Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
he words Robert Earl Keen and bluegrass don't exactly go together.
No way. No how because Keen is the Texas singer/songwriter guy who gave us his masterpiece of "The Road Goes on Forever," perhaps made more famous by Joe Ely, and the humorous "Merry Xmas From the Family." He has a sharp, sometimes wry, wit about him that has kept him on the circuit for decades.
But, of course, you'd be dead wrong about the bluegrass thing because that's exactly what the resident of Kerrville, Texas (as Keen pointed out, the hometown of both troubled Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and the folk festival) has done. On Tuesday, he put out "Happy Prisoner - The Bluegrass Sessions," and the result is a two-week jaunt.
This was a chance to experience Keen as never before, and the result was almost entirely welcome.
Keen does not have a traditional bluegrass voice by any stretch. His voice, which sounds like he has a perpetual cold, is on the rough side - even for country - and sometimes loses pitch. If looking for that high, lonesome sound, keep looking.
But, fortunately for his sake, he did pick songs that tended to work for him and his band. Quite fitting considering the seemingly perpetual falling of the white stuff from the skies, Keen opened with a buoyant take on "Footprints in the Snow." He tended to keep the songs light and lively with Flatt & Scruggs' "Hot Corn, Cold Corn," where the beginning vocals dropped out, and Jimmy Rodgers' "T for Texas."
Keen did veer in a different direction with the murder ballad (all good bluegrass bands have them) "Poor Ellen Smith."
Keen worked in some of his traditional material during the 05-minute show, including "Feelin' Good" and "Gringo Honeymoon" before the closing one-two punch of the lively "I Gotta Go" and "The Road Goes on Forever." While staples for Keen, because of the make-up of the band and instrumentation, this was a chance to h ear the songs in a different light.
The band include long-time mainstays Marty Muse on Dobro (as Keen pointed out, he usually plays pedal steel when Keen plays country) and ace guitarist Rich Brotherton, who was on acoustic guitar and mandolin. A fiddle player often spiced up the songs, like any good bluegrass band needs to have.
Keen's band also included his regular skins man, Tom Van Schaik, "the best bluegrass drummer in the world," according to the leader. As Keen pointed out in one of a number of humorous comments, that's because bluegrass bands, of course, leave the drummer at home.
Where Keen suffered was in his choice of material - both on the recording and in concert, a few tunes proved superfluous. How many times can someone record "Long Black Veil?" The song is so overdone as to render it off limits. And why try to attempt Richard Thompson's "52 Vincent Black Lightning"?
In both cases, it's not that Keen's version is particularly onerous. More like unnecessary.
But, otherwise, Keen deserves credit for certainly stretching out his musical boundaries. It's real easy to keep doing what got you where you are without mounting a challenge to self.
Keen has done that. He won't make anyone forget Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan or modern folks like the Del McCoury Band, but Keen has acquitted himself just fine.