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.
It occurred to me the other day listening to Alabama’s Mountain Music that there aren’t a whole lot of country songs about baseball. There are a bunch of reasons why football might have the edge, particularly wrt high school football, but still once I got to thinking about it I was surprised by how few country baseball songs I could come up with.
Cheap Seats (recorded) by Alabama is one of the two songs closest to the mark I can think of. This song paints a great picture of baseball. It hits the bases of hot dogs, flat beer, jawing at the umpire and of course cheap seats, but also nicely straddles the line between loving the game and just going because it’s something to do and something to watch. I love the lines “we got a great pitcher what’s his name” and “the game was close, we’ll call it a win” and then the reference to the dive bar band’s “kinda minor league sound”. For me the song captures both true love of baseball and simple enjoyment of the game as a means of having a couple of beers with friends. The other song is The Greatest by the great Don Schultz and of course with Kenny Rogers singing it. It hits baseball from the kids angle that I would have expected to be more widespread. To make an incredibly sweet song short, the little kid throwing up pitches to himself in ballfield and swinging and missing repeatedly comes to the realization at the end of the song that he’s the greatest pitcher in the world. It’s the American pastime as a vehicle for youthful optimism.
Even though it’s not strictly country, I’d be sad not to mention John Fogerty’s Centerfield which is at least on par with Cheap Seats and The Greatest. From the references to Casey at the Bat and a bunch of baseball greats to the great line “put me in coach, I’m ready to play” – I like everything about this song.
Trace Adkins’ Swing isn’t a good song, but worth mentioning because it at least has an obvious baseball setting and more interestingly was co-written by a young Chris Stapleton. Other songs weave baseball more softly into an Americana background. I like Aaron Watson’s nostalgic love song line about leaving town to play college baseball but losing out “cause you know the big leagues never called/and you went and fell in love with him”. And I also like Kip Moore’s “I didn’t have the grades but I had myself a major league fastball/got a call from the minor leagues in Wichita/ blew out my arm the first year”. The latter in Reckless, not to be confused with Watson’s Reckless, and on Moore’s Up All Night which is a very good, and his best, album.
Like in Mountain Music, there are probably a whole lot more songs like this, not explicitly about baseball but weaving in the pastime in hitting themes like nostalgia, opportunity and optimism and painting the wonderful American landscape.
In analyzing a country song we start, as always, with the text. On a quantitative basis RWPM hits at least six of the nine categories of country music, and arguably two more. It’s less hokey and more meaningful than the following summary suggests, but the short version is the plot tracks a soldier getting out of the service and stumbling across a ’66 Corvette previously owned by the deceased title character Private Malone who ends up acting as the narrator’s guardian angel when he gets into a car crash.
Proceeding chronologically, the song hits America first with the narrator’s military service, later followed up by the service of PM plus of course the quintessential Americana of the car itself. Next is Modes of Transportation, when we see the narrator is looking up a newspaper ad for an old Chevy that turns out to be the ’66 Corvette that he fixes up and that the song is built around. After buying the car, our narrator reads the Nostalgic note left in the glove box by Private Malone from years ago, passing on his dream of the car to the new owner, the fact of the note a consequence of PM having died for his country – Hard Times (see also the fiery crash near the end of the song). Then in the second verse we see the narrator driving past all the girls in town, not Love but at least a nod to the category, and picking up country on the radio – a reference to country music though perhaps not Musical Aspirations and Inspirations. The third verse begins with the narrator Raisin’ Hell by driving too fast and ends with a witness seeing the (God/Religion) spirit of Private Malone rescuing the narrator from the crash, which spirit had been riding shotgun with the narrator all along.
It’s even more impressive that the song hits so many categories because it’s a story-telling song, rather than a song that lists things. For me it’s ultimately an American story of salvation, the title character giving up his life for country, the narrator restoring the car and living out the dream of Private Malone and then of course the narrator getting saved by God/Private Malone. Through the note-turned-chorus the song reaches back to the original dream of Private Malone and through the narrator the realization. It features the narrator in the first verse searching, the second restoring and exhilarating and the third coming close to his downfall but ultimately being rescued. And what especially makes the song so good is the depth and breadth of story it manages to pack into four minutes and change, with so many economical lyrical hooks punching above their weight to import for the listener bigger ideas and feelings into the song. This is one of the abilities of great songwriters that never ceases to amaze and delight me as a listener – the ability to create in a self-contained song and with just a few words an entire universe by drawing on meaning from our own real lives
The song was written by Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd and first recorded by David Ball, though I prefer the version Shepherd recorded. While Ball’s version is also good and I think his delivery of the choruses are on point, overall his rendition feels more to me like he’s capturing the story from a third-person perspective, whereas Shepherd’s version rings truer to me in the first person, which is an important part of the power of the song.
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!