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Is The Singer Happy? Robert Earl Keen Keeps His Feet On The Grass With ‘Happy Prisoner’

Darren Carroll

This piece originally aired July 24 during Morning Edition.

Robert Earl Keen is considered one of the best songwriters of his generation. He’s from a class of writers that includes his good friend Lyle Lovett and acclaimed vocalist Nanci Griffith. He’s known for smart, literate songs and powerful live performances as well as the wry sense of humor common to songwriters from the Lone Star State. What he isn’t known for is bluegrass music. At least until now.

Earlier this year, he released Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, the result of a longtime love of bluegrass music and a long period of procrastination. Keen had wanted to do an album of this kind for many years but only recently felt that it was time to take to the studio and record the series of songs that comprise Happy Prisoner.

“I didn’t think that I would do it if I waited any longer,” he says. “I felt like it was something that I’d wanted to do for a long time. I thought about it, and different things kept me from doing it. Then I woke up about two years ago about this time of year and thought, ‘If I don’t do this now I won’t ever do it.’ And I didn’t have a record label, I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any of those things, so it was just brute force and ignorance that I was going to make it happen so I did.”

Among the key tracks on Happy Prisoner is a take on British folk artist Richard Thompson’s classic tune about a motorcycle and woman with red hair, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” The song has been recorded in the bluegrass setting before, most famously by Del McCoury.

Keen learned Thompson’s original version of the tune, featured on the album Rumor and Sigh, focusing on a spare rendition with just guitar and vocals. The decision to cast it as a bluegrass number provided Keen with a challenge.

“When we decided to do this as a full-blown bluegrass thing the trick was how to get the feel of the motorcycle and the desperation and the excitement of the lyrics," Keen says. "That’s what we needed to figure out. I feel like we figured it out, and I was really happy with it.”

Keen was able to pull in some of his famous friends for Happy Prisoner, including one bluegrass legend Peter Rowan, known for his work with Seatrain, Earth Opera and Old and In The Way, featuring Jerry Garcia.

“That was total circumstance, total serendipity at work,” he says. “He knew the guy who owned the studio and had just popped in just to say hello. While he was there I said, ‘Hey, Peter, I recorded your song Walls of Time.' So he listened and while we were talking I got him to talk about the song itself, and we put that one the record and then I thought, ‘Man! He’s the perfect guy to sing ’99 Years.’ It was truly one of those great, great happy accidents that happen on occasion when you’re making records.”

Keen’s good friend Lyle Lovett dropped in to make an appearance on the classic “T For Texas,” a song that is deeply imbedded in Keen’s musical DNA.

“Oddly enough when everybody was into rock and pop music in junior high or middle school, I was totally engrossed in old-timey music and I had some old records by Jimmie Rodgers. I played them nonstop—over and over and over,” he says. “That’s the first version of ‘T For Texas’ that I ever heard.”

With roadwork behind Happy Prisoner ongoing, Keen isn’t quite sure when his next record will come out. He also admits that he’s unsure as to what his next artistic move will be.

“I just don’t know. I’m kind of walking around in this world kind of amazed by everything that’s going on and trying to figure out, I know this is a really bad answer for an interview, but I am really trying to figure out where I fit,” he says. “I will certainly do some kind of record but I have no idea what I will do but most likely be something with the songs that I wrote. The other day I wrote a really great, great song that I was really excited about so that might be what will get me going in that direction.”

Pressed for specifics, Keen offers this: “There are many different kinds of music and everybody seems to have their own certain kind of take on what music is about. I know that my filter’s pretty dense so whatever I’m going to do is pretty much going to sound like me but I believe that in the world of artistry that one has be relevant and when they’re not relevant they should quit. I can give you a list of people that should quit. If I’m that person, I want to quit. If I’m not that person I want to continue, so I’m trying to find the muse, I guess.”

Robert Earl Keen performs at the Orpheum Theatre Sunday night. His latest release, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, is out now.