Fans heaved a collective sigh when Robert Earl Keen announced last year that he was done touring for good. But fear not: The Houston-born bard is far from finished writing and recording more of the lyrical, good-hearted mischief that he’s become known for over the last four decades. He just needs to chill for a minute—in fact, he would argue that we all do.
His new album, Western Chill, out in April, is a personification of the lifestyle the sixty-seven-year-old Keen is striving for in his new era of life. “‘Western chill,’ to me, means sitting back and watching the sun go down while you’re drinking your favorite cold beer or your favorite cocktail and just watching life,” Keen says. “The album is a casual, comfortable, slow swing. You can just put it on and let it wash over you.”
The project began in early 2020, when Keen decided to fix up a dirt-floor shed—not-so-affectionately dubbed the Snake Barn—on his ranch in Medina, Texas, and turn it into a rehearsal space for him and his band. One night after practice, as he sat outside the shed, Keen began to write about what he saw and felt as he watched night fall on the hills around him. “It’s easy to be somebody, but it’s hard to disappear,” he wrote, the opening lines to what would become the album’s title track and prologue, which G&G is proud to premiere today.
“We were having so much fun rehearsing and just being together that I told the band to bring their own songs and we’d shoot a video,” Keen says. “I thought we’d just put it out during COVID so people could see movement.” But after hearing the songs that his bandmates came with, he quickly realized it deserved to grow into something bigger.
“The finest thing I’ve gotten out of being in the music business is the front-row seat to all kinds of talent,” Keen says. And that certainly includes his own band of top-notch players. “When I was listening to their songs, I was thinking, Wow, these guys are better songwriters than I am. The level of musicianship and lyrical content fit together hand in glove with the kind of record I wanted to make.” While Western Chill features some songs written and sung by Keen, the album also includes tracks such as “Waves” by fiddle player Brian Beken, or “Hey Stranger,” a mandolin instrumental written and performed by Kym Warner. “There’s so much magic in doing this as a band-inclusive thing,” Keen says. “When we brought these songs together, they flat out fit perfectly.”
If a full album of new songs wasn’t enough, Keen created a bundle to go along with the record, which includes a performance DVD live from the Snake Barn, a songbook that teaches the chords and lyrics for each track, and a ninety-two-page graphic novel—created by the Lubbock-based design group FarisWheel Productions and illustrator Bryan Burke—that follows a familiar looking songwriter’s Don Quixote–like journey across Texas in search of the perfect tune.
Despite its size (and very laidback vibe), the project is not a swan song or a retirement notice. Quite the contrary. Less time on the road leads to more time in the studio—and the Snake Barn. Expect Keen’s next album, which he says is already all but finished, to push the limits even further. “A lot of times having fun creatively means breaking boundaries and not repeating what you’ve done before,” he says. “And if you are not having fun, what are you doing?”
Watch the video for “Western Chill” above. The album and box set are out April 14 and available to pre-order here.