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Happy Prisoner: the Bluegrass Sessions

Due out 2/10/15 on Dualtone Records.

Pre-order your copy @


Robert Earl Keen

The Happiest Prisoner

Words by Tamma Hicks 

Photo Credit Darren Carroll


STEAM  Good morning! I hope I didn’t wake you; I know how some musicians are.

REK  Good morning, well I don’t really fall into that category. I saw a show years ago about sleep and they did sleep tests on rats. They had the early riser rat, the night owl rat, and then this rat that couldn’t get a schedule and they called him the mutant rat. I said they got me, “the mutant rat”. But really you can’t sleep late in the music business; there is just too much stuff that you have to do. I have this horrible Cruella Deville of a mother-in-law who used to tell me that half the world wakes up at 6:30 and the other half at 7:00. So that’s what you have to do for interviews and whatnot, get up early. And if you’re doing TV? My goodness, you have to be there at like 4 o’clock in the morning!


STEAM  I know that’s just ridiculous! Let’s talk about your new album that’s coming out. We talked with Lloyd Maines a couple of months ago and he said that you recorded 25 songs for the new album. He also said that you didn’t take long to record, but you worked on it for close to a year.

REK  Yep, we did. You know Lloyd is one of the busiest guys that you’ve ever met. He does a lot of shows with Terry Hendrix and he has other projects too, but he produces so many records. But you know when you make a record it’s not much different than cooking. You put on your main course and as you go along to have to pay attention to it; add some spices, turn the meat, mind the temperature, and cool it down. If you don’t pay attention it won’t turn out quite as good as it should’ve, so with this record we worked on it every opportunity we could all get together. It was a whole lot of fun and a long process.


STEAM  I was really surprised that you didn’t write any of the songs; they are all covers of old standards.

REK  Well, I didn’t want anybody to think I was trying to reinvent the genre. I just want people to know that I have a true love for Bluegrass music which goes back to when I was a young teen. What I wanted to do was play the kind of music I really love and put in as much passion as I could and pay homage to what I believe as being really great Bluegrass songs.


STEAM  With 25 songs recorded I’m going to guess that there will be more than one album.

REK  The first CD has 15 songs and then if you get the deluxe version or the vinyl there’s an additional 5 bonus songs. We’re working with the remaining five as a top-secret plan.


STEAM  That’s sound interesting! I saw that you brought in some big ringers for this. Lyle Lovett, Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), and Natalie Maines to name a few.

REK  Well first off, everyone in my band is a fan of Bluegrass. Rich Brotherton is an incredible flat-picking guitar player and Bill Whitbeck on stand-up bass, Marty Muse on Dobro, and drummer Tom Van Schaik, so when I went to them and said I wanted to make the Bluegrass record they were all in, albeit a little surprised. After that we just brought in the people we thought were really at the top of their game when it comes to Bluegrass.


STEAM  How did you come up with the album name, Happy Prisoners?

REK  It’s what my family and I call our pajamas, Happy Prisoners. You know, it’s what you wear when you get a big ol’ bowl of popcorn and watch a movie. I just thought that was kind of funny and represents Bluegrass music because there is this bittersweet happiness that you can’t extract from the music itself. And of course, banjo kind of makes everybody smile and it’s always upbeat and fast; although the theme is quite often tragic. I feel that I’m connected to Bluegrass music in such a way that it makes me a happy prisoner of this type of music.


STEAM  Do you have a favorite song off Happy Prisoner?

REK  My favorite song is called Twisted Laurel, which is the least Bluegrassy song of the bunch. It’s not an upbeat song, it may be the sleeper of the album and you may just skip over it, but it has a lyric that rivals anything you find in great American poetry. The band that did this song is Red Clay Ramblers and if they were around today they’d be a version of Mumford and Sons. They are a truly string band, had a whimsical musicality, and had an incredible writer Tommy Thompson.

The single we’re releasing first is Hot Corn, Cold Corn. We were having so much fun in the studio while we recorded this song and it holds the best memory I have of doing the album. We just laughed so hard, we were having such a good time.

Let me just say this: I think that all great records have a really great story and experience behind them. And I do think this is a great record; in fact, it may be the best record I’ve ever made. It holds together very well and I feel that this album brought together great people with lots of laughs and lots of good stories. It was a great musical experience!


STEAM  I have to tell you, I think that is just an awesome statement. I know there are a lot of people that go out there and make an album because they have to make an album, but this sounds like you made an album because you wanted to. Actually, it sounds like you’re a newbie to music and you still like it which is very impressive for someone who’s been in the music business for as long as you have.

REK  Well, you know, I’ve never really wanted to do anything else, and I appreciate that. I think there are two things people should do: 1 I think they should do what they want and 2 I think they should live where they want, and if either one of those is not matching up; you need to make a change.


STEAM  With the album coming out February 10 on Dualtone Records, can you tell us your plans for touring and the show?

REK  I think dates up on the website now and February is about full; the rest is filling in nicely too. We’re going to start on the East Coast and swing our way through Texas and beyond. We’ll be doing a lot of the Bluegrass Festivals as well. Now the first part of the show we’ll do songs from the Happy Prisoner, then take a little break, and come back with some highlights that people know me best for.


STEAM  Last question and it’s one I really like to ask singer/songwriters; do you have any advice for people who are just getting into the business?

REK  Man, I can teach a whole class on what to do and not to, although it is changing so fast that it’s hard to keep up with.

I worked in the oil field when I was going to college. I was a roughneck on a rig every year during the summer to pay for college. So when I worked in the oil field I would ask them, How tight do you want me to turn this nut? How tight you want me to close this lid? And the guy would tell me “as tight as you think you can and then one more time around.” So what I would say to anybody in general, about whatever it is you’re doing, and especially about music business and the songwriting business: do the best you can and then one more time around, because there are some people out there that are fabulously talented writers and the ones that aren’t quite as talented are really good with studio gear. You’re not just competing against people and music but against loops and sounds.

Lyrics aren’t as important as they used to be, so you need to dig deep and nonstop because that’s what people in the music business are looking for. I don’t think luck has as much to do with it as it used to; you have to work hard. Be ready to jump in with both feet and work your ass off. It is amazing. I go into the studio to work with these talented writers and there’s nothing there, but they take that nothing and turn it into something. And that is the future.


Happy Prisoner: the Bluegrass Sessions

Due out 2/10/15 on Dualtone Records.

Pre-order your copy @


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