Among the entries making up the sterling Lone Star recording catalogue of Robert Earl Keen sits a concert recording called Marfa After Dark. It’s not one of the better known albums issued by the veteran songsmith over the past three decades, but it’s a fitting one to examine as Keen makes his way back to Lexington this weekend.
The record chronicles a live Saturday night during the dead of winter in Marfa, one of the few locales in Texas that knows what it’s like to feel a seasonal chill.
“Marfa is out in the Trans-Pecos area, which is way out West near El Paso,” Keen said. “It’s somewhat mountainous and does get really, really cold in the wintertime. It doesn’t stay cold cause we’re not that far north, but it probably gets as cold there as any place in Texas. It’s up above 5,000 feet, and there is no cloud cover out there. It gets down to zero occasionally.”
The majority of Keen’s studio works – from his 1984 debut No Kinda Dancer to the 1994 breakthrough Gringo Honeymoon to his most recent record, 2011’s Ready for Confetti –color folk and dance hall charm with storylines that are alternately whimsical, wistful and sobering. But Marfa After Dark – initially issued by Keen as a free download and now as indie item through his website – puts a curious spin on his songs that differ even from a conventional live record. The juxtaposition of Marfa’s remoteness with the wintry Saturday setting the performance unfolds in provides the album – which includes the country surrealist saga The Great Hank, the bittersweet on-your-own reflection Lonely Feeling and even the amusing between-song travelogue The Annux – with a campfire-like feel.
“It was made in the third week of January in whatever year that was (2008),” Keen said. “It was in January and it was really cold.”
Now we have Keen back in Kentucky on the fourth Saturday night of 2014. While the Lyric Theatre may be a far cry from the Marfa Ballroom, a little of the recording’s wintry charm will almost unavoidably be present.
“I do think that element plays into the show. People are all hovered around the old campfire in a way. You gain their attention a little bit quicker, I believe, with this kind of indoor setting. Consequently, it allows me to relax a little bit. I don’t feel like I have to be competing with 10 other things that are happening right outside the window. I do tend to relax in the wintertime. I like these shows. They always have this certain intimate feel that you don’t get in the summertime.”
While Lexington’s wintry Saturday setting coincidentally recalls the campfire mood of Marfa After Dark, the recording Keen is currently at work on brings the celebrated Texas songwriter stylistically closer to Kentucky. Specifically, Keen is at work on a bluegrass album.
“There is a joke I tell onstage that starts out, ‘Although Texans know everything about everything, they don’t know squat about bluegrass.’ But I picked it up somehow when I was in college and listened to all those Flatt & Scruggs and Stanley Brothers records and found a group of like minded people that loved it.
“You know what the appeal is? It’s this great communal kind of thing. If I played jazz, I think there would be a similar feel when you get together with people that can play. In bluegrass, you know almost everybody that plays and sings has a part. If they’re playing a dobro, they’re playing different dobro licks. If they play the mandolin, the repertoire might take on those really great high lonesome songs of Bill Monroe. There is always a place in bluegrass for somebody who just enjoys music.”
Robert Earl Keen performs at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 25 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets are $34.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.lexingtonlyric.com.