The peculiarity of a songwriter long associated with the musical ways and means of Texas approaching the string music traditions of bluegrass in a Central Kentucky concert hall was not lost on Robert Earl Keen.
“What we do is Ray Price,” he said last night at the Lyric Theatre, referencing to the late Lone Star-born country giant. “So to be doing Bill Monroe up here is a little strange.” With that admission behind him, Keen and his six man band slid into the Monroe classic Footprints in the Snow, one of the cross-generational bluegrass standards featured on his recent Happy Prisoners album. Sure, the show was advertised as a bluegrass event. Yes, the record the concert was promoting was a scrapbook of string music standards spanning multiple decades. But to paraphrase an overworked saying, you can take the bluegrasser out of the Texan, but not the other way around. In other words, Keen’s usual plethora of Lone Star inspirations – the sweeping country melodies, the bittersweet narratives, the suggestions of swing – were all still very much in evidence.
That hardly proved detrimental to the performance, however. In fact, it was refreshing to hear exclusively acoustic instrumentation frame Keen’s songs. Pedal steel guitarist Marty Muse played dobro all evening, guitarist Rich Brotherton and bassist Bill Whitbeck reverted to the unplugged cousins of their usually electric instruments and drummer Tom Van Schaik (“You probably can’t find bluegrass drums in a Kentucky dictionary,” Keen remarked) cooled the percussion artillery to just a single snare and the train-style rhythms it triggered when brushes were applied. Mandolinist Kym Warner and fiddler Brian Beken nicely augmented the troupe.
But the Texas accents were far too pronounced– from Keen’s raconteur-like stage manner to the emotive leap frogging his songs took – for this performance to pass as bluegrass. Luckily, that proved to also be one of the show’s great charms. Keen has always possessed a knack for flipping, often abruptly, the sentiments of his songs with remarkable ease. Last night, his take on Jesse Fuller’s 99 Years (and One Dark Day) transformed the often-covered murder/prison ballad into a surprising chipper acoustic romp capped by an especially spry bass solo from Whitbeck. But the Keen original Not a Drop of Rain was so rich in melancholy, resignation and ghostly ambience that it could have been a product of the Dust Bowl era. Of course, Keen couldn’t help but preface the song with a whimsical reflection of his childhood in the Texas holler known as Bandera (“where any male over the age of 15 had no visible means of support”).
Keen’s most popular works similarly danced along the generous borders the performance established between bluegrass and Texas Americana music, as was the case with Copenhagen (an ode not to the city but to the chewing tobacco) and the woozily dysfunctional sing-a-long Merry Christmas from the Family.
The performance took the red eye back to Lone Star country for the show-closing encore of The Front Porch Song, a tune that still reveled in extended yarn-spinning between verses. With bluegrass now fully at bay, Keen was free to champion the high times and lasting friendships of his college years. Not surprisingly, it was all delivered with the almost romantic candor of an elder song stylist and the honest cheer of a scribe still proudly young at heart.