Robert Earl Keen – Happy Prisoner

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Robert Earl Keen
has been playing the Texas singer/songwriter circuit for over three
decades, and as a guy who often favors the acoustic side of the country
and Americana music scenes, it’s no kind of surprise that he’s crossed
paths with the bluegrass music community, and it certainly makes sense
that he’s a fan. What is a bit of a surprise is not that Keen
has decided to cut a bluegrass album, but that the respected tunesmith
has chosen to make it a collection of covers rather than writing a new
set of songs. Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions finds Keen and a crew of top-notch pickers (including Danny Barnes, former leader of bluegrass iconoclasts the Bad Livers)
whooping it up on a set of tunes that have become bluegrass standards;
this isn’t always bluegrass for purists (which is to say there are drums
on a few tracks and the version of “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” takes serious
liberties with the traditional arrangement), but the fiddles, banjos,
and mandolins keep this rooted within the accepted boundaries of the
genre, and the players certainly do right by the songs. Just as
importantly, Keen
sings these numbers with a genuine enthusiasm and a dash of swagger
that suit his Lone Star attitude, with a small but meaningful helping of
twang (though he dials back the strutting for pathos on numbers like
“East Virginia Blues” and “Long Black Veil”). Lloyd Maines, who has worked with Keen many times over the years, produced and engineered Happy Prisoner,
and he brings a warm, natural sound to these sessions, which sound like
a bunch of pickers circled around a mike in the best of all possible
ways. Some fans of Keen‘s songwriting might lament the lack of new material on Happy Prisoner, but as a performer he’s in great shape here, and he makes the most of his duet spots with Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines. In his liner notes, Keen writes, “When I listen to music I want the sound to wash over me like a wave,” and at its strongest, Happy Prisoner does just that, and it’s a worthwhile detour for one of Texas’s best songwriters.

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