The Alternate Root Reviews The Bluegrass Sessions!

Robert Earl Keen gets to check another item off his musical “bucket list” and bluegrass fans get to hear 15 classics, reinterpreted in Keen’s own inimitable style. The record opens with a rough and tumble version of the Flatt and Scruggs classic, “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” delivered in a raucous house-party fashion, complete with hootin’, hollerin’ and no small amount of bullwhippin’ in the background. Taking his cue from Del McCoury, Keen offers an enthusiastic, energetic reading of the Richard Thompson ‘s classic “52 Vincent Black Lightning” then continues the ruckus with a rousing reading of Bill Monroe’s “Footprints In The Snow” (one of the first songs Keen remembers hearing when he turned-on to bluegrass as a kid).

Keen and company make joyous noise of Hot Rize’s tongue-in-cheek prison tune, “99 Years For One Dark Day,” return to the Monroe songbook for “This World Is Not My Home” and dig deep into the bluegrass canon for a beautiful version of the Red Clay Ramblers’ 1976 piece, “Twisted Laurel.” Bassist Bill Whitbeck helps Robert Earl deliver “Long Black Veil” as a Tex-Mex duet and longtime pal Lyle Lovett drops in to twist up “T For Texas” bluegrass style. His simple approach to “East Virginia Blues” sounds like classic Keen a la Gringo Honeymoon and the brief 90-second introduction Peter Rowan offers to “Walls Of Time” is a nice touch.

Already at the top of the bluegrass charts, Happy Prisoner finds Keen and his longtime band completely immersed in the music of his youth and having a damn good time at that. Or, as he says in the liner notes: “We played bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us.” It shows on this record, as fine a bluegrass set released yet this year.

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