Country icon to perform at Britt on Sunday

Imagine if instead of growing up in the Midwest and moving to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan grew up near the Texas oil fields and moved to Austin to launch his career in the 1980s.

According to music critics, such an alternative reality did play out. The result is , a country-style singer and songwriter whose lyrics and voice have been compared to the legendary folksinger turned rock icon.

"Any comparison with Dylan, besides his hairstyle, is great," said Keen, who will be performing at the Britt Festival in Jacksonville on Sunday night. (The prices are $38 for reserved seats and $23 for lawn seats.)

"There are certain things that are similar and other things that are not," he said.

The one similarity with Dylan that Keen freely admits to is their voices.

"I don't intimidate anyone with my voice," Keen said. "My vocal range is so limited that anybody that's even had a tracheotomy can follow what's going on."

But to him, that is not a handicap. Indeed, it is one aspect of a Keen show that make them unique.`

"They're like a giant, impromptu family reunion," he said of his concerts. Although Keen has never had a top-10 hit, he has a rabid following and plays all over the country for audiences as large as 25,000 people.

"Everybody sings along. The songs work; the words fit together well, and they're easy to sing. I think people like that."

The part of the Dylan comparison that Keen is less comfortable with is their songwriting ability; although, Keen's not modest about his own talents. "I think I write a pretty complex lyric."

His songs, though melodically easy to follow, are often accompanied by narrative lyrics about characters who could just as easily be from Southern Oregon as western Texas. "The Front Porch Song" is about a Texas rancher who "is doin' all he can not to give into the city," Keen sings.

In the song, the rancher laments about hard times working the land.

"He says the Brazos still runs muddy like she's run all along," he sings. "There ain't never been no cane to grind, the cotton's all but gone." The Brazos is an 870-mile-long river in Texas that flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

If forced to choose between performing and writing, Keen said he would choose writing. Together, he joked, the two skill sets make up his only talents in life. "Everything else, I'm just a wreck," he said.

Ironically, it's the concerts that have attracted the most fans.

"It's always the show that sells people," he said.

His band, which has been playing together for 14 years, prefers to jam out their songs on stage rather than mimic the albums.

"It's not a laid-back folkshow; it's high-energy. We mix it up every night. As far as a no-frills band goes, we're as good as anybody."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or .

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