songwriters still recording who fall into the same camp – want to think more about that – but the most similar, modern comp that I’ve thought this about is or was Evan Felker and Turnpike Troubadours.
Anyway, great reminder! Robert-Earl-Keen.
The Turnpike Troubadours are one of my favorite groups making music these days and I was very excited to see them play in New York City a couple weeks ago. At a Halloween party shortly after the concert, one fella was dressed as a cowboy and sure enough it turned out that he liked country music, but although he’d recently been to an Eric Church concert he’d never heard of the Turnpike Troubadours. Which is about right since even though both definitely fall under the larger country music umbrella, they’re not the same kind of music.
In trying to pitch this concert to a couple of my friends, I described the group as a cross between Zac Brown Band and Mumford & Sons. And thinking about that description in retrospect, more in analysis mode than selling mode, I’d also throw in a dash of Townes Van Zandt, high praise to be sure. To encapsulate the thought in non-musical terms, the beers of choice at the venue were Shiner, Brooklyn Lager and Budweiser, with the bars running out of Shiner pretty early on in the night. There were plenty of hipster glasses, flannels and even a fedora or two in the crowd, but also some bros in white tees and tight jeans, and then of course some country band tees and boots too.
Without reference to any kind of technical definition of the sub-genre if there is one, I’d call this music Americana. TT’s instrumentals cover the full range of traditional country sounds – banjo, harmonic, fiddle and pedal-steel guitar – generously and effectively deployed to further the mood and tone of songs’ lyrics. And it’s the lyrics that really draw me to the Turnpike Troubadours. Their songs are the opposite of so many songs out there with cookie-cutter formulas: characters and settings that get caricatured, references to products and cities that seem like a music executive has dictated and plot lines taken from a stock catalogue. Their songs have real stories to tell with characters and plot lines painted from real life that are original and often flawed or imperfect. Their songs are overflowing with lyrical content and make me feel as though TT, and Evan Felker in particular, will never run out of material and stories to tell.
More on the TTs and their great songs (and new album) soon, but wanted to share a bit on this great concert in NYC!