By Greg Tutwiler
Texas singer-songwriter, Robert Earl Keen began his professional recording career in 1984 with his debut album, No Kinda Dancer. Since then, he has recorded 18 full-length albums and written songs that have been covered by vaious artists from the country, folk and Texas country music scenes including George Strait, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, and the Dixie Chicks, just to name a few.
Although Keen is today most commonly considered an Americana artist, his roots are in bluegrass music. In his early days, Keen played and sang bluegrass music with a four-piece band of fellow Texas A&M Aggies, calling themselves the Front Porch Boys. “I always felt like the genesis of my songwriting comes from my lifelong love of bluegrass,” he explains in a press statement. “I’m sure it’s shaped the way I wrote certain songs and certainly shapes the way that I like certain songs, in that a lot of bluegrass stuff is really narrative in nature.”
So, it seems like a logical next step for him to come back to bluegrass, if you will, with his most recent CD; Happy Prisoner, The Bluegrass Sessions.
Robert told me, “We’re what one would call a touring band. I am always touring – all year round – we come home long enough to change our laundry,” he laughed. And fans have come to expect a certain kind of show from Robert Earl Keen and his band. And for the most part, they’ll get it, with a few minor adjustments. “The departure here is that every time I put out a record, I come out and play a few songs from the new record, but I’ve never done that thing where I dedicate myself to the new record and play it from back to front,” he said. “However with this record, because it’s bluegrass, we had to put down our electric instruments and pick up all these acoustic ones – so it’s important to somewhat reflect what’s going on with the record more fully.”
“This time, not only are we going to be playing what’s on the record, we will also be playing our back catalogue too, but in a bluegrass style. I think that’s going to be really exciting because the people that are going to be coming are not coming because of the bluegrass, they’re coming to see our show and hear what we’ve played in the past. I’ve got hundreds of songs in our catalogue, and so we’re still going to be playing some songs from that, but in this acoustic style.”
Back To Bluegrass
“It was just a drive I guess, a compulsion.” Keen said that he had thought about doing this project for many years, but for whatever reason just hadn’t been able to pull it off. “I guess about two years ago now, I got to do this point where I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do this bluegrass album now.’ So we got the wheels in motion,” he said.
The CD includes 20 songs, but surprisingly, no originals. “I really wanted to pay tribute to bluegrass music,” he said. “I learned how to play the guitar behind contest fiddlers. At the time, I only knew a handful of chords. I ran into a guy who was a contest fiddler that went to fiddle contests all around the state. So I started going to those events. I played songs like, “Tom And Jerry,” and “Lime Rock,” over and over. It was great back up for me. Playing these chords over and over, you really get to where you can play. Right outside on the parking lot there’s always a bluegrass band too. I had already known about bluegrass and bluegrass songs but I didn’t know that I could step up there and play with them, and that is where I really got excited about it.
It was a huge part of my beginning in music so I didn’t feel like I was meant to say, ‘oh, I can write a bluegrass song too.’ I wasn’t interested in that part of it. I was really interested in the music that I loved that already existed.”
A Happy Prisoner
“It came from some pajamas my wife and I and our two girls wear,” he quipped. “During the holidays we watch movies and eat popcorn and wear these horizontal striped pajamas we all have. We call them our Happy Prisoners. I though it was a really good title for this record. The great dichotomy in bluegrass music is that the music is happy, but the stories are tragic. I was looking for something that defined that, and one day I opened up my drawer and there were my Happy Prisoner pajamas. It just made sense.”
Keen took the show to Merlefest this year, plus they performing at Redwing Roots in Virginia; and at the Telluride Bluegrass festival; the Big Sky festival and several others. “I’ve played almost all these in the past, but I’ve never played them all in the same year. I’ve been able to be part of a greater and a wider road of music this year, rather than just playing theaters and honky tonks,” he said.
Brute Force And Ignorance
Keen spoke once about that moment when it felt like there was validation for all the hard work he had put into his music. “All of a sudden, I heard my song on the radio (San Antonio’s KRIO) back-to-back with a Sheryl Crow song that was popular at the time, and I thought, ‘Man, this is cool!’ It was the first time I really felt like I was a real part of the music business, despite having been in it already for a pretty long time. And right after that, I went to a show in San Antonio and there were 1,500 people there! Up to that point I’d been playing to, max, maybe 150. That was the real ah-hah moment for me that really got me going and kept me going, because before that I’d been doing this for eight or 10 years and had a lot of rejection but very little success.”
I asked Robert to describe the musician’s life from his point of view, and how he’s been able to make it this far. “Brute force and ignorance,” he said. It’s tough some days, it’s real tough. And you can really get down, we all do. But for some reason, I believed in myself. I believe I was meant to do this. Regardless of the opposition, I still am going to continue to do this.”
Whatever It Takes
Keen’s done a lot of other things along the way too. “I’ve done everything,” he said. “I was a roughneck on an oil rig for five years out of high school and into college. I’ve done carpentry, I worked for the railroad commission; I even worked for the IRS. I’ve done tons of little crappy jobs along the way too. When I first went to Nashville, I worked for five different temping agencies.”
“I don’t ever want to do anything else though,” he said.” I don’t have other dreams about anything – even if I get knocked down, I rub my face and think ‘either I’m going to keep going or I’m going to find some other way of doing it. I’ve done both – forged ahead, and I’ve figured out how to do other things. You just keep moving and doing things that help keep making it all work.”
The Right Stuff
There’s another key ingredient too that seems to have a major influence into the success of Robert’s band. “I run my business like a business,” he told me. “I listened to musicians early on, from the very beginning, complaining that they never got to be on the record. This band has been recording together almost since the very beginning – this band. Occasionally. we’ll bring in some guest members here and there, but the core band always makes the records.
Further, all my guys have insurance and a retirement program. It seemed to me that the answer was, of course, have really good players, but then give them the same benefits everybody else has with their job. You need security in this world. And it made sense to me to make that part of this business too. I try to do right by them and in turn they try to do right by me.”