Robert Earl Keen

Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions

Mention the name Robert Earl Keen, and several descriptive terms spring to mind - Texas singer-songwriter, career artist, brilliant storyteller, sardonic humorist, poet of the strange and familiar. And now with the release of his latest album, Happy Prisoner, there is what may seem a surprising addition to that list - bluegrass singer.

"I've had a lifelong love of bluegrass," says Keen. "I've always had an affinity for music that I felt like you'd listen to in your living room. Music that felt real. My mom liked the old hillbilly music, and as a kid, I used to fall asleep listening to an 8-track tape of Jimmie Rodgers' greatest hits. When I was in 9th grade, one of my first dates was taking a girl to a bluegrass festival. That sounds crazy for someone in Texas. But I was fascinated with that music, even though it wasn't part of the gulf coast at all. When I started playing, my first guitar hero was Norman Blake. In college, I had a bluegrass band called the Front Porch Boys, went to fiddle contests, learned a jillion fiddle and old-timey songs. My whole education in music started with bluegrass.

"And that's partly where the album title comes from," he continues. "I've been listening to it forever, I love it, and so I feel like I'm something of a happy prisoner of bluegrass."

As natural as it seemed then for Keen to tackle an album of bluegrass standards new and old, he admits that at the outset, he had serious doubts. "Early on, I realized I wasn't a bluegrass singer," he says. "I was devastated when I first heard my voice on a playback because I didn't sound like the guys that I was trying to copy. I worked on trying to sing in their style, but that wasn't what came naturally to me, and my voice didn't fit it. I was just painfully aware of not being a bluegrass singer. Although, I felt like I had such a great passion and great respect for it, that I wouldn't really screw it up.

"So I started tip-toeing into the project, and putting together really good players and knowing what I was going to play, but still having some great apprehension how I would actually sound in a full-blown bluegrass musical surrounding."

But often in music and art, limitations are what define style and make great creativity possible, and such is the case with Happy Prisoner. Keen's unique take on bluegrass allows us to hear familiar material in a fresh way. Trading the high lonesome vocal style for the gravelly bonhomie of the raconteur, Keen provides us with new doorways into the songs. Think of it as untraditionally traditional, Kentucky-by-way-of -Texas music. Lone Star-grass, if you will.

Kicking off with a boot-stomping version of Flatt & Scruggs "Hot Corn, Cold Corn" and revved-up, fiddle-driven take on Richard Thompson's girl-meets-boy-meets-motorcycle tale "52 Vincent Black Lightning," Keen takes us on a fifteen-song ride - twenty songs on the Deluxe version - that embraces the many lyrical and musical colors in the bluegrass spectrum. There are prison songs ("99 Years For One Dark Day"), murder ballads for the guilty and innocent ("Poor Ellen Smith" and "Long Black Veil"), tales of unrequited love (a lilting cover of the Carter Family's "East Virginia Blues"), gospel tunes ("This World Is Not My Home"), yodelin' tunes (a joyous duet with Lyle Lovett on Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas"), waltzes (the mournful "White Dove") and songs of country life (a gorgeous take on Tommy Thompson's "Twisted Laurel"). And of course, there are special nods to the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe ("Walls of Time" and the moving "Footprints In The Snow").

"The reason that we did so many songs is because I wanted to have a real cross section of what I think bluegrass is," Keen says. "And I wasn't out to reinvent the format. It was really about presenting the stories in the songs rather than fancy picking, though I had all these great players around me. I think we made the tunes sound like me, and sound like bluegrass."

Thirty years and sixteen albums into an illustrious career, it would be impossible for Keen not to sound like himself. Since winning the 1983 New Folk songwriting award at Texas' prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival, he's carved out a place for himself in the Lone Star pantheon of incisive, novelistic writers, alongside Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark. With standout records such West Textures (1989), Picnic (1997) and Ready For Confetti (2011), as well as Texas "standards" like "The Road Goes On Forever," "Feelin' Good Again" and "Merry Christmas From The Family,"Keen helped to pave the way for the whole burgeoning Americana movement.

And though he traded his usual role of songwriter for interpreter on Happy Prisoner, Keen says he approached the material with a writer's mindset. "I have the same feeling as I do with my own songs, and there's the same kind of visualization as when I'm singing them. I see a whole movie in my head, and it's always the same. It doesn't matter whose song it is. If I can get that connection with a song, be it a bluegrass song or a rock song, it's the same to me. I sing to that picture in my head, and that makes it feel like it's mine.

"Also, singing other people's songs freed me up to listen to the music, which was a huge lesson in itself. I feel like I learned more making this record than I had almost any record previous."

As with his past two albums, Happy Prisoner was recorded at The Zone studio in Dripping Springs, TX, a town famous for Collings Guitars, Salt Lick Barbecue and Willie Nelson's 4th of July picnic concerts. Of the studio, Keen says, "I'm not a gearhead by any means, in that I can't tell you the difference between a Neve board and a wheelbarrow. But still it seems comfortable and it has a great vibe."

The record also finds Keen re-teaming with producer Lloyd Maines. "Lloyd brings so much to the table - incredible musicality, great patience and he's one of the best people persons I've ever known," says Keen. "He has a way of bringing the best out of people. He's like the grand father-head of the entire studio, he's so kind and friendly and encouraging about everything, and he knows in his head what he can get people to do. He'll just move in that direction. If you start losing your balance, he'll wait and say, "Well, let's try this" or "Let me back you up for a second." He'll take something you didn't know you were making a mistake on, correct it, and the rest of it falls together."

And helping it all fall together were Keen's longtime ace band, consisting of guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel guitarist Marty Music, plus a star-studded cast of special guests, including Danny Barnes on banjo, Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins on fiddle and Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines on vocals.

As Keen prepares to take the songs of Happy Prisoner on the road in 2015, he is cautiously optimistic about how his fans will hear this stylistic departure. "I just hope they like it, and I hope I don't take too much flak from what some people call the "grassholes," he says with a chuckle. "I do feel like as far as what I've done, it's complete, in terms of my thoughts and my experience and my love for bluegrass music. I would like that to be out there in the world that is not just a side project or a hobby. This is something that I've been part of all my life, and never really brought it to the stage before."