Robert Earl Keen was in New York earlier this month to celebrate the Feb. 10 release of his Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions album with a show at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, which followed one the previous night at Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom. They were the second and third shows of the album’s material, which covers such classic bluegrass fare as Flatt & Scruggs’ “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” the Carter Family’s “East Virginia Blues,” Bill Monroe’s “Footprints in the Snow” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas,” along with more recent songs as Richard Thompson’s “52 Vincent Black Lightning,” which Keen learned from Del McCoury’s version, and Peter Rowan’s “Walls of Time.” As he noted, he also served up a healthy portion of the Texas singer-songwriter “stuff” for which he is justly celebrated, if not household-name famous.
As ever, he was backed by his ace longtime touring band of guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck, drummer Tom Van Schaik and steel player Marty Muse, this time out joined by Brian Beken on fiddle and Wes Corbett on banjo. And in keeping with bluegrass tradition, all wore suits and ties, with Keen and Whitbeck wearing hats and Muse a cap. And of course, it was entirely an acoustic performance, with Whitbeck having learned upright bass specially for these shows. About the only thing not traditional was the drums, with Van Schaik playing a floor tom with brushes, mallets and a kick pedal, and what looked like a banged up rectangular cookie sheet cymbal.
Keen spoke about the concert and the album after the show:
What about, as you called it, “the bluegrass drums”?
I’m a bluegrass purist. I know I might get some backlash along the way for having drums, but I don’t really care. I’ve been playing so long with my band, and didn’t want to tell Tom to stay home. Besides, he’s on the record, and we’re a touring band.
If not the best, surely one of the best bands on the road.
I’m always talking about the level of musicianship I’m surrounded by. But to me it’s such an under-the-radar band. And for any other artist who had some big name recognition, this would be high-level, press-oriented stuff: Like if we were a famous ballet troupe who decided to do a tap dance routine. Certainly from what I read in the music magazines, it’s press-worthy.
Without question. And Robert Earl Keen is surely a big enough name for anyone who’s ever heard a packed venue chanting it! But your bluegrass performances seem so seamless a segue from your usual high-energy shows, even if these are acoustic.
I had to completely change the way I play, and the instruments and style. We have a great band, but it took a bit of Robert Earl Keen switching gears. But I didn’t really have a plan going in. I just wanted to make a bluegrass album, and make everything around it work.
It was always something you wanted to do?
I always had it in my mind to do this stuff, yeah. I really started out playing, not necessarily bluegrass, but I learned guitar by playing behind contest fiddle players. It’s truly a niche sort of music, and you play a certain style of guitar behind contest fiddle players–and I didn’t really sing.
But the goal was to become a singer-songwriter.
I wasn’t learning guitar to sing with myself, but because I got interested in this music. A fiddle player showed me how to play guitar, and I played behind him and out in the parking lot, where a lot of bluegrass players would gather after shows or during festivals.
But you were always a fan.
I was always a fan but never played it. It’s like soccer: People always hate soccer until they play or their kids get involved, and then they love it.
It’s great how you got Peter Rowan on the record.
It was a $100 accident! It just happened that Peter showed up. He knew the owner of the studio and was standing in the parking lot, and I told him to come in and he picked up a guitar and strummed and told a story of how he wrote “Walls of Time” and I asked if we could get it on tape and he said sure, and told that story.
It sounds like an old-time radio transcription–and you put it in the show!
I’m taking it from a lot of times that I listened to public radio stuff, like a bluegrass hour, where they’d talk about something and then launch into a song. Then I thought, Why not put it in the show?
You had a great quote from Harlan Howard during the show.
“I love your little yuck-yuck, pluck-pluck country show.”
What’s that about?
You know how great he was! He literally held court: A songwriter who talked about songwriting endlessly and in great detail and depth, comparison and contrast. The whole thing. He was one of the few who really sat there and gave you a master class in songwriting.
Did you ever try and write with him?
