By Mark Kemp
As high school juvies in Houston, Robert Earl Keen and his best friend Bryan Duckworth would hop into Duckworth’s 1970 Ford Maverick, pop a few Texas Pride beers, shove eight-tracks of Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers into the tape deck, and cruise around town. Other kids were in VW microbuses listening to the Beatles or Black Sabbath. But Keen and his buddies preferred the rustiest, twangiest, old-time country music they could find.
“It wasn’t the kind of music that was of the times,” Keen admits, “but it was what we liked. And one of the great things about that old-timey music is that it wasn’t as expensive as the new stuff. You could get a hell of a lot of it for cheap.”
Anyone who knows anything about REK knows that this is hardly the first time the story of Robert and Bryan’s youthful transgressions has been told. Way back in the late 1980s, the Texas singer-songwriter recorded a live version of a song he wrote called “The Bluegrass Widow,” wherein he spins the same yarn to a packed house at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas to explain how he came up with “quite possibly the worst bluegrass song ever written.” It’s not, of course, but Keen has always been wary of performing songs in the genre he loves and respects so much.
Until now, that is.
Last year, Keen released Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions (Dualtone), his first all-bluegrass album in his more than 30-year career. It started when Keen wrote down 100 bluegrass and folk standards he wanted to perform with old-time instrumentation. Then he phoned up some famous friends—Lyle Lovett, Natalie Maines, fiddler Sara Watkins, mandolin player Kym Warner, banjo picker Danny Barnes, and a few others—and booked a recording date for late 2014. Keen chopped the list down to 30 songs, and he and his friends recorded 28 of them.
The final version of Happy Prisoner features 15 classic tracks (20 on the deluxe edition) that span folk and bluegrass history, from Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow” to Monroe and Peter Rowan’s “Walls of Time” to Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” It was a project Keen had long dreamed of doing. Problem was, he was scared. After all, he’s the guy who wrote the “worst bluegrass song ever.”
Keen—sporting a cowboy hat, black blazer, orange-and-gray striped button-down shirt, and multicolored shoes—leans back in his chair in a conference room at Acoustic Guitar’s office in Point Richmond, California, and lets out a big Lone Star laugh. He’s surrounded by instructional books on everything from improving your jazz vocabulary to mastering the art of flatpicking. Intimidating stuff, to say the least. “I knew the whole deal with bluegrass—a lot of it is about the singing, the high-lonesome harmonies, the incredible playing,” Keen says. “So I put off doing this album because I was never comfortable with that.
“I was not comfortable with my voice singing bluegrass.”
Minutes earlier, Keen had performed two simple, gritty songs with profound storylines for AG’s online video series Acoustic Guitar Sessions. Cradling a battered Collings OM2H, he dedicated one of the tunes, “Mariano,” a tender song about a Mexican immigrant, to his late mother, who would always request it. What Keen says is true—his shaky baritone rasp is not the typical voice of a bluegrass singer, and he isn’t a virtuoso guitarist. He’s a storyteller—and that was his entry point for Happy Prisoner.
“I always had an affinity for bluegrass lyrics—the songs themselves, how cool the stories are,” Keen says. “So I eventually worked my way through the idea that I couldn’t do bluegrass, and I invited all these friends of mine to come in and pick with me.”
No one gathered in a meadow the following day at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is complaining about Keen’s gruff harmonies when he launches into “Footprints,” “Dark as a Dungeon,” and other tracks from Happy Prisoner. He’s performing on the Rooster stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and he even does a few bluegrass versions of some of his more famous electric originals, like “The Road Goes on Forever,” a song that Texas road warrior Joe Ely transformed into his own anthem when he released it on his 1992 album Love and Danger.
