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Robert Earl Keen Delves Into Bluegrass With A Texan Twang


This is FRESH AIR. Robert Earl Keen is best known as a Texas-based singer-songwriter in the story-song tradition of Texas forbearers Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. His new album, "Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions," is a departure, a collection of bluegrass tunes, including some standards.


ROBERT EARL KEEN: (Singing) Well, some folks like the summertime when they can walk about. Strollin' through the meadow green, it's pleasant, there's no doubt. Just give me the wintertime, the snow is on the ground, for I found her when the snow was on the ground.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: There are times when a musician steps back from what he or she usually does to try something different. This artistic gesture can have different motives. It can be an attempt to shake off long-standing habits, or to take a trip down memory lane or expose a side of the artist that an audience doesn't know about. All of these reasons would seem to figure into Robert Earl Keen's new collection, "Happy Prisoner," in which Keen is a happy prisoner to the formal constraints imposed by bluegrass precision.


KEEN: (Singing) In the deep rolling hills of old Virginia, there's a place I love so well, where I spent many days of my childhood in a cabin where we loved to dwell. White dove will mourn in sorrow. The willows will hang their heads. I live my life in sorrow since Mother and Daddy are dead.

TUCKER: There are a lot of songs on "Happy Prisoner" that anyone with an even glancing knowledge of bluegrass will recognize, such as the song I just played, The Stanley Brothers' "White Dove." It's a song about the death of parents. And Robert Earl Keen doesn't by any means ruin the song by singing it with such obvious joy. Indeed, that's one of the things that immediately distinguishes Keen's bluegrass from many other recordings in this genre. He brings the enthusiastic curiosity of a visitor to this music. He doesn't try to hide his Texas twang, and he introduces different songs to the bluegrass treatment, such as this version of the British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson's song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."


KEEN: (Singing) Said Red Molly to James, that's a fine motorbike. A girl could feel special on any such like. Said James to Red Molly, my hat's off to you. That's a Vincent Black Lightning 1952. And I've seen you at the corners and cafes it seems. Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme. And he pulled her on behind, and down to Box Hill they did ride.

TUCKER: That's Robert Earl Keen singing Richard Thompson's ode to a motorcycle. Keen can't quite leave his roots behind him entirely. Here, he enlists his fellow Texan Lyle Lovett to sing a bluesy, jazzy and, yes, bluegrassy version of the Jimmie Rodgers country song "T For Texas."


KEEN: (Singing) T for Texas. T for Tennessee.

LYLE LOVETT: (Singing) T for Texas. T for Tennessee.

KEEN: (Singing) T for Thelma.

LOVETT: (Singing) That gal that made a wreck out of me.

KEEN: (Singing) If you don't want me, Mama, you sure don't have to stall, no, no. If you don't want me, Mama, you sure don't have to stall 'cause I can get more women than a passenger train can haul.

TUCKER: Keen covers "Walls Of Time" with Peter Rowan, another geographical outlier - born in Boston, but a bluegrass convert who wrote this song while performing with Bill Monroe, the king of bluegrass music. Keen and Rowan harmonized eloquently on "Walls Of Time."


KEEN: (Singing) The wind is blowing across the mountains. And down on the valley way below.

KEEN AND ROWAN: (Singing in unison) It sweeps the grave of my darling. When I die that's where I want to go. Lord, send the angels...

TUCKER: Truth be told, I've never had much use for Keen's own songwriting, which partakes too handily of outlaw loner tropes that I find both exhausted and exhausting. But he's got a good voice for bluegrass and clearly has a firm grasp on the way the best of this music is at once high-spirited and rigorously controlled. You can hear it in this lovely duet with Natalie Maines of the once and future Dixie Chicks on the old song "Wayfaring Stranger."


KEEN: (Singing) I am a poor wayfaring stranger traveling through this world of woe. There is no sickness, toil or danger in that bright world to which I go.

KEEN AND MAINES: (Singing in unison) I'm going there to see my father. I'm going there no more to roam. I'm only going over Jordan. I'm only going over home.

TUCKER: It's likely that "Happy Prisoner" is a one-time only stop in this genre of music for Robert Earl Keen. But it was a detour well worth taking. His version of bluegrass reminds us that this music retains an invaluable urgency.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Yahoo TV. He reviewed Robert Earl Keen's new album "Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions." Tomorrow on our show, we talk with Larry Wilmore who hosts the new program "The Nightly Show," which follows "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Wilmore used to be "The Daily Show's" senior black correspondent. Last month, he started the first edition of "The Nightly Show" like this.


LARRY WILMORE: Tonightly, the Oscar nominations are out, and they're so white a grand jury has decided not to indict them.


GROSS: So join us tomorrow for Larry Wilmore, and don't forget that you can listen to our show as a podcast, which you'll find on iTunes or your mobile phone app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.