“Do I look too relaxed here?” asks Robert Earl Keen, sinking deep into a chair in a leather bomber jacket, his pink and purple striped socks peeking out as he kicks his feet up on the coffee table and rests them next to his hat. “Because I’m really sliding.”
If he appears comfortable, it’s probably because he is — here, in the office of his new label, Dualtone Records, where he just finished a meeting over takeout pizza (“You sure you don’t want a slice?” he insists) and here in Nashville, where he’s been coming to co-write with various Music Row pros. He’s also pretty cozy in his new role as bluegrass interpreter with February’s Happy Prisoner, his album of covers from across the genre, which took the master Texan songwriter back to his childhood roots of Flatt, Scruggs and honing his chops alongside contest fiddlers, furiously sweating to keep in time. It also helped him recall the trappings of teenage romance.
“I went on my first date — stupid, stupid, stupid — to a bluegrass festival,” he says in a voice that sounds a little bit like the Dude from The Big Lebowski, if he were a literature professor at Oberlin. “I had just gotten my driver’s license and I took this girl from down the street that I really liked. But I think she was a little baffled by the whole thing — she liked pop music, and this was in pretty deep Texas. Pretty hillbilly, pretty weird.” They kept in touch for a while after that, but it was the music he couldn’t shake.
Keen — who is often mentioned in the same breath as fellow Lone Star folk-country deities Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle — actually was weaned on bluegrass, even beyond that one misguided outing where he thought a mandolin jam might make a nice adolescent aphrodisiac. Happy Prisoner charts the music that he played on the front porch while at Texas A&M, picking alongside speedy takes on Bill Monroe and the Carter Family. Keen insists you can hear hints of Appalachia all across his creations.
“I have a real soft spot for a murder ballad,” he says, his brows rising. “And some of my songs are not the most upbeat things, lyrically. I think the head count on A Bigger Piece of Sky was about 38 people. I like the drama of knocking off a few people in your songs. And it really locked me into my guitar style. I can almost never strum a guitar like ‘zing-zing-zing.’ I have to do an alternating bass thing, and that came from bluegrass.”
That pattern of play suited him well: As he told stories of the renegade life, the outsider and the outlaw, those instincts to slap the strings with the restlessness of a lost mountain soul proved fruitful in driving his “cinematic” landscapes, as he describes them. And then there’s “The Road Goes on Forever,” which has become a veritable Texas anthem that commits more crimes than the Louvin Brothers on “Knoxville Girl” and Jimmie Rodgers on “Frankie and Johnny” combined. As the years went by, Keen became known more and more for that imaginative, often dark lyrical hand and skewered take on the Americana crown. But at the end of the day, it was bluegrass that made up the bulk of what he listened to in his spare time.
But it’s always a special kind of risk when an artist lauded for their songwriting — Keen was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 — decides to put out a record of covers. There’s that usual line of questioning: Mr. Keen, have you run out of songs?
“I was worried people would immediately [ask that],” he says, recalling a story where a reporter back in Austin demanded to know that very thing. “But I’ve also gotten to this age and place in my career where I really don’t give a shit.”
Keen had wanted to make this record for years, and finally, one morning in June a few summers back, he decided to call producer Lloyd Maines and go for it (Maines had produced Keen’s last album, Ready for Confetti, in 2011). They booked studio time and rounded up the band. As for giving a shit: Well, that’s never exactly been Keen’s thing.
He certainly wasn’t worried about catering to the “grassholes” or bluegrass purists when he started to put together Happy Prisoner, but he did want to show the breadth of a genre to people who mistakenly think it’s all about one specific sound. Or to those who think bluegrass is something akin to Mumford & Sons. There’s Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe on the LP, sure, but there’s also contemporary songs like Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” all picked to show a dynamic spectrum that isn’t often given a spotlight.
“I wanted to show the nuance in bluegrass. It’s not just all in G, playing as fast as you can,” Keen says, motioning his hand up and down as if he were quick strumming the guitar. “And I also wanted people to hear how cool bluegrass music is. I didn’t want to be the torchbearer for it because I’ve never thought of myself as a great singer, certainly not a bluegrass singer, but I really did want to have some kind of rebirth and put it out there so people would go, ‘Yeah, this is great music.'”
And the songs do ooze cool. The gravely depths of Keen’s voice takes them out of traditional high-pitch howl into something halfway between Tom Waits and those Texas A&M porch sessions with good pal Lyle Lovett (who guests on the album). It’s bluegrass, for sure, but more fun and less staid than most modern tributes to the genre, which can get caught up in ideas of purity or rule-abiding rather than taking its rich historical bones and making something that sounds fresh and current.
A lot of it is owed to Keen’s vocals, which never once try to emulate that traditional Appalachian yodel. They’re just as raw and loose as always, delivered as if he’s casually firing out the songs in his Hill Country living room with a bunch of pals who happen to be expert pickers. Not having written any of the tracks, Keen found himself with a renewed freedom to focus more on instrumentation and less on punching out a particular lyric — though it also gave him a little bit more of an impetus to worry about whether or not he was actually singing them properly.
“One time I fell in love with this Charlie Rich song, ‘There Won’t Be Anymore,'” he says, straightening up in the chair a bit and replacing his hat. “And I was determined to sing it. I put it in every key I could and I just couldn’t sing it. I would love to be able to, but I just sounded like shit. So there was that thought, that no matter what I did, I would be able to sing these songs.”
Keen realized the best approach was to just sing as he sings anything — and bring in a little help from Maines’ daughter, Natalie, who was a diehard bluegrass fan long before her Dixie Chicks days. She offers vocals to the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger,” as does Lovett on “T for Texas,” which was once covered by their old buddy Townes. Their version, unlike Van Zandt’s, which rang like a bittersweet ode, is a celebration. In fact, that’s the driving thread of the record — the pursuit of clever interpretation rather than purely aping what’s been done before.
As much as Happy Prisoner may have been a surprise, Keen’s been working on something that’s even more shocking: He’s putting in hours on Music Row in co-writing sessions, looking not for the next big piece of poetry but the next big Billboard topper. “I would just like to have a hit,” he admits. “I feel like one of the things I had not accomplished, which I didn’t always feel was very important, was that. So I started coming here last October, and I didn’t realize [co-writes] are so fun. I’ve written with a lot of shitty writers that didn’t have any good ideas, but my friend Bobby sets me up with people who really know how to write and play.”
Bobby is Bobby Rymer, who owns the Writer’s Den Music Group, and whose roster is responsible for hits recorded by Reba McEntire and Alan Jackson. Keen wouldn’t mind banking one or two himself — he’s always been outside that particular steely gate of mainstream country music, which, until now, felt like its own kind of prison. That might be a strange concept for his diehard fans, but he’s not blinking.
“Nobody has ever told me what to do,” he shrugs, drawing his feet back onto the floor as those pink and purple socks disappear. “But I don’t think anybody has ever thought of me as someone you can mold very well. I don’t know,” he adds, smiling, “maybe I just look that way.”