When Robert Earl Keen returns to the Roaring Fork Valley on Thursday night at PAC3 in Carbondale, fans may hear some new songs from the singer-songwriter, with an uncharacteristic sound to them, due to his latest studio project.
Early next year, Keen is set to release his first album since 2011. The return to the studio follows his longest recording layoff since the early ‘90s and the result may surprise some: It’s a bluegrass album. Titled “Happy Prisoner,” it’s due out in February.
Keen said he was unsure about making the leap into bluegrass — calling himself a mediocre flat-picker — but got some of the genre’s top talent on board to show him the way. Fiddler Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, banjo player Danny Barnes, and mandolin player Kim Warner of the Greencards make appearances on the record, along with his longtime backing band. Lyle Lovett sings a duet with him on the disc.
“I’m a huge bluegrass fan but I stayed away from it because I never felt like I had those chops,” he said from the road earlier this summer. “It’s almost like loving baseball but knowing that you can’t hit the ball over the fence. But I got to thinking, ‘I don’t care.’”
He turned to bluegrass traditionals, spanning back to 1916 — making the record a century-long survey of the form.
“I felt compelled to make this happen,” Keen explained. “Otherwise, I thought, it would never happen.”
A frequent performer in the valley in recent years, Keen’s show in Carbondale is a make-up date for a show in March that he canceled due to a broken foot. Aspen’s own Brad Manosevitz opens.
Keen’s sets tend to pluck from his whole catalog, which spans back to his self-released 1984 debut, “No Kinda Dancer,” up to 2011’s “Ready For Confetti.” He might play old fan favorites like “Merry Christmas from the Family” next to folky offerings like “Gringo Honeymoon,” some covers and barroom anthems like “The Road Goes on Forever.” But he never knows where a show’s going to go until the day of his performance.
“I never do the same show twice,” he said.
Keen explained that when he’s on the road (which is pretty much always) he walks around the venue he’s playing early in the day, when it’s empty, to figure out his set list.
“I get a feel for the place,” he said. “I don’t want to sound too cosmic about it, but that’s what’s going on.”
Keen and his band — guitarist Rich Brotherton, bassist Bill Whitbeck and drummer Tom Van Schaik — have been together for some two decades, often playing up to 200 nights a year.
He began writing poetry as a child, studied English at Texas A&M — where he befriended Lovett — and his storytelling abilities have helped set his brand of Texas country apart. His witty, literate songs have earned the Houston native a crossover appeal beyond country fans and far beyond the Lone Star State’s borders. As influences, he points to poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert W. Service, along with the novels of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.
“I was always attracted to narrative, rhyming poetry,” he said. “I like free form poetry as well, though I guess I don’t understand the form. But I love a great story when I hear it.”
His poetic storytelling instincts were given a vessel when he began immersing himself in the Texas country scene as a teenager in the early ‘70s and bloomed after he stated playing at 18. Keen skipped his high school prom, for example, to go see Willie Nelson play the Half Dollar Club in Houston.
“I had a date but I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to see Willie,’” he recalled. “I got him to sign my Jack Daniels’ bottle that I snuck into the club, and kept that as a prized possession until I left it in a car that I abandoned.”