He said, “You need to come write a song with me,” and I called him every week for a year! And finally someone went to lunch and he picked up the phone and I said, “Harlan! Remember?” And he said, “I love your yuck-yuck, pluck-pluck country show, but at this point in my life I can’t risk writing a bad song—because it would stick with me.”
The man who wrote “I Fall to Pieces”?
What he said was true, but at the time I was like, “S**t.”
So how did you come up with the songs for Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions?
I made a list of 100 bluegrass songs I really liked and pared them down to 30, and we recorded 28, and the ones left off, some of them were really good: There’s an incredible version of [Bill Monroe’s] “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” that’s really fast and with there-part harmony and great playing. I wanted the album to have great playing, but I wanted to have depth and nuance that bluegrass needs to be. There are really great melodic things going on, but also great things lyrically, and I thought in terms of a hundred years’ worth of music, so it does all kinds of things–not just start with a Lester Flatt [bluegrass acoustic guitar] “G run” and then whoever gets to the end first wins. There are some great, great pieces.
There are indeed, and they vary.
There’s a full-blown straight version of “East Virginia Blues” and then we jam up on “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” and then we add “Twisted Laurel,” which hardly anyone knows, which the Red Clay Ramblers play. Take the music away from it and on paper it reads like a Robert Frost poem, with an all encompassing overview of the bluegrass world—where it comes from. I wanted those things to be in there, too, so people would know them.
You’ve even got the guys in bluegrass suits and ties! And the two new players…
Brian Beken is in MilkDrive, an Austin band. He’s a contest player. We used Danny Barnes on the record, but he was busy with Yonder Mountain String Band. I was really throwing Hail Marys on that one, to find a banjo player who could come even close to Danny, and found Wes Corbett, who’s part of the acoustic scene in Boston. The Bowery Ballroom show was his second one with us, but he stepped up and knew the stuff and did really well.
So will you be sticking with the bluegrass band format for a while now?
We’ve got a lot of dates, but it’s a process. I had to get into this to see if it really worked, and had been holding off [on bookings]. But now they’re filling in, and we’re doing more than half a year in this configuration. Because of needing the extra players, I’ve taken more care in filling out the tour schedule and making sure we’re all on board.
Sounds like a lot of work!
It took a lot of mental time trying to figure it out–and I tend to grind on things. But that’s my own problem! I worry about it—making sure it works. In December and January I was trying to figure it out, and held off on really pulling the trigger on a bunch of dates for the rest of the year.
It’s hard to imagine why.
I didn’t even know what it really sounded like from the stage!
You needn’t have worried. And what’s this about your beer brand that you mentioned?
Robert Earl Keen Honey Pils, from Pedernales Brewing Company. It came out of a conversation: They said, “We ought to make a craft beer with your name on it,” and it’s in the mega H-E-B grocery store chain in Texas. It’s a golden pilsener beer, and fortunately I truly like it.
You still have the Bloody Mary mix?
REK Yardbird Bloody Mary Mix! It’s based on the Christmas song [Keen’s classic “Merry Christmas from the Family”] and sells in grocery stores. We push it around Christmas time, but basically, it works better as a brisket rub!
Any other REK news?
I’m keeping my hand in the music business. I signed a no-money deal with a publishing company in Nashville, and I’ve been writing real country songs with real country songwriters like Liz Rose, who works with Taylor Swift, and Leslie Satcher, who’s written for George Strait, and Donny Lowery. Real songwriters. I’m out there working on this whole songwriting thing, and having been an outlier for so long, it’s nice to actually hear a song I wrote that’s commercial. I’ve been a long time in country music, and I like to be front and center for about 10 seconds!
It really has been a long time.
They skipped my generation. Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam. Clint Black is doing private parties!
And you’re playing bluegrass!
It’s communal. There’s a—for lack of a better word—spiritual connection in playing bluegrass with people in a small circle, comparable to doing theater. It’s a great bonding experience.
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