KENTUCKY.COM: Bluegrass takes root in Robert Earl Keen's Texas tunes

The biographical material sent out ahead of Robert Earl Keen's new bluegrass-based recording Happy Prisoner described the album's 15 songs (make that 20, should you splurge for the vinyl version) as "untraditionally traditional, Kentucky-by-way-of-Texas music Lone Star-grass, if you will."

Now before you start busting up your mandolins over the notion of a cherished Texas songsmith taking a step into the regionally sacred terrain of bluegrass, know that string music has been an integral part of Keen's evolution as a champion Lone Star song stylist. Sure, his loyal fan base might know him for such Texas-sized reveries as The Road Goes on Forever, Gringo Honeymoon and Five Pound Bass songs offering a distinctive slant on Texas-bred honky tonk and Americana that place Keen in the pantheon of Lone Star giants Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and John Townes Van Zandt. But one of the seeds to his sound is bluegrass, even though the music wasn't a secure fit with all the other Texas inspirations that played into his music.

"Actually, it didn't fit at all," says Keen, who returns to Lexington on Wednesday for a performance at the Lyric Theatre. "I just liked it. I was a lone wolf on that deal. I stumbled into bluegrass just from old records that my mom had, like Bill Monroe records and stuff. Then, when I went to college, I ran into people that were fiddle players and mandolin players and we dug more and more into bluegrass music as we started playing because country, in that acoustic way, doesn't speak out as well. So I just became a big fan of the music.

"I think my best story about this, really, comes from when I was 16. I got a date with this girl in my neighborhood. It was maybe my first official date, and I took her to a bluegrass festival, which was weird. But I always thought there was something important about this music other than the fact that the girl wasn't so crazy about it."

More than the rustic acoustic instrumentation, more than even the strong narrative nature of many bluegrass songs that strongly appealed to his songwriting instincts, what appealed most to Keen about bluegrass was the heavily social atmosphere in which it was (and still is) created.

"What I love about it is that you can sit down with a total stranger and they'll say, 'Let's play How Mountain Girls Can Love,' and five or six other people will chime in, 'Great. What key do you play that in?' And you start playing," Keen says. "It's an incredibly communal music. I can't think of anything like it other than, maybe, bridge. You get together with people that you don't know and from many parts of the country. You start playing different songs and people just know them. It's just a wonderful way to get connected musically and friendship-wise."

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