Robert Earl Keen is the Sam Peckinpah of the singer-songwriter movement. Almost alone in a field dominated by "sensitive" types, Keen is willing to write songs about America's--especially his native Texas'--obsession with guns and violence. Although he is often pigeonholed (and not without reason) as a comic songwriter, guns are all over his fourth album, A Bigger Piece of the Sky
. Keen is not a great singer (he sounds like Jerry Jeff Walker with a cold), but he is one of the best lyricists in a state crawling with them.
Keen's "Jesse with the Long Hair...," for example, is a Peckinpah movie condensed to three succinct verses. It stars wanted-man Jesse, his ambivalent girl friend Luann, his old pal Sheriff Paul and the corrupt banker Mr. Brown; you may have to listen several times to figure out what happens when all four pull out their guns. "Blow You Away" is a more modern tale of paranoia; each verse describes an everyday scene (stopping at a gas station, cashing a check at the bank) that could suddenly erupt into violence. The violence never comes--and the song, appropriately enough, doesn't have a chorus--but Keen's voice and Marty Stuart's mandolin keep increasing the tension.
The album also includes a lovely romantic duet with Maura O'Connell and ends with three fine songs about a Corpus Christi drunk, a rodeo rider and a desperado turned fisherman, all growing old gracefully. Nonetheless the highlights include "Here in Arkansas," the complaint of a recently murdered man rendered ghostly by George Marinelli's slide guitar, and "Whenever Kindness Fails," an explanation of why the singer uses his gun to teach simple courtesy. Joe Ely covered the latter song on his last album, and if Keen can't hope to match Ely's vocal, at least he can surround the song with others of the same strange sensibility. --Geoffrey Himes