Country icon Robert Earl Keen goes bluegrass en route to Reno

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Robert Earl Keen, who appeared at Crystal Bay Casino in 2013, above, plays at Cargo in the Whitney Peak Hotel on June 26.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

For iconic country singer, Robert Earl Keen, the road apparently does go on forever.

On pace for more than 140 shows this year, Keen is excited not just to play, but to share the new material off of his new album of bluegrass covers, “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions.”

We’re getting great responses, I mean, even playing with Ricky Skaggs and Ry Cooder and as great as their show was, we were the ones who got the double standing ovation,” Keen told Tahoe Onstage. “It’s just a great show.”

REK and Sam Outlaw will play at Whitney Peak Hotel’s Cargo on Friday June, 26.

The album, which shot to No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart, has had critical and commercial success, but that’s not why Keen took on this project.

“It’s a labor of love for a lifetime; this is something I had always wanted to do,” he said.

And even as one of the most recognizable songwriters in country music, REK had no problem putting down his pen and recording an album filled with covers.

“I like songs whether they’re mine or not,” he said. “I like to sing songs that resonate with me, where I can see what’s going on in my head while I’m singing them.”

However, Keen did not walk into this album without certain anxieties.

“In bluegrass, it’s about that really perfect high harmony singing and I don’t have a big range, ” he said. “And I knew there were going to be people saying, ‘He don’t sound like no bluegrass singer to me.’ But I had to just vanquish those thoughts from my head.”

“Happy Prisoner” features classics like “Long Black Veil” and the single “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” but when asked about song selection, Keen admits it wasn’t an easy task. “I wrote down a hundred bluegrass songs that I know and love, then narrowed that down to 30 then we recorded about 28 but only put 14 on the CD and 19 on the LP.”

Robert Earl Keen’s long history of making successful country albums has afforded him this labor of love and he saw this album as a way to introduce his fans to something that they possibly weren’t familiar with. “I wanted people who were my fans to pick up this record and say, ‘Hey, this is cool. I like this bluegrass stuff.’ So that was the first criteria for choosing the songs.”

With more than 20 years of writing, recording and touring under his belt, Tahoe Onstage asked what was next for the almost-60-year-old singer-songwriter. “Well, right now my dance card is totally full and I don’t have a clear idea of what’s next but I do feel like I’m on the cusp of a different time in my life.” Keen continued, “But people see me as a songwriter who stays relevant and that’s kind of my guiding force. … I’ll say this, as an artist, if you can stay relevant then that’s what you should be doing. If you can’t then you should retire to assisted living or something.”

By bringing classic bluegrass to a country-rock fan base, Keen’s talents as an artist and country pioneer will be in full command as he takes the stage of Whitney Peak’s Cargo on Friday.

  • Robert Earl Keen with Sam Outlaw
    When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 26
    Where: Whitney Peak Hotel’s Cargo,
    255 N. Virginia St., downtown Reno
    Tickets: $27 in advance or $30 on the day of the show

ABOUT Spencer Kilpatrick

Picture of Spencer Kilpatrick
Author Spencer Kilpatrick is a part-time writer and full-time ding-dong. He is currently scurrying around Big Water, Utah.

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