All roads start somewhere — even roads that go on forever.
For Robert Earl Keen, that origin point is bluegrass music. He grew up with the stuff, listening to singers like Jimmie Rodgers and flatpickers like Norman Blake during his early years in southeast Texas. Years later, when he launched his songwriting career and became one of Texas’ most popular exports, bluegrass served as a sort of hidden influence, lurking in the background of a sound that always seemed to owe more to the Lone Star State than Kentucky.
Keen pushes those roots into the spotlight with his newest record, Happy Prisoner. Filled with songs originally recorded by bluegrass icons like Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs and Hot Rize, the album is a tribute to the music of his youth, shot through with plenty of fretwork firepower from his longtime backing band and cameos by A-list duet partners like Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan and Natalie Maines.
Maines — whose father, Lloyd Maines, produced Happy Prisoner in Dripping Springs, Texas, less than a five minute drive from the ranch that housed Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic in the early Seventies — lends her vocal harmonies to “Wayfaring Stranger.” The song acts as a showcase not only for the Dixie Chicks’ singer, who tackles her parts with the same steely, ballsy confidence that steered her own group during the career-threatening fallout from her criticism of President Bush in 2003, but also guest instrumentalists like banjo picker Danny Barnes and fiddler Sara Watkins. The result is a tune that’s alternately lonely and lush, with a stripped-down intro that eventually gives way to something bigger. [Listen to the song below.]
Happy Prisoner hits stores on February 10th, with “Wayfaring Stranger” closing out the 15-song tracklist. He hits the road later this month, starting — where else? — in southeast Texas.