The Austin Chronicle

Happy Prisoner Record Review

By Kevin Curtin, January 30, 2015, Music

Robert Earl Keen

Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions (Dualtone)

Crossover albums often become specious affairs. Remember Willie Nelson's reggae effort, Countryman? So when Robert Earl Keen, a West Texas Dylan, steps into the pickin' circle, he risks desecrating the American songbook. Instead, on Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, he finds glory. Nailing bluegrass mega-standards "Footprints in the Snow," originally tracked by Ernest Branch & the West Virginia Ramblers, and Dillards staple "Old Home Place" with the pace and sincerity that mountain music requires, he and his decades-together crew then fish from a different pond with an inspiring cover of Brit folkie Richard Thompson's "52 Vincent Black Lightning," previously bluegrassified by Del McCoury. Old and in the Way-er Peter Rowan colorizes his Bill Monroe cowrite "Walls of Time" by dishing on its genesis with a spoken intro before Keen tries his husky voice at the high, lonesome melody. Keen's accomplishment of a legit bluegrass collection can be attributed less to his knowledge of the genre and more to his ability to feel it. Hillbilly music remains a team sport and the Texan chops alongside excellent pickers including Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins, sprightly local mandolinist Kym Warner, and former Austin banjo maestro Danny Barnes. Additional help comes from college buddy Lyle Lovett on go-to yodel tune "T for Texas" and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, whose father Lloyd produces, singing on eternal minor dirge "Wayfaring Stranger." Unlike Dee Dee Ramone's rap travesty, REK's Happy Prisoner takes none in conquering new (old) realms.


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