“Hot Corn, Cold Corn”
Robert Earl Keen
Written By Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
Robert Earl Keen has spent the past three decades as one of the most venerated singer-songwriters in country music, particularly within the Texas Country community. His latest album, Happy Prisoner, is a departure from Keen not because of his decision to dabble in Bluegrass music— his material has always skewed in a folk-leaning, acoustic direction— but because it’s an entire album of cover songs, and he’s known for his sharply-observed originals. Fortunately, there’s no faulting Keen’s taste in material, and the album’s first single is a cover of “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” a Flatt & Scruggs tune that has become a Bluegrass standard.
Genre purists, however, are bound to bristle at the arrangement Keen and producer Lloyd Maines have crafted for the song. Rather than emphasizing the close harmonies that are one of the hallmarks of Bluegrass music, Keen relies on his common habit of layering his own vocal tracks. On this single, Keen’s rumbling lower register perfectly complements his playful lead vocal, while his ace backing band chimes in with the occasional whoop or yelp of harmony. Though the timbre of Keen’s voice remains an acquired taste, his performance is buoyed by his infectious enthusiasm.
The use of a heavy percussion line is also verboten in most Bluegrass, but “Hot Corn, Cold Corn” is driven by a thunderclap rhythm track that, if the video is to be believed, came from pounding on an upside-down washtub. And the sinewy steel guitar riff that runs throughout the single is as prominent in the mix as the nimbly-plucked banjo figures. Maines’ production choices result in a single that sounds far more muscular than most Bluegrass fare.
The single’s faithfulness to its source material and its genre authenticity may be points of contention for some, but there’s something to be said for hearing a troubadour of Keen’s stature cut loose the way he does on “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.” It may not scan as Bluegrass in a traditional sense, but the single is one of Keen’s rambunctious best.