by Charlie Swanson
Acclaimed songwriter and country star Robert Earl Keen is best known for hits like his universally loved anthem, “The Road Goes On Forever,” yet the sixth-generation Texan has always had a soft spot for bluegrass, the music of his youth.
Keen shares this lifelong passion on a new album, Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions, and a summer tour making its way to Sweetwater Music Hall on Wednesday, June 24.
“The first date I ever had, I took a girl to a bluegrass festival,” Keen says. “I don’t recommend it.” Speaking from the hill country of Kerrville, Texas, Keen delves into his latest fork in his musical road. “It did solidify the fact, that number one: I really did love bluegrass. And number two: That really shouldn’t be your first date with a girl you want to keep going out with,” Keen laughs.
Growing up on a steady diet of records by the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, Keen learned to play guitar alongside those albums and with bluegrass fiddle players in Houston where he grew up.
“It’s really affected the whole way I write and sing,” he says. Still, in a career that spans over three decades, Keen has never produced a strictly bluegrass album until this year, when Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions was released in February to universal critical praise and a top spot on the U.S. Bluegrass charts.
“I got to a point in my life where I thought, you know, if I don’t do this now, I might never do it,” says Keen about the new album. Collected from a list of 100 of his favorite songs, this record features 15 classic and beloved bluegrass tunes played in Keen’s signature drawl and grit.
Guest appearances by friends like Lyle Lovett and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) bolster Keen and his band’s playing, and the record encompasses an eclectic array of what bluegrass means to Keen.
“A lot of people have a real myopic view of bluegrass, but I think of it in terms of a broad spectrum with real nuances,” Keen says. “I wanted to pick songs that represented the entire bluegrass landscape.”
Bringing that landscape to the North Bay, Keen returns to Sweetwater, where he has appeared numerous times since sending the venue a handmade press kit back in his earliest days of playing.
This time around, Keen and his core band of 20 years will be working the stage with a blend of material off the new record, as well as a crop of his biggest hits, like “Shades of Gray” and “Feelin’ Good Again,” done up in a bluegrass style.
NOW PLAYING: Robert Earl Keen performs on Wednesday, June 24, at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; 8pm; $55-$60. For more information, call 415/388-1100, or visit sweetwatermusichall.com.