Halloween Special – The 5 Creepiest Songs of Robert Earl Keen Share
Attempts to make an “Essentials” article about Halloween-friendly Texas tunes stalled out with the realization that just about everything that fit the bill (big exception: Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Every Day Is The Day of the Dead”) was a Robert Earl Keen song. The fairly clean-living and level-headed alt-country trailblazer might have won over most of his audience with the crowd-pleasing likes of “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Merry Christmas From The Family,” but even those numbers have at least a thread of the dark and offbeat running through them. Make no mistake, when the versatile Keen wants to get weird, the man can get downright weird … here’s a sampling of what came to mind.
- “The Armadillo Jackal” – Largely sung in Keen’s best “shiver-me-timbers” baritone, this pitch-black minor-key ballad about a man who drives the highways at midnight intentionally running over armadillos to sell to Western wear manufacturers (who knew there was such a market?) was one of the highlights of debut No Kinda Dancer. Actually the whole record’s one long highlight in my book, but narrative moments like the jackal going up in flames himself after a kill gone wrong put an exclamation point on REK’s craziness.
- “Undone” – Less a story song than a stream-of-consciousness about a perpetually unfortunate man finally going crazy, this opening number from Picnic is no less haunting for its wry, fly-on-the-wall sense of humor. “You’d kill yourself but you sold your gun/Built a noose but it come undone,” Keen croons, and it’s unlikely that the character’s next act of violence will be self-directed.
- “The Great Hank” – A woozy, near-psychedelic steel guitar shuffle that goes back and forth between tales of a long lost love in a Volkswagen and observations from a roadhouse show featuring Hank Williams inexplicably decked out in drag and lamenting modern country music. And what’s more Halloween than a drunk, otherwise-straight guy in a dress?
- “Christobel” – Another creeper from that first album, this one goes almost feature-length in the tale of a seductive serpent-woman hybrid that may be more than legend. “Things ain’t ever what they seem/When you find you’re living in your own dream” isn’t the greatest hook Keen ever wrote, but in context it’ll send a chill up your spine.
- “Here In Arkansas” – Keen sings a lot of songs about outlaws, many of whom eventually suffer the consequences of their crimes. This is the only one (so far anyhow) where the doomed man isn’t necessarily guilty, at least until after the townspeople “declare my soul to be unclean … they strapped me to a gurney, and gave me morphine,” apparently enough to kill the protagonist until he digs himself out of his grave. After that, setting a prairie fire to take out the whole town seems oddly understandable. Moral to the story: stay the hell outta Arkansas. Good night kiddies.