Robert Earl & Me
I officially fell in love with music beneath the bright fluorescent lights of a Hastings record store back in the days when cassette tapes and CD's still battled for shelf space. The year was 1993 and the store had a display of music set up with a bank of headphones.
I'd grown up listing to music, mostly country because I did come into this world in rural Texas, but yes rock, jazz, punk, zydeco, rockabilly, folk, and all other manner of assorted labels of bands did and do speak to me. But I don’t think I had matured enough to stop and truly listen to music and put it all together until that day in Hastings, when I stepped up to that promotional rack of new country releases.
Wynona, maybe Marty Stuart, Brooks and Dunn and possibly a Garth Brooks release made up most of the offerings. I can't remember for sure. Mark Chesnutt might have been in the mix, but what I can tell you, is there was one, and only one artist on that promotional end-cap that I'd never heard of.
The cover of the CD was pretty cool … A meadow dotted with wildflowers, a man on horseback seemingly trying to lead a young pony off to who knows where?
The title of the album, “Bigger Piece of Sky” sat in the center of a circle, cross-hairs actually, liked the view of a rifle scope. In big, bright letters the name of the artist spoke to me – ROBERT EARL KEEN.
His name rolled off my tongue. I slipped the offered headphones on and clichéd as it sounds, there in that store, in that moment, my life changed.
Personal revelation. Public revolution. Complete rejuvenation.
It took all of thirty minutes, thirty-nine seconds and I was born again.
I'd been raised on country music, but the genre was changing even if I had yet to realize it. The pop versus traditional battle was already an old one, but the change was bigger than that and like much of music that war is a subjective one.
Odd thing is, my first gut reaction to Robert Earl was not love but, dismay. Standing there surrounded by glass and plastic and rack upon rack of merchandise. I wondered, How the hell did this guy get a record deal with a voice like that?
But rough and unpolished as it was, that voice struck me with the force of a shotgun blast. The grit, the emotion of songs like When Kindness Fails, Blow You Away, and Here In Arkansas all made me feel something. Something real.
I felt that mattress, the lump, made by that 20 gauge pump. I was blown away.
My love of Texas Country was born. I know all about the guys that came before, Willie's exodus from Nashville, the influence of Texas songwriters like Shaver, Guy Clark, and Townes. Jerry Jeff and Ray Wylie.
But I discovered most of those guys after the fact, through Robert Earl Keen. I found Charlie Robison, Cory Morrow and Chris Knight while searching for that same honest emotion I found in Robert Earl's songs. I first heard Reckless Kelly opening up for Keen, back when the latter was touring Texas in a beat up old Winnebago with a worn out U-Haul hitched to the bumper.
I've seen the Texas music landscape change, blossom. Dedicated radio stations. Hundreds of venues. Websites. Magazines. The threat to Nashville so real they manufactured up “Bro Country” in a desperate attempt to capture some of the magic happening in the Lone Star State. As usual they missed badly.
Great music is not made, it's born. Forged by the fornication of knowing what you want to say, and having the courage to say it.
The best of music is about emotion, not manufactured commotion.
I learned that better than two decades ago. Standing beneath bright fluorescent lights listening to a man who'd gotten a record deal, why? Because he had something worthwhile to say and thank God there are still people eager to listen to these honest voices.