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Robert Earl Keen

Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions – 2015 (Dualtone)

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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CDs by Robert Earl Keen

Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen may be known for his storytelling style and rowdy country-folk, but with this new album he reveals his fondness for bluegrass jams while bringing along his usual band and adding special guests Danny Barnes, Sara Watkins, Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan and Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks.

If you're a contemporary bluegrass fan, prepare to be disappointed. Keen's voice isn't the typical smooth instrument of most genre stars, and the set list includes some warhorses that probably should be relegated to local open mikes at this point. The band doesn't play at the breakneck speed of newgrass, nor do they attempt to approximate the mountain soul of Ralph Stanley.

If you're a Keen fan, prepare to be puzzled, at the least. Keen's humorous writing is absent, and the bluegrass instrumentation is a far cry from his crack band's usual roadhouse-rocking style.

Fresh ears may acclimate easiest to these tunes, leaving preconceptions behind for the simple enjoyment of the music. There's a familial, almost campfire jam feel to the proceedings, and Keen's plaintive vocal tones mesh well with the darker material here - fans may even recognize some of his own methodology in these traditional tales.

Did we need another cover of Richard Thompson's 52 Vincent White Lightning? Probably not; ditto for Long Black Veil. Other familiar tracks fare better, however. The gospel two-step of This World Is Not My Home rings true, and Wayfaring Stranger benefits from the presence of Maines.

Keen has earned this personal indulgence after years of great Texas-centric albums; purists will tut-tut over the details, and fans may wonder where the party songs are, but anyone who approaches these recordings in the laid-back, communal spirit they were created in will find plenty to enjoy.