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Bigger Piece of the Sky

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Album Review

Arguably his finest record, Robert Earl Keen's A Bigger Piece of Sky was originally issued on Sugar Hill in 1996 to nearly universal critical acclaim, and laid the groundwork for his deal with Arista Records. The album appeared with a different sequence than the one Keen envisioned. This new SACD hybrid edition (it plays on both regular and SACD players) on Koch features not only completely remastered sound but it has also been entirely resequenced to Keen's specifications. This album is the terrain of transition for Keen. It's the place where he begins to evolve out of his organic small-town Texas songwriting comfort zone and starts walking the knife's edge between a more expansive meld of roots rock, honky tonk country, and Western back-porch folk. Keen is an inheritor of that particular brand of songwriting that Jerry Jeff Walker established in the 1970s, where good times and the wandering life are juxtaposed against a small-town view of a confounding world. Produced with crisp attention to detail by Garry Velletri, Keen's songs observe the smaller details in a private life, whether that life remains largely unchanged or, because of some mercurial and difficult-to-place event, slips over the line into some forbidden territory. Both kinds of songs are here. There's the rocking working-class blues of "Amarillo Highway" and "Corpus Christi Bay" which open the new version, and the pathos-drenched country-rock of "Whenever Kindness Fails" and "Blow You Away." These are followed by the shimmering uptempo country outlaw tome "Jesse With the Long Hair," which is akin to a honky tonk version of Bob Dylan's "Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts."

But there are other songs here, too, like the lonesome, sultry love song "Night Right for Love," a duet with Maura O'Connell. In addition, there is the tender, introspective acceptance of the title track, which reflects upon the life of a former hell-raising drifter who has settled in — despite his continued restlessness — to the ease of spirit that small-town life provides, with no regrets but an itch in his craw. This is the best kind of country song, where the desperado comes in from the cold to begin again; it's succinct, gently humorous, and universal in its view. The slick Western swing of "Daddy Had a Buick" seamlessly transitions into the old-timey country of "Crazy Cowboy Dream" and eventually gets to "So I Can Take My Rest," the former album's opener. This is Keen at his very best. He records the loneliness, uncertainty, and vulnerability of a man at his limit; one who seeks only simple solace in the arms of a loved one at evening just to get through another day. The acoustic guitars, whispering snare, and organic bassline drift and drone, propelling the singer to disclose his fear and need. And though gentle and subtle, its effect is sharp, going straight for the place in the heart that wakes at night wondering if it is understood by anyone. It's a brilliant way to close an album. The new version does work better than the previous one, which speaks to the strength of Keen's songs. Recontextualized, they offer another dimension to the same characters. If you can only have one Robert Earl Keen disc, this is the one to consider.


Born: January 11, 1956 in Houston, TX

Genre: Country

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Among the large contingent of talented songwriters who emerged in Texas in the 1980s and '90s, Robert Earl Keen struck an unusual balance between sensitive story-portraits ("Corpus Christi Bay") and raucous barroom fun ("That Buckin' Song"). These two song types in Keen's output were unified by a mordant sense of humor that strongly influenced the early practitioners of what would become known as alternative country music. Keen, the son of an oil executive father and an attorney mother, was a native...
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