Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Corpus Christi Bay – Robert Earl Keen

Corpus Christi Bay

Performed and written by Robert Earl Keen

You can listen to the original recorded version here and a live version here. You can buy the song from iTunes here. The song originally appeared on the album, A Bigger Piece of Sky, which you can buy here. You can find the lyrics here.

Robert Earl Keen is a master storyteller whose songs show great range from the hilarious (“Merry Christmas from the Family”) to the anthemic (“The Road Goes on Forever”) to the poignant (“Mariano”). Listen to his music and you can tell he learned his craft listening to the Texas masters like Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. This song tells the tale of two hard-living, hard-partying brothers working the oil rigs of Corpus Christi Bay. The mix of country and Tex-Mex music (including a wispy accordion) keeps the song light and Keen’s singing rolls as easy as a convertible cruising along back road Texas highway. The lyrics seem to match the music recounting the escapades of the fun loving boys, though by song’s end we dwell in the darkness of the one brother’s drinking and loneliness. The lightness of Keen’s touch keeps the song from falling into a maudlin puddle of self-pity.

Told in the first person by one of the brothers, we learn that they work the rigs and when they’re not working, they’d party hard:

I’d get off and drink till daylight
Sleep the morning away

He knows that this life can’t last forever and like so many he has his dreams and schemes “to take my wages/Leave the rigs behind for good.” Before we can digest those lines, the brother’s admitting that he may never leave

…that life it is contagious
And it gets down in your blood

In the next verse, we meet his other bother and get a taste of Keen’s cleverness with words:

We were bad for one another
But we were good at having fun

Like the most skilled storytellers, Keen takes only a few lines to flesh out the pictures of these two boys:

We got stoned along the seawall
We got drunk and rolled a car
We knew the girls at every dancehall
Had a tab at every bar

Keen packs a lot into that verse covering everything from their recklessness (rolling the car) to relationships (girls at every dancehall) to their finances (running tabs everywhere they go) all with a sense of good times so exhausting that they begin to grate.

The third verse takes their crazy act to a destructive extreme:

My brother had a wife and family
You know he gave them a good home
But his wife thought we were crazy
And one day we found her gone
We threw her clothes into the car trunk
Her photographs, her rosary
We went to the pier and got drunk
And threw it all into the sea

I love his choice of details. It’s not sufficient to say we tossed her stuff into the sea, but the two details – “her photographs, her rosary” – resonate with what the brother is throwing away.

By the fourth and final verse, the brothers have grown up or at least aged. We hear about the other brother’s life:

Now my brother lives in Houston
He married for the second time
He got a job with the union
And its keeping him in line

He did get away from the rigs and found some stability. The narrator brother tells the story straight, capturing the right details – the union job, the second marriage – without judgment. In the second half of the verse, we see the brothers together again in Corpus Christi:

He came to Corpus just this weekend
It was good to see him here
He said he finally gave up drinking
Then he ordered me a beer

It’s a touching moment: the brothers forever linked no matter how their paths diverge. We might wonder why the Houston brother doesn’t try to save the narrator brother from drinking and essentially scattering his life along Corpus Christi Bay. They’re brothers accepting each other for what he is; notions of good and bad don’t enter into the picture.

The chorus sung with bravado makes clear Keen’s acceptance of where fate will lead him and us:

If I could live my life all over
It wouldn’t matter anyway
Cause I never could stay sober
On the Corpus Christi Bay

The singing and the lines of the chorus may put on a cheerful face, but the melancholy of the brother’s situation pulls as strongly as the tide in Corpus Christi Bay. The visiting brother will leave the bar and return home to his family in Houston. The narrator brother wants us to believe that the party never ends, but we can’t help but feel the loneliness and the pathetic state of the rigger who never grows up, who can’t stay away from the life once “it gets down in your blood.” He’s a few verses away from showing up as a Hawaiian shirt wearing, toothless drunk in a Tom Waits song.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Robert Earl Keen tours all the time and puts on a great show. You can check tour dates and other info at his website. You can read a brief biography here. Yes, it is true that he went to Texas A&M and lived next door to Lyle Lovett. They both sing about the start of their friendship in the “Front Porch Song.” (Click here for a Robert Earl Keen version and here for a live version with an introduction.)  Robert Earl Keen is one of those performers who not only write and sing great songs, but see him live and he’ll regale you with tales and stories to amuse you all night.

You can read a good interview from Lone Star Music with Keen here. There’s a great article and interview from No Depression with Keen here and a host of other pieces from the magazine on Keen here.

Click here for a live version of “Corpus Christy Bay” performed by Todd Snider.

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