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Saturday, January 17, 2015

featuring the very best of americana, and roots music
January 17, 2015
Scott Foley

I'm fond of saying that I'm allergic to bluegrass.  I know of people who are tired of hearing me say that.  I lump bluegrass in with jazz as genres that are more fun to play than to hear.  But throw in some drums and some edge and you might turn those tables.  One of the most engaging concerts I ever presented as a promoter featured nothing more than Danny Barnes standing on stage with nothing more than a banjo, a dirty t-shirt and boots (plus, pants). I really enjoyed subbing for a bluegrass radio show once, airing a lot of hybridized 'grass stuff until too many listeners called asking why I wasn't playing bluegrass ...

It's been 30 years since Robert Earl Keen debuted with his Texas music classic No Kinda Dancer.  I'd place 1994's Gringo Honeymoon near the top of the americana heap among a small number of near perfect records.  I interviewed him around the release of 2005's What I Really Mean, and recall that Keen was sunburned as a lobster and tired.  But when he took to his acoustic his voice sounded perfect.  He can still flip the switch, and he surrounds himself with some peerless players (as the Xmas-Men, they released one of 2014's most entertaining holiday albums in Santa Is Real).  After all these years, REK has scratched that itch to release a collection of bluegrass sessions:  "My lifelong love of bluegrass taught me how to feel music as well as hear it.  I've spent countless hours banging out fiddle tunes and murder ballads with rank strangers.  We never missed a beat because we spoke only bluegrass."  For Happy Prisoner: the Bluegrass Sessions, Keen has chosen to reach back to the classics, covering material from Carter, Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the oft-celebrated Trad.  While few were begging for another take on "Long Black Veil" or "Wayfaring Stranger", this whole bluegrass racket really works for Keen, who invests the songs with that personal passion for the music that "washes over me like a wave".  There's a loose, live spark that lights the Flatt & Scruggs standard "Hot Corn Cold Corn", and Bill Monroe's "Footprints In the Snow" will please both americana and bluegrass camps.  Guests like Natalie Maines and Peter Rowan add some dimension to the sessions, and Keen's old friend Mr Lovett sounds like he's riding that wave on Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas".  My guess is that if I gave this to a hard-and-fast bluegrass snob (Andrea), they might enjoy a track or two before returning to their new Gibson Brothers record.  Keen does not fall into the tradition of high and lonesome 'grass singers (he sometimes sounds high, but rarely lonesome).  That said, as a guy who comes at it as an outsider, I can appreciate the ragged, harmony-rich run through "Old Home Place".  Keen's worn croon is exactly the bridge I need to cross over now and then.  There's an old gentleman who calls the station on an alarming basis to request some version or another of Richard Thompson's "52 Vincent Black Lightning", which has previously been visited by artists like Del McCoury, Red Molly, Greg Brown, the Mammals, Dick Gaughan, Mary Lou Lord, Beth Wood, and something called Grandpa Banana, just to cite a few.  It's a contemporary classic, but I have heard it too many times.  With Robert Earl Keen's take, however, I now have an occasional response to Old Town Jerry's calls.  In the abiding spirit of Happy Prisoner, it reflects the man's deep personal connection with the music:  "That's what we did here.  We played bluegrass in a tiny room until it shook and the music washed over us".  I can appreciate any genre that comes from this sort of passion. 

*  Gretchen Peters, "Black Ribbons"  Blackbirds  (Scarlet Letter, 15)
*  Ryan Bingham, "Adventures of You and Me"  Fear and Saturday Night  (Axster Bingham, 15)
*  Sir Douglas Band, "San Francisco FM Blues"  Texas Tornado  (Atlantic, 73)
*  Dr. Dog, "Too Weak To Ramble (live)"  Live At a Flamingo Hotel  (Anti, 15)  D
*  Todd Adelman, "Devil Is For Drinking"  Highways & Lowways  (Porch Lantern, 15)  C
*  Bettye LaVette, "Worthy"  Worthy  (Cherry Red, 15)
*  New Basement Tapes, "Lost On the River"  Lost On the River  (Harvest, 14)
*  Pops Staples, "Somebody Was Watching"  Don't Lose This  (Anti, 15)  D
*  Lee Bains III & Glory Fires, "Ain't No Stranger"  There is a Bomb In Gilead  (Alive Ns, 12)
*  Dexateens, "Pine Belt Blues"  Red Dust Rising  (Estrus, 05)
*  Ryan Culwell, "I Think I'll Be Their God"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 15)
*  Cody Canada & the Departed, "Comin' To Me (edit)"  HippieLovePunk  (Underground Sound, 15)
*  Shovels & Rope, "Coping Mechanism"  Swimmin' Time  (Dualtone, 14)
*  JJ Grey & Mofro, "Every Minute"  Ol' Glory  (Provogue, 15)
*  Joe Pug, "Stay and Dance"  Windfall  (Lightning Rod, 15)
*  Richmond Fontaine, "Out of State"  Winnemucca  (El Cortez, 02)
*  Murder By Death, "Send Me Home"  Big Dark Love  (Bloodshot, 15)  D
*  First Aid Kit, "Hard Believer"  Big Black and the Blue  (Wichita, 10)
*  Tallest Man On Earth, "Tangle In This Trampled Wheat"  Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird  (Dead Oceans, 10)
*  Hiss Golden Messenger, "Brother Do You Know the Road"  Southern Grammar  (Merge, 15)
*  Gill Landry, "Just Like You"  Gill Landry  (ATO, 15)  D
*  Strange Americans, "Places II"  That Kind of  Luster  (Strange Americans, 14)  C
*  American Aquarium, "Man I'm Supposed To Be"  Wolves  (American Aquarium, 15)
*  Lowest Pair, "Rosie"  Sacred Heart Sessions  (Team Love, 15)  D
*  Avett Brothers, "That's How I Got To Memphis (live)"  Another Day Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis  (Nonesuch, 15)  D
*  Chuck Ragan, "Survivor Blues"  While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records  (Bloodshot, 14)

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