He retired from touring last year in grand fashion, but Robert Earl Keen is busier than ever.
There he was, on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives being honored for his contributions to Texas music. There he was, popping up in Nashville to pay tribute to Jody Williams, BMI’s former vice president of creative. There he was again, during Old Crow Medicine Show’s recent gig at the Longhorn Ballroom, during the historic venue’s opening weekend.
“I have just an incredible amount of that kind of thing going on,” the 67-year-old Keen said during a recent conversation. “As long as it seems like it’s really helping somebody, or they’re going to be really happy about it, I’m all for it. … I’m just like the girl out there on the dance floor — I can’t say no.”
Given that, it’s mildly ironic the opening lines of “Western Chill,” the title track for the acclaimed singer-songwriter’s ambitious new album out Friday, unfold as they do: “It’s easy to be somebody/But it’s hard to disappear/Let’s face it, everybody/Sometimes you just wanna be by yourself,” Keen sings.
“That was my general thought: How do we disconnect from our own wishes sometimes, or the actuality of our own dreams?” Keen said.
The breeziness and skill with which Western Chill, Keen’s first studio effort in eight years, unfolds belies the breadth of its vision. The 14-track album, which will only be available in physical form for the first few months of its existence, is accompanied by a detailed songbook (for those who may want to sing and/or play along), a 92-page graphic novel, and a full-length performance video of the entire record.
“I’m being stingy about it, because I really want to keep the integrity of the entire packaging intact,” Keen said. “It all fits. It was a serious project. … In some ways, it’s groundbreaking. And it’s cool. I just want to do something cool.”
The songs on Chill, which are credited to both Keen and his longtime bandmates, grew out of pandemic-era practice sessions when Keen and his collaborators were in the same bubble. Staying sharp begat jam sessions begat songwriting begat the album, which almost has a casual defiance to it. That resolute quality stems as much from the misconception that Keen’s retirement from the road meant everything was coming to a stop as it did musicians playing on in the face of a global health crisis.
But, suffice to say, Keen’s not calling it a day anytime soon.
“I just want to put out a really good record,” Keen said. “I don’t want to feel any pressure from one camp or another about how it should be, or what it should sound like. … One of the real obligations that you do have as an artist is to somewhat chronicle your life in some ways. … I’m older now. I want to see what my skill level is at this point. I’m sure it’s not as sharp as it was 20 years ago, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a lot of stuff since then.”
Preston Jones is a North Texas freelance writer and regular contributor to KXT. Email him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter (@prestonjones). Our work is made possible by our generous, music-loving members. If you like how we lift up local music, consider becoming a KXT sustaining member right here.