On The Record: Robert Earl Keen, Skeeter Davis with NRBQ, Damon Fowler, & the Black Watch

Robert Earl KeenWestern Chill. One bit of good news for fans of Americana/folk singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen is that his retirement announcement early last year didn’t mean much more than – as his website put it – a decision to no longer be “getting on the bus for months.” He’s still playing select concerts and still making records, such as this one, which first appeared last year as part of a boxed set that includes two vinyl LPs, a DVD, an illustrated novel, and a songbook. That package will set you back $78, but there’s more good news in that its music is now available digitally for a small fraction of that amount.

The little bit of bad news is that not everything on the album sounds like a Keen recording. One reason is that while his own compositions have typically dominated his LPs, members of his band and others wrote or co-wrote eight of the 14 tracks here. More significantly, Keen turned over lead vocal duties on six tracks to the three band members who composed them. 

These numbers are well-executed, but none are as memorable or distinctive as the eight laid-back songs delivered by the inimitable Keen, whose sandpapery vocals radiate personality. On selections such as the charming “Let’s Valet” and the title cut, he finds a sweet spot between Jesse Winchester and Jimmy Buffett and delivers some of the best material in his large and terrific catalog. 

Skeeter Davis with NRBQShe Sings, They Play. This album pairs the eclectic NRBQ with the late country and pop singer Skeeter Davis, who is best known for “The End of the World,” an apocalyptic lovelorn lament that reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1962. Recorded in 1981 and originally released in 1985, the LP has been remastered for this reissue, which adds six bonus tracks – two studio outtakes and four performances from a 1985 concert at New York City’s Bottom Line club. The CD was produced by NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams, whose long-time love of Davis’s work led to the collaboration, and the group’s guitarist, Joey Spampinato, who was married to her from 1987 to 1996.

The material is mostly lighthearted and – aside from a couple of rocking bonus tracks – country-flavored. Highlights include “Ain’t Nice to Talk Like That,” a playful vocal duet by Davis and Adams that appears in studio and live versions; “May You Never Be Alone,” an obscure Hank Williams creation; Spampinato’s sweet “I Can’t Stop Loving You Now,” which includes a spoken part and recalls 1960s “girl group” music; and a live reading of “The End of the World.”

Damon FowlerBarnyard Smile. Tampa, Florida–based blues singer and guitarist Damon Fowler, who has played guitar in the Dickey Betts Band, is not only a first-rate slide and lap steel player but also an excellent singer and songwriter. In this latest collection, which features spare backup by a bassist, drummers, and keyboard players, all three talents are on full display.

The album – Fowler’s 11th solo release – includes covers of Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” and Jerry Reed’s “Misery Loves Company” plus eight originals. Among the best of those are “That Ain’t Love,” which includes stinging guitar breaks, and the organ-spiced, six-and-a-half-minute “These Games We Play,” which has it all: a catchy melody, expressive vocals, and head-turning instrumentation. 

The Black WatchWeird Rooms. While listening to this latest album from the California-based Black Watch, you might be inclined to check your calendar to make sure it isn’t still 1967. You’ll be smiling as you do, though, because the music on Weird Rooms is as enjoyable as it is anachronistic. 

Like the 22 previous full-length CDs released by the group since 1987, this music is the brainchild of guitarist, singer, and songwriter John Andrew Fredrick. For this latest set, he is joined by his son, Chandler, who contributes guitar, piano, and vocals; multi-instrumentalist Misha Bullock, who produced; and Bullock’s wife, Sara, who adds backing vocals. 

At times, the music recalls Pink Floyd’s debut LP, Yo La Tengo, or the great indie-rock group Galaxie 500; elsewhere it incorporates radio station IDs reminiscent of the Who’s 1967 Sell Out album and what sounds like a Beach Boys parody. The entire album is awash with dream-pop melodies, ringing guitars, and emotive strings and piano. It’s all over in a mere 31 minutes, at which point you’ll likely want to hit repeat to enjoy another taste of this ear candy.

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains five decades’ worth of music reviews, interviews, and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.