Singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen never found quite the level of fame achieved by his Texas A&M buddy Lyle Lovett, but his own considerable grassroots following both within and beyond the borders of the Lone Star State is no fluke. Though he is best known for his beer-friendly live shows and sing-along anthems, closer attention reveals a writer with a novelist's eye for character and narrative detail comparable to forerunners like John Prine, Guy Clark, and Kris Kristofferson. He's got an equally sharp ear for catchy melodies and first-class backing musicians, strengths that more than offset his limited vocal range.
No Kinda Dancer is a fine, unassuming debut, its laid-back, acoustic charms characterized by the Keen/Lovett cowrite "The Front Porch Song.” But it's the next three studio albums that truly lay the foundation for Keen's career. West Textures premieres both the haunting "Mariano" and "The Road Goes On Forever." A Bigger Piece of Sky is Keen's best album; "Blow You Away," "Whenever Kindness Fails," and "Amarillo Highway" are the highlights, though there's really not a weak track here. Gringo Honeymoon isn't quite as airtight, though the title track remains Keen's best love song and "Lynnville Train" his most heartbreaking.
Picnic, the first of Keen's three major-label albums, aims a little too earnestly for straight-ahead roots rock. Two covers pick up considerable slack, as does "Then Came Lo Mein," a fetching duet with the Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins in which an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet sets the scene for an emotional breakdown. Keen bounded back with Walking Distance, his strongest set since Bigger Piece of Sky, and Gravitational Force. Farm Fresh Onions is a freewheelin', anything-goes mess of an album. But barring a couple of duds, it's a blast. What I Really Mean was released on KOCH Records in 2005 and with his latest Lost Highway album, The Rose Hotel; Keen re-confirms his place among the Lone Star State’s great storytellers.