1. "Hot Corn, Cold Corn"
2. "Vincent Black Lightning"
3. "Footprints In The Snow"
4. "99 Years For One Dark Day" (featuring Peter Rowan)
5. "T For Texas" (featuring Lyle Lovett)
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.”
When I listen to music, I want the sound to wash
over me like a wave. I like to imagine the band or
the singer or the soloist in the same room with me.
Preferably, it’s a tiny wooden room that shakes in
time with the music. I want to put my head against
that magnificent upright bass and feel the thumping
drive of each note. I like to imagine sitting on
the floor watching the guitar player curled around
his instrument strumming for his life. How great is
it to hear people in a little bitty room singing
three-part harmony? How great is it to be smack
dab in the middle of that singing?
I’ve been lucky. My lifelong love of bluegrass
taught me how to feel music as well as hear it.
I’ve spent countless hours banging out fiddle tunes
and murder ballads with rank strangers. We never
missed a beat because we spoke only in bluegrass.
I’ve played my own brand of music from Gruene Hall
to Town Hall and loved every minute, but nothing
compares to a tiny room full of bluegrass picking.
So that’s what we did here. We played bluegrass
Robert Earl Keen- Lead vocals, acoustic guitar, tenor guitar, mandolin, harmony vocals
Danny Barnes- Banjo, acoustic “Chet” guitar, harmony vocals
Sara Watkins- Fiddle
Kym Warner- Mandolin
Bill Whitbeck- Upright Bass , bass percussion, harmony vocals
Rich Brotherton- Flat picking guitar, acoustic rhythm guitar, mandolin, cittern, harmony vocals
Tom Van Schaik- Percussion, harmony vocals
Marty Muse- Dobro
Dennis Ludiker- Fiddle
Chloe Keen- Ensemble violins on “Wayfaring Stranger”
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