Personnel: Robert Earl Keen (vocals, acoustic guitar, tenor guitar, mandolin); Rich Brotherton (guitar, acoustic guitar, cittern, mandolin); Danny Barnes (acoustic guitar, banjo); Marty Muse (dobro); Kym Warner (mandolin); Sara Watkins , Dennis Ludiker (fiddle); Bill Whitbeck (upright bass, percussion); Tom Van Schaik (percussion).
Audio Mixers: Pat Manske; Lloyd Maines; Robert Earl Keen.
Liner Note Author: Robert Earl Keen.
Recording information: Ace Studio; The Zone Recording Studio, Dripping Springs, TX.
Photographer: Darren Carroll.
Robert Earl Keen has been playing the Texas singer/songwriter circuit for over three decades, and as a guy who often favors the acoustic side of the country and Americana music scenes, it's no kind of surprise that he's crossed paths with the bluegrass music community, and it certainly makes sense that he's a fan. What is a bit of a surprise is not that Keen has decided to cut a bluegrass album, but that the respected tunesmith has chosen to make it a collection of covers rather than writing a new set of songs. Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions finds Keen and a crew of top-notch pickers (including Danny Barnes, former leader of bluegrass iconoclasts the Bad Livers) whooping it up on a set of tunes that have become bluegrass standards; this isn't always bluegrass for purists (which is to say there are drums on a few tracks and the version of "Hot Corn, Cold Corn" takes serious liberties with the traditional arrangement), but the fiddles, banjos, and mandolins keep this rooted within the accepted boundaries of the genre, and the players certainly do right by the songs. Just as importantly, Keen sings these numbers with a genuine enthusiasm and a dash of swagger that suit his Lone Star attitude, with a small but meaningful helping of twang (though he dials back the strutting for pathos on numbers like "East Virginia Blues" and "Long Black Veil"). Lloyd Maines, who has worked with Keen many times over the years, produced and engineered Happy Prisoner, and he brings a warm, natural sound to these sessions, which sound like a bunch of pickers circled around a mike in the best of all possible ways. Some fans of Keen's songwriting might lament the lack of new material on Happy Prisoner, but as a performer he's in great shape here, and he makes the most of his duet spots with Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines. In his liner notes, Keen writes, "When I listen to music I want the sound to wash over me like a wave," and at its strongest, Happy Prisoner does just that, and it's a worthwhile detour for one of Texas's best songwriters. ~ Mark Deming