Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Robert Earl Keen revisits his bluegrass roots

Although it's not widely known to the portion of Robert Earl Keen's following who like to shout along with brew raised on high to the "the party never ends" refrain during concert performances of The Road Goes On Forever, the Houston-born singer/songwriter got his start in music playing bluegrass. That's right, bluegrass.

So Keen's release of an album called Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions is not nearly as unusual as it might initially appear, however, I can't confirm or deny any time spent in the hoosegow. Let's not be so quick to judge.

“I've had a lifelong love of bluegrass,” confesses 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."

You see, a completely reasonable explanation. And for anyone concerned about a 180-degree stylistic turn into the high lonesome sound, Keen's choice of collaborators and tune-selection should help clear up any misconceptions. The fact that his chosen singing partners are Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan and Natalie Maines and not say, Ralph Stanley, James King and Del McCoury should confirm his agenda is more of a folk/traditional homage to the music he loves rather than a full-on bluegrass immersion. That said, it's a good bet that he's been enjoying the performances of McCoury and sons since he covers Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning using a strikingly similar arrangement to the McCoury's show stopper.

As might be expected from the noted storyteller, Keen consistently chooses material built on a strong narrative component (The Old Home Place, Long Black Veil, Wayfaring Stranger, Poor Ellen Smith) rather than popular instrumentals which often rely on speed and flash to put across. While Keen is a competent guitar picker for a singer/songwriter who earns his living as an entertainer, he doesn't possess the sort of fleet-fingered skills commonly known as "bluegrass chops." So if he's going to tackle a tune associated with Bill Monroe as a nod to the late great patriarch of the form, it makes sense that he'd go for something like Footprints In The Snow rather than an end-to-end burner like Fire On The Mountain that would require a degree of string-bending virtuosity well beyond the reach of an entry level player. And wisely enough, Keen has bolstered his core band with a few ringers like Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins, Greencards mandolinist Kym Warner and Bad Livers banjo boss Danny Barnes to ensure that everything sounds sufficiently bluegrassy – at least enough to impress his sizable college campus following.

Robert Earl Keen's Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions is available now from Dualtone Records as a limited edition double LP on 180 gram gold vinyl with five extra songs (see track listing below) not available on the CD version.

Track List:

Side A:
1. Hot Corn, Cold Corn
2. 52 Vincent Black Lightning
3. Footprints in the Snow
4. 99 Years For One Dark Day (feat. Peter Rowan)
5. East Virginia Blues

Side B:
1. Poor Ellen Smith
2. Long Black Veil
3. This World Is Not My Home
4. T For Texas (feat. Lyle Lovett)

Side C:
1. Peter Rowan Intro
2. Walls Of Time
3. White Dove
4. Old Home Place
5. Twisted Laurel
6. Wayfaring Stranger (feat. Natalie Maines)

Side D: (five extra songs not available on the CD)
1.  Little Log Cabin Home On The Hill
2.  Dark As A Dungeon
3.  I'm Troubled, I'm Troubled
4.  14 Carat Mind
5.  Steam Powered Aeroplane

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