Though Keen is not a household name in either country or pop, he’s written songs for many artists who are: The Dixie Chicks teamed up with comedian Rosie O’Donnell in 2000 for a hilarious version of his holiday novelty song “Merry Christmas from the Family.” George Strait recorded a beautiful lilting cover of Keen’s Mexican-flavored “Maria” for his No. 1 country album of 1998, One Step at a Time. And Nanci Griffith included Keen’s twangy family song “Sing One for Sister” on her 1987 commercial breakthrough Lone Star State of Mind. But Keen’s fans are rabid, and the ones in this meadow at Golden Gate Park are singing along with every word.
Robert Earl Keen vividly remembers the first time he thought music might be a good way to earn a living. He was doing a pretty crappy job of chaperoning for his younger sister, who at 16 was a foosball champion in Houston bars. “She’d go out there with her pack of Benson & Hedges and people would buy her shots and she’d kick their asses in foosball,” Keen remembers. “But in the other part of the bar somebody was playing a guitar in the corner—covers of Loggins and Messina, and that kind of ’70s folkie stuff, you know—and I was like, ‘Man, that’s the deal!’ To actually get up really close to somebody who was playing in a bar? That really turned the switch for me. I thought: I could do that.”
When he packed up to go to Texas A&M University in the mid-1970s, Keen took his sister’s old nylon-string Alvarez along with him and learned to play a few basic country songs. “I got this songbook called The Ten Greatest Country Songs Ever Written. It had stuff in it like ‘Country Roads’ and ‘Cold Cold Heart,’ so I learned all those songs. The first one I learned was the Willie Nelson song ‘Hello Walls.’ The only song in that book that I didn’t learn was ‘The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.’”
Before long, Keen and his old pal Duckworth, who’d started playing the fiddle, formed a band and began working up versions of the bluegrass songs they’d listened to on eight-tracks as teenagers. “We ran into some kids who were from very rural areas,” Keen says. “We were from Houston, you know, so we were city slickers, but these kids were from places like Tampa and Levelland [Texas]. They loved country and bluegrass and western swing, and they’d be playing fiddle and mandolin, and it was great. So we just started hanging out with them and playing and it morphed into this thing called the Front Porch Boys. Over the years, we had about ten different members.”
The band played, literally, on the front porch of a house on Church Street in the Texas college town of College Station, right across the road from a Presbyterian Church. The scene wound up as the subject of Keen’s wry 1984 tune, “The Front Porch Song.”
“At that point, we weren’t playing in bars because we didn’t have a sound system,” Keen says. “We played at a few flea markets and spaghetti suppers at churches, and did a mixture of bluegrass stuff like Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, but also country stuff that’s pretty close to bluegrass, like Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway.’”
“The thing about bluegrass is that it’s this really happy-sounding music, but the stories are tragic. If you pick it apart, there’s a lot of dead bodies throughout the history of bluegrass. And I love that kind of thing.”
Eventually, the Front Porch Boys caught the ear of fellow A&M student Lyle Lovett, who was studying journalism and was known for booking country-rock and folk groups around town. When Keen’s band mates left town during a school break, he and Lovett became buds. Lovett would change Keen’s life—as well as his musical direction. Keen, an English major, knew he wasn’t a great singer, but he could spin a great story, and when he graduated from A&M in 1980, he set off for Austin, where he began playing original songs to whoever would listen. Four years later, Keen released his debut album, No Kinda Dancer, and bluegrass had become a tiny glimmer in his rear-view mirror. Within another three years, he would record the live album that included the story about that song he was playing—you know, the “worst bluegrass song ever.”
And yet, bluegrass never stopped tapping on Keen’s shoulder. “I didn’t stop loving bluegrass,” he says. As a lyricist, he found himself drawing from the same deep, dark well. “The thing about bluegrass is that it’s this really happy-sounding music, but the stories are tragic. If you pick it apart, there’s a lot of dead bodies throughout the history of bluegrass. And I love that kind of thing—that great outpouring of emotion in these really simple songs.”
By the early 2000s, Keen knew he had to man up and record the damn bluegrass album he’d always dreamed of. But it still took a while to get all the players together. “What makes this record work—what I think probably shines through the most—is that I got people like Danny Barnes and Sara Watkins, who also had left this traditional, old-timey, backwoods kind of bluegrass behind long ago.”
