The Hippo


Aug 23, 2019








Robert Earl Keen. Courtesy photo.

Robert Earl Keen

When: Friday, Feb. 13, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Flying Monkey, 39 S. Main St., Plymouth
Tickets: $35 & $45 at

His grass is blue
Robert Earl Keen brings a Happy Prisoner

By Michael Witthaus

As a teenager, Robert Earl Keen was drawn to traditional bluegrass. After college, he played bluegrass in the Front Porch Boys — until the rest of the band dismissed him. Keen’s sound, they said, wasn’t sufficiently “high and lonesome.” Unbowed, he carried on as one of Texas’s best storytelling songwriters.

For the record, Keen never bought his bandmates’ assessment. 
“My passion for bluegrass is solid, and my execution … it’s totally legitimate,” Keen said in a recent phone interview. “I’m not just some kind of poseur.”
He added that they’re all still friends.
Keen talked about the genre’s dichotomy — a smiling upbeat tempo wrapped around songs of sadness, wracking guilt or horrific murder. 
“It’s a really unusual way of hearing music. … I can’t think of anything else like it,” he said. “Hardcore hip-hop sounds hardcore and sad cheating country songs sound sad — but a murder ballad in bluegrass sounds like a happy song if you didn’t know what the lyrics were.” 
Happy Prisoner is Keen’s first all-bluegrass album. Released Feb. 10, it includes an A-list of performers: Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan, Natalie Maines, Sara Watkins and Danny Barnes. Keen combed through hundreds of songs to choose the disc’s 14 tracks. Standouts include Keen’s by way of Del McCoury take of Richard Thompson’s “52 Vincent Black Lightning” and a gorgeous duet with Maines on the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger.”
“Wasn’t that cool?” said Keen of pairing with the Dixie Chicks’ singer — also the daughter of producer Lloyd Maines. “Even though you know that Natalie is a great singer, you forget it until you hear her. It’s hard to find somebody that is even close to that good; she’s incredible.” 
One that didn’t make the cut was “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” the old Louvin Brothers song. 
“We messed around with it for a quite a while … but I could not make that one happen,” Keen said. 
Hot Rize’s “99 Years For One Dark Day” was in, out and back in again after Rowan stopped by the studio and offered to sing on it. 
“He popped up out of nowhere … that was definitely not going to be left out.”
The idea for Happy Prisoner percolated in Keen’s mind for years, then kicked into gear when Watkins and Barnes showed interest; the two are on every track. 
“When I first thought of the project, I called Lloyd because he is one of my favorite guys and I wanted to defer to him and see if he felt comfortable doing a bluegrass record. He’s done a lot of stuff but not that,” said Keen. “Once he was on board we got Sara and Danny and worked out time [so] we could all get in the studio together. That was the moment when I realized it was all happening.”
Now, he’s taking the new record on the road, backed by his longtime band of Rich Brotherton and Marty Muse on guitar and steel, bass player Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik. Watkins and Barnes have returned to their busy schedules, so Austin fiddler Noah Jeffries and banjo player Wes Corbett will take their place on tour. 
Corbett is based in Boston and teaches at Berklee. At the time of the interview, he and Keen had yet to meet face to face. 
“Flying by the seat of your pants,” said Keen with a laugh. “Believe it or not, it’s hard to find a banjo player that will even admit that they might be able to do something Danny Barnes can do, so I went through a lot of them.”
The upcoming show in Plymouth will draw from the new album and whatever high lonesome chemistry finds its way to the stage, Keen said. 
“What you’re going to see is us putting it together right there in front of your eyes.  So let’s say, not only is it a performance, it’s performance art.” 
As seen in the February 12, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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