ROBERT EARL KEEN, HAPPY PRISONER: THE BLUEGRASS SESSIONS
Keen is a gifted Texas singer/songwriter in the tradition of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Lyle Lovett. Even though he’s never before made a full bluegrass album in his thirty-plus-year recording career, he grew up around bluegrass and loves it. And, as his new release Happy Prisoner aptly demonstrates, he’s got a great feel for it.
Keen points out in his liner notes that his gritty, growling baritone is a far cry from the traditional high-lonesome tenor sound. But his rough-hewn vocal style enables him to bring fresh readings and perspectives to these 15 tried and true bluegrass and country favorites. There’s always been a rowdy and irreverent streak running through Keen’s edgy, alt-country sound, and he’s long been a big hit with the Texas dance hall and frat party crowds. That’s probably why he sounds so at home with a boisterous, tongue-in-cheek ode such as the traditional “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.” Keen also shines on fatalistic ballads of crime and punishment like Jesse Fuller’s “99 Years For One Dark Day” (where he’s joined on vocals by Peter Rowan) and the old public domain chestnut “Poor Ellen Smith.” He brings similar conviction and lots of fire to Richard Thompson’s “’52 Vincent Black Lightning,” an oft-recorded tale of an ill-fated motorcycle desperado. He and Peter Rowan also turn in a rousing rendition of Rowan’s “Walls Of Time.”
Keen also covers bluegrass oldies by Jimmie Rodgers (he’s joined by Lyle Lovett for a serviceable duet on “T For Texas”), Alfred Brumley and Carter Stanley, though he doesn’t set off sparks on all of them. He does succeed in bringing a vibe of contemporary fervor and reverence to “Wayfaring Stranger,” where he’s joined on vocals by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks (whose father, the redoubtable Lloyd Maines, produced Happy Prisoner) and by Keen’s daughter Chloe on ensemble violins. Stalwart picking is provided by Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, and harmony vocals), Sara Watkins (fiddle), Kim Warner (mandolin), Bill Whitbeck (bass and harmony vocals), Tom Van Schaik (percussion and harmony vocals), Rich Brotherton (guitar, mandolin, and harmony vocals), Marty Muse (resonator guitar) and Dennis Ludiker (fiddle). (Dualtone Records, 3 McFerrin Ave., Nashville, TN 37206, www.robertearlekeen.com.)BA