Texas has a musical heritage as vast as the state itself, but one genre it’s never been associated with is bluegrass. That’s why at first blush it seems odd that Robert Earl Keen’s latest release is of all things — a bluegrass record.
While suitably titled Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, it’s clear from the album’s opener – Flatt & Scruggs’ “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” — that Keen’s not looking to curry favor with the blue-haired crowd. “The whole idea was to sound like me because I’m not a bluegrass singer,” he explains. “I wanted to present these songs in the way that I hear them.”
Remarkably Keen, whose own songs have been covered by the Highwaymen, George Strait and Dixie Chicks, didn’t pen any originals for the record. Instead he chose to forego making personal statements in favor of celebrating the music of genre masters such as the Stanley Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
“I could write a bluegrass song if I wanted to, but I felt like the things that are out there are great the way they are,” Keen declares. “I didn’t want to mess around with it. I just didn’t feel comfortable with being like, ‘Oh, here’s a Bill Monroe song, and here’s my bluegrass song.’”
It would be easy, if not predictable, to view Happy Prisoner as a mutated amalgam of traditional bluegrass styles and Lone Star swagger. It would also be a mistake, because the record is much more than that. Happy Prisoner is Keen’s valentine to the music he grew up listening to and adores to this day. And with Peter Rowan, Lyle Lovett, Sara Watkins and Natalie Maines all helping out on the record, his message of love is adventurous, unpredictable, and a whole lot of fun to listen to.
CMT Edge: Texas isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of bluegrass, and you’re not associated with the genre either. What was the inspiration for Happy Prisoner?
Keen: I’d wanted to do it for a long time and I got to a point where I thought, “What am I waiting for?” (laughs) I kinda woke up one day and said, “I gotta do this now.”
Were you were trying to reconnect with something?
Yeah. There would definitely be some of that. I’m on the road 180 days a year and sometimes I don’t feel connected to the music like I was or like I want to be. I felt a real need to remind myself of what I was in this for in the first place. Which was the fun of playing music. I decided to do a bluegrass record so I could just feel the music.
Do you listen to a lot of bluegrass?
Oh yeah! As far as the music that I listen to, I listen to blues and bluegrass. There’s something about the simplicity and the stripped-down nature of the music that I like. I don’t really know what’s happening [in music]. I see posters and know that somebody’s doing well, but I don’t listen.
Did you feel any trepidation about covering these songs? Some of them have really become bluegrass standards. Did you ever think, “I might get killed for this”?
I had that thought but it was fleeting. I’ll tell you what, I’m either really dense or I really just walk through life missing something. You know that scene in Diner where the one guy says to the other guy, “Do you ever get the idea that there’s something going on that we don’t know anything about?” That’s what I feel like sometimes. Like I don’t really know. I’m not really always in tune. So yeah, it occurred to me but I wasn’t thinking in terms of comparing myself to anything. And I felt confident in that I do have a love for these songs so I wasn’t gonna mess ‘em up.
You really cover a lot of ground on the record in that you’ve got hundred year-old murder ballads and modern tunes on it as well. Were you trying to give an overview of the genre?
No, but I was aware that there was a broad variety. But that’s one of the things that’s cool about bluegrass, you can still do [old songs]. You can’t do an English madrigal really and be relevant unless you’re Jethro Tull. But you can do a bluegrass song that’s a hundred years old and be relevant. There’s a simplicity to it that transcends time.
When you were recording, did you do a lot of takes?
No, no, no. Everybody, but particularly Danny Barnes, Rich Brotherton and Sara Watkins, they’ve moved way past the boundaries of traditional bluegrass. And I actually think giving them a real good reason to go in and play stuff that they all grew up with made them happy. I think they jumped into it like, “Hell yeah, I can play this in my sleep!” (laughs)
Texas has a rich musical heritage and the state’s given the world lots of unforgettable artists and songs. But bluegrass isn’t really part of the Texas tradition. Where do you see bluegrass fitting into the state’s musical milieu?
I don’t! (laughs) As a matter of fact one of my lines onstage is, “I know Texans know everything about everything, but they don’t know shit about bluegrass!”
What do you think you bring to bluegrass?
I just want to do my version of it and show how much I love it. That’s it. I love the sound; I love the songs; everything about it.
Regarding your “version” of bluegrass, you know there are some who would say Happy Prisoner isn’t a bluegrass record.
I can understand how somebody would think that. But I’m not trying to make a traditional bluegrass record. I’m trying to showcase bluegrass songs the way that I like them.