Barnes had been a member of the Bad Livers, an Austin band known in the ’90s for doing banjo- and fiddle-fueled cover versions of punk and rock songs by the Misfits, Butthole Surfers, Slayer, and Iggy Pop, alongside original tunes with provocative titles like “Shit Creek.” These days, when he isn’t writing and recording fairly straightforward singer-songwriter albums, Barnes releases cassettes of experimental music that mix banjo with avant-garde noise rock. Watkins, of course, is the former Nickel Creek singer and fiddler who’s since moved more towards indie-folk on her solo albums. None of the musicians on the Happy Prisoner sessions were doing standards like “Dark as a Dungeon” anymore. “So when we all got in there and started playing these old songs, there was a little trepidation about whether we could do this old music again,” Keen says. “It was like going back and riding a bicycle without gears.”
Or, as Barnes puts it, “like going a few rounds with Joe Louis.” The banjo player laughs but then gets serious. “For people who love this kind of music, it’s like a language,” Barnes says. “You can run into somebody from the opposite end of the globe and you have a common parlance. And I’ve known these people for years. Robert and I go way back.”
Everything gelled quickly when the musicians started jamming together. “We got in there and all of that childlike thinking and feeling came out,” Keen remembers. “Everybody was having a great time. We were just laughing and having the best time. We’d play through ‘99 Years and One Dark Day,’ and everybody was like, ‘Yeah! That’s so great!’ And then we’d play another song and then play another. We were just so happy. All of us had left this stuff behind, but we’d never quit loving it. We just hadn’t had a reason to play it in a while.
“Of all the records I’ve ever made, this was the most fun and exciting.”
The fun and excitement shines through at the outset of Happy Prisoner, as the scratchy, percussive guitars of the Flatt & Scruggs song “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” get the engine turning. Keen and company transform the unconventional bluegrass tune into a blues stomp, with a deep, bass vocal singing the words along with Keen’s raspy baritone, and an electric slide slithering in between lines like, “Old Aunt Peggy won’t you fill ’em up again / Ain’t had a drink since the lord knows when” and “Yonder comes the preacher and the children are a-cryin’ / Chickens a-runnin’ and the toenails a-flyin’—yes sir.”
The feel of Happy Prisoner is casual, reminiscent of the sessions that spawned the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cross-generational classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken. One of the highlights is Peter Rowan’s spoken-word story about how he and Bill Monroe came to write “Walls of Time.” It’s the same yarn Rowan had spun during an appearance on Acoustic Guitar Sessions several months ago—and he delivers it on Happy Prisoner with the same dramatic flair.
“That was totally coincidental,” Keen says. “We were at this studio called the Zone, in Dripping Springs, Texas, and Peter had come out there just to visit with Mike Morgan, who owns the studio. Peter didn’t even know I was there, so when I saw him I said, ‘Man, we did your song and I’d like for you to come in and hear it.’ He’s listening to it and he starts telling this story about driving Bill Monroe’s bus and I said, ‘Would you mind if we recorded this?’ He said, ‘Sure,’ so I just went in there and said what you hear on the record”—the intro has Keen asking, “Peter, can you tell me about ‘Walls of Time’ and how it came about?”—“and he just started talking. It was amazing!”
Keen duets with Lovett on the Jimmie Rodgers classic “T for Texas”—which features some dazzling acoustic-guitar and banjo runs, and a warm, rubbery bass—and with Maines on a spare version of the bluegrass standard “Wayfaring Stranger.” But two of Keen’s favorite moments are “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Dark as a Dungeon,” the latter included on the deluxe edition of Happy Prisoner. “‘Poor Ellen Smith’ just kills me every time I hear it,” he says, “whether it’s by a full-blown bluegrass band or solo, like Norman Blake’s version. When I hear that song, all I hear is the story. And I think, how great is that? It’s just pure description.
