AUGUSTA CHRONICLE: Robert Earl Keen recalls roots on his new record

When Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen set out to make his most recent record, he knew it would be unlike anything he had ever done, but at the same time, it was the one he always wanted to do.

“This was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time and didn’t ever really get started,” said Keen, about his 12th studio album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.

“But I had made some effort in that direction, and for one reason or another the effort was thwarted. So for this one, I literally woke up one morning in the summer and said I have got to make this record, if I didn’t make it now I will never make it.”

Keen called up his friend and producer Lloyd Maines to tell him about his desire and began pulling the pieces together, gathering songs and pulling in a few extra musicians, such as Nickle Creek fiddle player Sara Watkins, to produce his first ever bluegrass record.

“It about six months from the time I said I had to do it, but everybody was on board and I tell you it was like lightning in a bottle once we got started because it was fantastic,” said Keen. “We cut 28 songs in just a handful of days. It was amazing.”

The new record mixes bluegrass classics from genre royalty such as Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, with other less traditional tunes, such as Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

The result is a record that has met near universal acclaim.

The fact that they are all covers from a musician known for his song-writing prowess is not lost on Keen, who said he set out from the start to pay tribute to the music, and not to compete with it.

Keen said he had decided from the beginning that he would not contribute any original songs to the effort.

“I didn’t want to invite the comparison,” he said. “I wanted to pay tribute to bluegrass, but me being me, I know that a lot of my fans don’t have any clue at all.”

Keen said he wanted to share his love of bluegrass with fans who might not have ever heard of Carter Stanley.

“This is my way of turning people onto music, is by putting it on a record,” he said. “I hope that someone will listen to this and say, I love this Stanley Brothers song White Dove” and go out and look up the Stanley Brothers. It is really one of the most exciting things about music, passing it along.”

Keen will be passing along these songs, as well as more familiar tunes from his catalogue at Evans Towne Center Park in Evans on Friday, May 22. He will be joined by other national and regional bluegrass artists in the lineup for the sixth annual Papa Joe’s Banjo-B-Que festival. The two-day barbecue and bluegrass event kicks off at 4 p.m. Friday.

The lineup of live entertainment includes the The Roosevelts, Delta Cane, the Mason Jars, the Little Roy and Lizzie Show, Chatham County Line, Vance Joy and Shovels & Rope. Headliners Leftover Salmon will take the stage at 9:45 p.m. Friday and Trampled By Turtles will close out the festival at 9:45 p.m. Saturday, May 23.

Keen’s connection to bluegrass music is not a recent development. It dates back to his earliest days as a musician, when he and four other classmates at Texas A&M were in a group known as the Front Porch Boys.

“I always felt like the genesis of my songwriting comes from my lifelong love of bluegrass,” he said.

Although he’s touring in support of his new bluegrass record, Keen said he intends to mix in his own songs that many fans will be expecting, such as The Road Goes on Forever and Merry Christmas from the Family, his take on the holiday tune that grew out of his attempt to reconcile his “dysfunctional Christmas” experience growing up in Houston, Texas.

“We had this insane Christmas circus and I had to try to capture that,” he said. “On the one hand it’s all about snow and sleigh bells and things like that. On the other hand in Houston, Texas, it’s 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity and everybody’s drunk.”

Keen is not finished telling tales through his songs by a long shot. Most recently, he has been working with some of the big-name country hit makers in Nashville to try for a different kind of success.

“I’ve written a lot of songs over the years but I’ve never had a hit,” he said. “I thought you know what I need to do is write with some of these people.

“The difference between now and back then when I washed out is that now I have some pretty good credibility and so I get to work with some really amazing writers.”

He said the newer country music is more about celebrating life, not “crying in your beer.”

Read the full story at The Augusta Chronicle.