With his distinctive vocals and quirky insights into life, Robert Earl Keen has gathered a dedicated cult following with memorable tunes such as “Merry Christmas from the Family,” “Five-Pound Bass” and “The Road Goes on Forever.” In fact, actor Bradley Cooper cited Keen as a key muse for the development of his portrayal of Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle in the film adaptation of “American Sniper.”
Keen will be coming to the Azalea City with tracks from a very personal album. Inspired by his wife’s pajamas, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions” is a collection of Keen’s favorite bluegrass standards. Throughout its creation, he had assistance from legendary producer Lloyd Maines and his daughter Natalie (Dixie Chicks) along with Lyle Lovett, Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Peter Rowan. Before he takes the stage at the Jewel of Joachim, Keen elaborated on his new album, striped pajamas and the art of speaking “sh*t-kicker.”
SC: Your latest release is “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions,” and it’s your 18th album, am I right?
REK: I believe it’s something like that, officially.
SC: The critics and fans love it. How does it feel to still get so much love after so many albums?
REK: I guess the really true response is that it’s a relief. I wanted to make something that I truly believed in, and it truly just came out of my own head. I really wanted to do this and didn’t really have any obligation and didn’t have any real money. I just said that I’m gonna figure out how to do it, and we did it. People were like, “What are you gonna do with it?” I was like, “I don’t know, man, but I’m gonna make it and put it out somehow.”
I got up some money and got hooked up with Dualtone, and they loved it. I played it for a few people, and I got a great reaction right off the bat. It’s almost universal, you know. From all walks of life and every age group, they all seem to take to it. One thing is that people always have a relaxed good feeling about good sounding acoustic music, and that’s what I think we’re dealing with.
SC: Reading the story about where the title came from with your wife’s pajamas, that’s so bluegrass to me. What is it about those pajamas that make her “The Happy Prisoner?”
REK: (Laughing) They’re just horizontal striped. If you saw them, it might make some sense to you. They’re horizontal striped, knit pajamas. They don’t look good on anybody, because they’re horizontal striped and cling to your body, you know, unless you have an incredible body or something. They look kinda silly. We’ve had them for a while, and we always get a huge kick out of them. When we were thinking about a title, I was looking in my cabinet and saw that and thought, “This is the title!” It wasn’t a light-bulb moment. It was a pajama moment!
SC: This album is a collection of classic bluegrass tunes. How did you decide what to include on the album?
REK: Well, I wrote down 100 that I knew, and I knew that I liked. It was just all kinds of stuff. It was everything from “Blue-Eyed Boston Boy” to “Let Her Go God Bless Her.” From there, we went in and recorded, I think, 28 songs. That was where it got tricky. Out of the 28, 20 sounded really good, and the rest sounded pretty good. I had to decide how I wanted to do it. So, what I really did was that I worked with sort of a timeline of 100 years worth of bluegrass. Then, I went for tempos. I wanted things that were up-tempo and some that were slower. In the end, probably, the 15 or the 20 of the deluxe package were the ones that I thought were the best songs.
SC: What was it like working with Lloyd Maines on this?
REK: Well, one cool thing about Lloyd is that I’ve known Lloyd forever. He’s the best people person I’ve ever met. If Stalin came back from the grave, he could get along with Stalin. He’s just a great, great person to be around. He was my first call, when I got excited to do this. I asked him, “Can you do a bluegrass record?” He said, “I’ve never done one, but heck yeah! Let’s do it!” As far as working with him, it’s hard to describe, because a lot of things in the music business are difficult. Working with Lloyd Maines is complete, sheer pleasure.
SC: His daughter Natalie was a guest on this album. You also have Lyle Lovett and Sara Watkins. How did they get involved with this project?
REK: I went to them. I knew Sara from some stuff that was done on the road. I did this thing for years called “Texas Uprising.” One of the first bands that we ever got was Nickel Creek the first year Nickel Creek was out. I had them do a Texas Uprising in Watsonville, California, around Monterey Bay. So, I got to know Chris (Thile) and Sara. Then later on, I just crossed paths with them a lot. She went and played some shows with us and stuff. To me, she was the obvious choice for a fiddle player. I love the way she plays. I’m actually a fiddle snob. I love good swing play, but there’s a certain nuance to bluegrass fiddle. Lyle is an old friend. Natalie is Lloyd’s daughter, but I’ve known her for 20 years. When we were recording “Wayfaring Stranger” and working through it in the studio, I said, “I really think I need another voice here, but I really hear a female voice.” He (Lloyd Maines) said, “Why not ask Natalie?” I said, “I know she’s busy.” He said, “I know, but she loves this kind of stuff! She’ll love it!” So, she came in and did it. It was fantastic.
SC: Bradley Cooper has cited you as an inspiration for …
REK: (Laughing) Learning how to speak sh*t-kicker?
SC: Yeah! That kinda blew my mind too! How does it feel to inspire another artist?
REK: I don’t know. I thought it was a cool thing and a compliment. As a matter of fact, if I go to New York, Connecticut or Washington, people don’t think that I speak with a huge Southern dialect or even a Southwestern dialect, but I’m aware of it. I thought, “you know, I’m glad.” I thought it was cool. I do feel like this part of the country. That was great.
SC: What’s the live show going to be like? How do you interpret this album live?
REK: What we’re trying to do is mix it up. There’s a lot of people that come to our show, and they wanna hear “Copenhagen” and “Five-Pound Bass” and “The Road Goes on Forever.” So, we kinda mix it up. That’s what we’re doing here with this.