Get stories like this in your inbox
“It’s the same with ‘Dark as a Dungeon,’” Keen continues. “When I hear that song, I see the dungeon and the sort of blue light surrounding it, and I feel the darkness and moisture. I’m transported right there. And that’s what I love about bluegrass. So when we did this album, I felt like I wasn’t going to betray the music because I have such a great love for the lyrics. It’s just great poems set to music. And if you take away the music, it’s powerful on its own—it’s poetry, a painting in your brain.”
WHAT ROBERT EARL KEEN PLAYS
After learning how to play on his sister’s Alvarez classical, Keen got a Martin D-35. “My parents were notoriously cheap,” he says. “They were the kind of people who would say, ‘Son, that costs $12. You can get one for $5.’ But when I came home from school after my first year, my mother, from out of nowhere, said, ‘We’re going to go get you a good guitar.’ I said, ‘Great, whatever.’
“So we went down to this little music store and she said, ‘I want the best guitar in this place.’ And the guy said, ‘Well, we have this Martin D-35.’ I was thinking, there’s no way my mom’s going to buy me a Martin guitar, no way. And she said, ‘Okay, does it have a case with it?’ And he said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I thought, God, this is really going to happen. She just wrote the check. I couldn’t believe it.
“When I got that guitar, it was one of those things where I took it in the backyard and just played and played, non-stop, day after day after day, writing songs, just doing whatever I could do to get fairly good on it.
“I had that guitar for several years before I got a D-28, and since then I’ve had all kinds of guitars.”
Eventually, Keen became a Collings player. “I’ve known Bill Collings for years. We were pals. We’ve even gotten into some trouble together, because Collings. . . .” He trails off. “He knows how to have fun.”
Collings is also serious about his guitar business, Keen says. “I used to take my Martins to him to get them repaired—fret job, neck reset, that kind of thing—and one day, in the early ’90s, he says, ‘I’m not going to do this for you anymore.’ I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Because you need to buy one of my guitars.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’
“So, we sat down and decided what he would make for me, and we drew up the plans for this C-10—it’s a beautiful guitar—and I played it for about a year and I felt like I was going to bust it up. I was on the road a lot.
So, I got on this record—a compilation of Merle Haggard songs called Tulare Dust, on Hightone Records. I recorded my song, sent it in, and somehow I got a check for $1,800. And I thought, ‘Man, I am going to get another Collings so I won’t smash up my C-10. I called Collings and said, ‘I want something just like the C-10, but a little broader and something that, if I break it, I’m not going to freak out about it.’ It’s this great OM2H that
I still have.
“But after I paid for it, Larry Sloven at Hightone called me up and said, ‘Oh, that check was a mistake. I sent you too much money!’” Keen laughs. “I guess I knew something was weird, because I had gotten paid so quickly and you never get paid that quickly—or that much—from an independent record company. I said, ‘Too late, man, it’s already spent. I spent that money on this guitar.’ He says, ‘You’re gonna have to send me that money.’ And I said, ‘You can’t get blood out of a stone.’ I haven’t seen Larry Sloven in years, but I guess I still owe him. I always liked Larry.”
Keen’s had several Collings guitars over the years, and now he has a brand-new one. “About two years ago, they called up Charles Ray, my road manager, and said, ‘Come over here.’ And Charles says, ‘What for?’ It turns out they gave me this guitar! It’s a replica of a guitar that I play. It has the same kind of pickup stuff in it, so when I break a string on stage I just grab this new guitar and plug it in, and it sounds just like my old guitar. I love it.”
For Happy Prisoner, Keen played three guitars: his older Collings OM2H, a dreadnought-size mahogany Collings, and a 1946 Martin tenor guitar he bought from Tony Williamson in North Carolina. “That tenor is just the most beautiful sounding instrument,” Keen says. “It doesn’t have a ton of sound, but it’s just so fragile and so beautiful. It’s like champagne or something—just kind of bubbles out.”