Monday, February 9, 2015

CD REVIEW - Robert Earl Keen - HAPPY PRISONER, The Bluegrass Sessions!

Image635587453910335219     God bless Robert Earl Keen for restoring my faith in artistic integrity!  This is a dooooozy of a CD, and it’s as real as dirt under your fingernails. It’s bluegrass, it’s old timey, it’s honest, straight from the heart, Mother Earth music and Robert Earl has done the world a favor recording this tribute to the music he loves and grew up listening to.

    Robert Earl Keen had come to Durango, CO. a while back for two nights of concerts, which were both sold out, and I managed to be out of town and miss ‘em both!  Friends had informed me that he had also been interviewed on KSUT, the local PBS station, and had mentioned he had a bluegrass CD coming out soon.  I couldn’t help myself, my first thought was: “Just what we need, another country/pop/rock/reality star going BLUEGRASS to try to make some money.”  Call me a grumpy old pessimist, but that’s exactly what has been happening….  Janie Fricke going “bluegrass” was nothing more that her old country hits re-done with some acoustic instruments added. Her intent was like a neon sign….. Let’s call it “bluegrass” and cash in! I passed on reviewing it.  And Dolly…. she had a grand total of four bluegrass tunes on her last CD, and immediately the bluegrass media was called to help promote her “bluegrass” CD. I passed on Dolly, too.  Needless to say, I wasn’t sure what to make of Mr. Keen’s new bluegrass CD when it arrived….. fool me once and all that old curmudgeonly crap! As a fan of Mr. Keen’s music, I knew that I had to give ol’ Robert a listen, and maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t get fooled again. Well, I guess the third time was THE charm!!!

    This was no haphazard attempt, whipped out and sent off to Dualtone Records. With fourteen songs, all of which are recognizable hits in their own right, REK has dipped into the well of fine traditional music and poured us all a long, tall drink of American musical history. Robert Earl’s duet with Lyle Lovett, on the Jimmie Rogers tune “T for Texas,” Natalie Maines, singing harmony on “Wayfaring Stranger, and Mr. Peter Rowan, adding his touch to “99 Years For One Dark Day,” are three vocal highlights that are absolutely spot on. Three and four part harmony abounds all over this release and not only do they strengthen the CD, they add a touch of classic old time gospel type singing to the proceedings.  REK has a voice that sometimes can be coarse, raspy and more than a little haggard (no… not Merle Haggard!) sounding, but, he’s always made his natural singing voice an asset to his trade mark sound. You always know its Robert Earl the minute he opens his mouth.

     Produced by THE inimitable Lloyd Maines, of Dixie Chicks fame, and Father of Natalie Maines, at The Zone Recording Studio, Dripping Springs, Texas and engineered by Pat Manske, Lloyd and Robert Earl, the technical side of recording this CD couldn’t have been any better. The joyous feel, the enthusiasm of the picker’s and the excitement they created playing off one another comes right through the speakers on each and every song. Catching the “VIBE,” in the studio can be the hardest job the Producer has, and Lloyd caught it and kept it all the way through these recordings. Good job Mr. Maines!

     Peter Rowan does a recitation and sings a bit of the song he wrote with Bill Monroe, “Walls of Time,” and, to me, it was a special moment. Hearing how the song came about, where it came about and the spontaneity of the moment it came to life adds to my delight in this CD. It was a brilliant touch added to this version of “Walls of Time.” I was lucky enough to see Peter Rowan in Flagstaff, AZ last fall, and he burned the stage down! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when he was in the studio with REK singing his harmony on the afore mentioned “99 Years for One Dark Day.” The other Bill Monroe song covered here is “Footprints in the Snow,” and it is the first single to be released for airplay. If it doesn’t go right to the top of the charts, I’ll be very surprised. It is, to put it bluntly, dy-no-mite!

    I’ve tried to pick my one favorite song, and I’ve just decided it’s impossible….   Every song is known and loved by bluegrass fans all over the world, and the list of song-writers is a who’s who of the best composers in country, Image635587462058951293bluegrass and traditional music. One exception would be Robert Thompson, English rocker/composer and former member of Fairport Convention, but, his song “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” already a known bluegrass hit by Del McCoury, fits into this mix perfectly.  This could be my favorite, with a line like “Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme,” what’s NOT to like about this song? Then again, the CD kickoff song, “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” by Flatt, Scruggs and Ackerman grabbed me by the ears the second I heard it blast out of my speakers! Too many choices!!!

    One of the reasons this music comes off so well is because REK uses his long time backing band, plus some wonderful talent that I am going to have to become more familiar with. Sara Watkins, of Nickel Creek fame, plays some great fiddle on these sessions, and so does Dennis Ludiker.  The problem is, it doesn’t say in the liner notes who played on which song. However, the fiddle tracks were so good that both players have become co-members, in the #5 slot, of my “Five Favorite Fiddle Players Club”. They are every bit as good as Byron Berline, Jason Carter, Deanie Richardson and Becky Buller….. In my humble opinion.  The fiddlin’ was hot, dynamic and plaintive. Whatever the song called for, these two added just the right feel and color.

