Robert Earl Keen is doing things a little differently on his next album. Namely, he’s trading red dirt for bluegrass, and you won’t see the master storyteller’s name on the songwriting credits. Keen’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, set for release in February 2015 via Dualtone Records, will include his take on favorite traditional songs from the genre, written by the likes of Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, among other bluegrass legends.
“My wife and my family used to wear these crazy pajamas that had horizontal stripes, and we called them the ‘happy prisoners,'” Keen tells the Nashville Scene. “I was working on this title, and thinking, ‘I want something that is unique and sounds original.’ But at the same time, I wanted something that reflected how I feel about bluegrass. I’ve been listening to it forever, I love it, and I feel I’m somewhat locked into it. Even my own songs sometimes are formatted — not instrument-wise, but verse-chorus-wise, like that. So I feel like I’m necessarily a happy prisoner of bluegrass.”
Happy Prisoner was produced by Lloyd Maines, who was also at the helm of the Texas country icon’s 2011 LP, Ready for Confetti. Maines’ daughter Natalie (of Dixie Chicks fame) lends her vocals to a track, as do Lyle Lovett and Peter Rowan. Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins joins on fiddle and Danny Barnes is on banjo, along with several other guest musicians and the singer’s road band. For Keen, this project has been a long time coming.
“I went in with a great deal of apprehension from always loving bluegrass but never being a true bluegrass player,” he tells the Amarillo Globe-News of starting the album late last year. “My desire, my passion sort of overrode my fear.”