Listening to Texas singer-songwriter icon Robert Earl Keen‘s new collection of bluegrass, “Happy Prisoner,” for the first time can be a bit of a shock — in a good way.
I know, it was released 10 months ago, but I avoided listening to it. I guess I feared it would feature more of the frat-boy, Shiner Bock-swilling tomfoolery that has defined much of his career.
Truth be told, I fell in love with Keen’s broken-down-sounding voice and folksy sensibility in 1984, when he (with “Jr.” appended to his name in those early days, though it’s hard to imagine anyone would have confused him with his geologist father) released “No Kinda Dancer” on Rounder Records. It was a nearly perfect document of one of that era’s freshest new singer-songwriter voices.
He quickly moved from the one guy, one guitar sound to a the bigger, boisterous sound he’s known for today. And, while I liked the persona much less, I continued to follow his music and went to his shows from time to time. Despite his over-the-top fans — I witnessed one of Barbara Bush’s troublemaking friends get expertly cut from the herd at an REK show at the Bowery Ballroom in 2001 — I have to admit I still love that voice and sensibility.
“Happy Prisoner” may be Keen’s first, and probably only, dalliance on record with bluegrass. But I’ve got to say that it feels like it has far more in common with the singer-songwriter he started out being than it does with the Texas icon he’s become.
Tradition sounds good on him.
His take isn’t one of hidebound traditionalism, though, on any of the tracks. Keen — with a little help from his Texas A&M pal and onetime roommate Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines of Dixie Chicks fame on a couple of tracks — serves up a fresh, entertaining helping of rootsy storytelling.
I can’t get enough of this album, which includes bluegrass classics such as “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” alongside his peppy take on Richard Thompson’s “52 Vincent Black Lightning.” He even does a credible job on 1959’s “Long Black Veil,” first recorded by Lefty Frizzell but most closely associated in my mind with Johnny Cash, who released two versions of it — a studio cut in 1965 and a live version on the 1968 album “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.”
In all, this project went a long way toward reminding me what a genuine, original voice Keen has. And I have little doubt that it will help me — and maybe you — hear his back catalogue with fresh ears.