    Another nice touch in the violin/fiddle department is the appearance of Chloe Keen, Robert’s daughter, playing the ensemble violins on “Wayfarin’ Stranger.” Nepotism may, or may NOT, have opened the door for her, but, listen close and you can tell she earned her way onto the liner notes. Making it a family affair just adds more of a personal feel to the results, and I’ll bet REK is proud as punch.

    Kym Warner, of the Greencards, is one very fine mandolin player. He’s from Australia, and he plays with a very powerful rock and roll attitude on the fast songs, but, give a listen to what he does on the lovely ballad “Twisted Laurel,” by Tommy Thompson, and you’ll hear heart, soul and a sweetness that is tender and touching. From what I understand, he is now from the Austin area, and being part of the hired guns brought in for this recording should do a lot to further his name recognition. I know I’ll be looking for his name on CD’s I receive and I’m going to have to become way more familiar with the Greencards. Kym was a definite asset to “Happy Prisoner, The Bluegrass Sessions.”

    Danny Barnes plays banjo and “Chet” style guitar throughout the recording. His “Chet” intro to “This World Is Not My Own,” and his solo would make “Chet” proud. I love it!  Danny is as versatile a banjo player as I’ve heard in a while. From hot pickin’, on “Old Home Place,” by Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne, and “Footprints in the Snow,” to a very mellow sound on “Twisted Laurel,” Danny adds the spice. It also seems to me that Danny is playing just as much claw-hammer style, as on “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” as he does a Scruggs, three finger mode. Not being a banjo player myself, it’s always hard for me to tell with exactness just what the banjo is doing each and every time.  All I know is that I like this banjo player a LOT, and he adds plenty of flavor to the overall texture of this release.

    Bill Whitbeck, on upright bass and bass percussion, and Tom Van Schaik on percussion, hold down the rhythm section, and while a full drum set isn’t used, there are plenty of percussive sounds and affects folded into the songs. There is a hand clappin’, foot stompin’ good time going on underneath all the singin’ and playin’, and, again, I’m not sure what all was recorded during the sessions, but the down home, jump in and enjoy yourself action is non-stop. That front porch appeal is genuinely added in spades. It sounds like a bass drum and a trash can lid being used on "Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” but, it works great. Kudos to these guys for coming up with ear catching ideas!

    Mr. Whitbeck does his best “dog-house” bass on “T for Texas,” and his short cameo during the intro makes this song happen. Slappin’ that “dog-house” bass is an art form to me, and when it works this well, it’s indispensable to the success of the song. Bill’s bass playing on “Wayfaring Stranger” also propelled that arrangement mightily.  Marty Muse also makes an appearance on dobro on “T for Texas,”, and being the fan I am of steel guitar and dobro, I would have loved to have heard more of his playing. From REK’s web site I learned that Marty has been with him on the road for the last ten years. In watching some older videos of REK and the band in action, Marty is a monster steel and dobro player!

    Also appearing is Rich Brotherton, on guitar, mandolin and cittern. I’d like to have said more about his playing, but, it wasn’t noted when and where he, or Danny, were playing. I can only assume that when Danny was playing banjo, Rich was covering the lead and rhythm guitar parts, which were excellent on every tune. Rich, Danny, Tom and Bill also added their harmony vocals to REK’s lead vocals, and the harmonies are casual, yet right on the money. I don’t know which one sang the harmony on “Long Black Veil,” by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, but, he sang it all the way through the verses and the chorus’, and helped make for a distinct, one of a kind arrangement of one of my favorite songs. Bill Whitbeck on bass, Tom Van Schaik on drums, Marty Muse on dobro and steel and Rich Brotherton on guitar and mandolin are all  part of REK’s road band, and it sure seems like everyone knew exactly what REK wanted, because they all delivered. These four road dogs, plus Brian Beken on fiddle and Wes Corbett on banjo will be starting 2015 off with REK on an East Coast road trip to push this new bluegrass CD. Look out New York City!

    The more I listen, the unhappier I am at not having seen them when they were in Durango….. It would have answered a lot of my questions. Luckily, Lori Kampa, of Dualtone Records, was there to help when it came to questions that popped up during my research. She did more than her due diligence to dig out all the little details I needed, and she is most appreciated by Prescription Bluegrass. Thank you Lori!

    I took a different approach with this release…… usually I go through the song list and discuss what does and doesn’t work, and why. I’m much pickier about original songs, but here, it was an entire album of standards and classics that I loved. The song list couldn’t have been more wisely thought out, so, I saw no need for me to chime in on their selections. On this CD, there was such a communal, family and friends feel that it seemed to ooze out of the recordings. There was a closeness among the players toward the songs and Mr. Keen’s vision that was so evident from the very first song.  I felt the players were just as invested, emotionally and musically, as Robert Earl was, and it wouldn’t have sounded this good if this specific crew of musicians hadn’t been utilized.  I really felt the picker’s needed to be thanked for their dedication and hard work on this project.

    Do I like this CD? You bet! And I’ll be listening to it for a long time to come. The release date to stores is (TODAY)  February 10th, 2015, so, get your copy ASAP. If Robert Earl Keen doesn’t win some BLUEGRASS awards next fall, there is no justice in this world!


  1. Not only do I own the cd I had the opportunity to see REK and his band preform songs from Happy Prisoner for the first time at the Ardmore Music Hall in PA last weekend 2/8/15 what an awesome live performance. Don not miss REK and his band when they come to town......great stuff


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