In France or film school, they call it an "homage." On Music Row, maybe the nicest way to put it is that "Bullets in the Gun" is just Toby Keith's way of kissing Robert Earl Keen's ass. Keen would probably love to have him try. Keith's 2010-released hit single not only utilizes the familiar lyrical cadence and melody of Keen's classic, much-covered "The Road Goes on Forever," but lifts its Bonnie and Clyde storyline to boot.
The swipe's all the more egregious in country, a genre that typically reveres the songwriter and makes fewer judgments about singing something you didn't write. If Keith likes the song so much, why didn't he just cover it instead of penning a substandard knock-off? (One answer, obviously, is that he's Toby Fucking Keith.)
"That's a good question," says Keen from Austin. "I got in a deal with that comic Rodney Carrington, and he became aware that he had trod all over this other song called 'It's the Little Things That Piss Me Off.' He tracked down the guy that represented the songs at Bug Music, and said, 'I want to make this right,' so he made me a co-writer on the song. That would've been the right thing. But you know what they say about people from Oklahoma: They'll steal your hat and help you look for it."
Keen's mother is a lawyer, and he's seen enough of the legal system to resist being drawn into it. Instead, he stuck to his strength: clever, earnest homespun wit delivered in song. It's not quite 50 Cent taking down Rick Ross, but Keen sends a message on "The Road Goes on and On" from 2011's Ready for Confetti: "In your clown suit and your goldilocks / All duded up in your cowboy crocs / Singing the same old song ... Piss and moan and misbehave / You lost your grip on that flag you wave / But you wave it right or wrong."
The whole album rumbles along with nearly irresistible momentum, suggesting the difference between a slideshow and a motion picture. The loose, vibrant energy ranges from the peripatetic skiffle blues of "I Gotta Go" through the title track's steel-drum island vibe and the delightful reggae-fied co-write with Dean Dillon, "Waves on the Ocean." There's languid, sweltering country blues ("Lay Down My Brother"), a gospel-tinged closer ("Soul of Man") and a cover of Todd Snider's country ode, "Play a Train Song."
"The songs clip along really well," says Keen, who explains that the writing and the recording were driven by a less-is-more ethos. "And also there is a bit of a surprise for me, because I wrote these songs on the road, which I hadn't done before. We all hope that we would have some kind of clarity as we go into the sunset, and I feel like a lot of times I may have overdone a few things. And this one I got where I was, 'Can you tap your foot to it? Can you hum the melody? Well that's good enough.' "
Keen's remained pretty prodigious, releasing five studio albums since the millennium, and 10 since his 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer. Keen, who used to play on his porch with Lyle Lovett when they both attended Texas A&M in the '80s, is considering a return to that kind of music with a quick-and-dirty acoustic album later this year.
"It seems like a good thing to do would be just knock some songs out and put it out there, and not mess around," Keen says.
While jokers like Keith and the Nashville star machine might tweak Keen's chain sometimes, he's thankful for the audience he's built, and the sturdiness of his appeal.
"I'm always kind of shocked at how many there are and who all are fans," says Keen. "It's been good, because years ago, once you were out of the country club, you weren't even on the same highway anymore. You were dead in the water."
The road really can go on forever if you find a good spot on the Long Tail.