Robert Earl Keen
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions
3½ stars (out of 5)
By Aaron Keith Harris
Bluegrass music and the Texas songwriter tradition are about as different from one another as any other pair of styles in country music, but Robert Earl Keen is not the first master of the latter to put his hand to the former. Though Happy Prisoner doesn’t approach the brilliance of The Mountain—Steve Earle’s 1999 classic with the Del McCoury Band for which he wrote original songs—Keen’s ramble through a 14-song set* of bluegrass standards is a fun listen, unlike similar projects from some Nashville stars looking to crow about how country they are.
Keen eschews the familiar lineup of first-call bluegrass studio players in favor of his own band—plus banjo guru Danny Barnes—who “played to bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us.” Barnes’ presence is most felt on the low groove “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” whose arrangement bears a welcome resemblance to the Groovegrass Boyz’ “Macarena,” and his idiosyncratic picking is a good fit for Keen and his band.
The result is a spirited freshness that makes up for the lack of technical brilliance. Keen’s easy drawl finds some new feeling in well-worn songs like “East Virginia Blues,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and “This World is Not My Home.” And grassy numbers like “The Old Home Place,” “Walls of Time,” and, with harmony from Peter Rowan, “99 Years for One Dark Day” would please even old-school pickers. (However, Keen probably should have picked a modern song other than “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which simply can’t get any better than the McCoury cover or Richard Thompson’s own version.)
Guest vocals from fellow Texans Lyle Lovett (“T for Texas”) and Natalie Maines (a gorgeous “Wayfaring Stranger”) are good enough to make one wish Keen invited more of his peers to help him put some Lone Star shine on the high lonesome sound.
*There’s a deluxe version with a few extra tracks, which weren’t included in our review copy.