Oh, bluegrass. There’s nothing better if you’re feeling good about your life – that fast picking guitar fills you with all sorts of positive energy. There’s also nothing better if your whole world is falling apart – just listen to a murder ballad or two and you’ll realize that, hey, life COULD be a lot worse. It’s an awesome genre, bluegrass. And it’s a genre that has inspired Texas country legend Robert Earl Keen for decades.
REK grew up listening to the likes of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Carter Family, the Stanley Brothers – the list goes on. The technical virtuosity of some of those players inspired him to push himself toward becoming the great musician he is today. That same virtuosity, he says, is one reason why he has waited this long to try his own hand at bluegrass. During a recent interview with the Amarillo Globe-News, he said that while he loved the music, he didn’t have the chops to be “a true bluegrass player.” Now, while technically that may be true, his genuine enthusiasm and respect for the genre more than makes up for any technical – or, I suppose, traditional – skills he may be lacking. And, he’s got an amazing cast of musicians along for this bluegrass ride, too. (Among others, banjo player Danny Barnes and fiddler Sara Watkins, in addition to his own remarkable touring band.)
Now, when I listened to the album through the first time, I admit I was a little…startled. REK still sounds like REK – gritty, twangy, almost surly at times…a legend of outlaw country music. But then I listened again. And again. The more I listened, the more I enjoyed REK’s interpretations of these songs – they’re stories, after all. And REK is a masterful storyteller.
‘Happy Prisoner’ IS a tribute recording, sure – but at the same time, REK very clearly puts his own stamp on classics every bluegrass fan has probably heard – “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” and “Walls of Time” (with harmonies by Peter Rowan and a little bit of a “story hour” from Peter Rowan, too). And his duet with Natalie Maines on “Wayfaring Stranger”? Wow. REK’s tenacious twang, twining with Maines’ rather strident voice – it’s shiver-inducing.
Something else special about REK’s Happy Prisoner? There are 5 extra tracks he recorded for the vinyl version of the album. The stand out for me? “I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled.” There are lots of versions of this song (Flatt and Scruggs, Doc Watson, Jerry Garcia…) and this one might be my favorite of them all. REK enunciates the lyrics so clearly it’s like he’s right there in the room with you and the blend between his voice and the banjo – well, it’s darn near perfect. And, in true REK fashion, he manages to infuse enough heartache and sorrow into his voice that you just want to put an arm around his shoulder and tell him it’ll be ok. Someday.