Robert Earl Keen first recorded his best-known tune in 1989: "The Road Goes on Forever," an instant classic about drinking and drifting, was subsequently covered by Joe Ely, Jack Ingram, and the Highwaymen. Since then he's been zigzagging across the country on one tour after another, cementing his rep as a brainy Texas troubadour and an alt-country patriarch. He's certainly earned the right to make a full album devoted to being nomadic (though the new Gravitational Forces, on Lost Highway, includes his third recording of "The Road Goes on Forever," in case anyone missed it before). On "My Home Ain't in the Hall of Fame," the tough honky-tonk opener by Joe Dolce, he sings, "I know the highway / It takes me where I need to go." Later on the album he's leaving Amarillo for New Orleans, heading for the coast to escape a soured love and crashing on an old girlfriend's sofa en route. But "come morning I'll be gone through them hills and gone," he promises on a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Snowin' on Raton." The road is a classic theme, of course, but on the sarcastic spoken-word track that gives the album its name, Keen actually sounds fed up with it, describing a long drive, a torturous sound check, and a club with a dopey outer-space theme and then announcing unconvincingly, "We are here to play music / Music I have a relentless passion for." Keen includes an uncharacteristic four covers on the new album--the other two are by Johnny Cash and Terry Allen--and unfortunately they convey more passion, color, and soul than any of his originals. He remains an adept observer of details, but his songs are becoming as predictable as the places they describe, and his extraflat delivery on "Fallin' Out" and "Hello New Orleans" doesn't help. But live he draws on a deep catalog of gripping narratives and hilarious novelties--even if he doesn't have much to say right now, he's said enough in the past to make this gig worth checking out. Wednesday, January 23, 8:30 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-527-2583 or 312-923-2000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Glen Rose.