15. Robert Earl Keen, 'Happy Prisoner (The Bluegrass Sessions)'
Texas-country mainstay Robert Earl Keen reached across the roots-music aisle in February for a bluegrass-covers album, and the result was an interesting change of pace for fans of both. Keen's title says a lot about how he approached the project, and it's the perfect name. Not only is he having fun within the structural confines of bluegrass, he just can't sound sad — even on the darkest of murder ballads. Take "99 Years for One Dark Day," for example: The guy is locked up for killing his wife and has no hope for release from his personal hell, but Keen sings it like he just won the lottery. Similarly, the devastating no-win-situation in "Long Black Veil" sounds downright uplifting. Natalie Maines, Lyle Lovett and Peter Rowan offer guest vocals, and Keen's band is in fine form despite the unusual material, making the whole thing a weird, fun take on bluegrass that does justice to the tradition without being too serious. C.P.