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No, He's Not Retired - Robert Earl Keen talks "Western Chill"

Like his contemporaries George Strait and Gary P. Nunn, Robert Earl Keen has redefined the word “retirement.”

It’s not the boomer dream of getting in the RV for cross country trips or watching Gunsmoke reruns from your La-Z-Boy after a busy morning of gardening.

It’s doing what you’ve always done but, on your own terms.

For lifers like Keen, it’s getting to scratch whatever creative itch hits the back of his neck without a worry of whether it pans out. It’s the freedom to create, produce, and play at will.

Robert Earl Keen’s Western Chill is the first of what we hope to be many endeavors to come for the 68-year-old music legend. Released last year as a box set, it’s got a ton of goodies -- a graphic novel, a play-along/sing-along songbook for all 14-songs and a DVD of the band performing the entire record from Keen’s “Snake Barn” studio. While the Western Chill merch and box set have been on his website for some time, this week marks the digital release of the entire album across the various streaming platforms.

Keen is also in Texas this week. You can catch him in College Station at the George HW Bush 100th Birthday Celebration and then Friday, June 14th in Grand Prairie at the Texas Trust Credit Union Theatre.

We were fortunate enough to chat a bit with The Godfather of this scene to do our famous “20 Questions” segment. So here you go folks, Robert Earl Keen, being all but retired.

GW: Let’s talk about Western Chill!

REK: It was somewhat groundbreaking. Bands are bands. When you talk about Coldplay that’s "a band.” But if it’s Robert Earl Keen and some band, people just brand you as "Robert Earl Keen" or "Randy Rogers" or whoever, they don’t really think about the band too much. But we made this one a band inclusive project where all the band guys brought their own songs and sang their own songs all under the moniker of Western Chill.  If you listen to the record, front to back it is truly a "chill" record. It’s easy, somewhat heartwarming, with a little bit of heartbreak in there.

It was kind of a miracle. I just told the guys, “This is what it’s called, here’s a couple of songs I wrote for it, and if you’ve got something, bring it on." And everything just fit. I actually started working on a musical play about it because there were certain things going on dramatically within peoples’ songs. I just really think it all reflects this moniker of "Western Chill." You’re just enjoying the mountains. or riding down one of those roads in the West where Forrest Gump and all those people were running. It’s just THE West and… just breathing the air.

The whole thing is really about the vibe. My stumbling block was that people wanted just a "Robert Earl Keen record" and I’ve been working with some of these guys like Bill [Whitbeck], our bass player, for 28-years, and I just wanted to be a band. So that’s how we acted when we recorded this. We got together, rehearsed all these songs and figured out what each of use wanted to do with them. It turned out to be the easiest jigsaw puzzle in the world to put together.

GW: I’d have to agree about the chill vibe. I’ve listened to several songs off Western Chill and it sounds like you put on your Jimmy Buffett shirt and just went to town. Yet it still is very clearly you, it’s a Robert Earl Keen record.

REK: When you’ve played together for a long time and you’re the front man, there’s a tendency for everybody to just go “well whatever you want to do boss.” I had to break through that wall and say “No, this is about US playing.” Once I got through, it was almost like we had a new band and everybody was “we could to this or do that.” I know I like to talk about the front porch a lot, but it really was like jamming on the front porch with your friends, but with all new songs.

GW: Talking about “band inclusive,” on the single “Waves” you turned everything over to Brian Beken. That’s pretty rare for a front main to relinquish control like that. What was that like for you?

REK: It gave me an opportunity to just be a band member and just sit back and listen. Brian writes songs that he doesn’t always pull out. Recently he told me that “Waves” was supposed to be an up-tempo thing but for this record he slowed it down and made it heartbreaking. When I heard it, I just kept playing it for people. The song is fantastic.

Bill [Whitbeck] also has a lot of songs. He threw in one about Georgia O’Keeffe and “Blue Light” is really reflective of so many young women who go out and try to hit every open mic night and play wherever they can. There’s some pathos in it, with the struggle getting there.  There’s always that drama.

GW: The video for "Let’s Valet" looked like a lot of fun. It’s got the western swing feel but set in this dark, jazz lounge vibe with you smoking a cigarette.

REK: That was SO fun. [chuckles] I’m not a great actor but I could FEEL that character. Kind of schlock but having a good time. That song came about because of this girl, Taylor, who would take me around to these red-carpet events all over Nashville. And at one point we got in this big traffic jam and I went, ‘Well, what are we going to do now, Taylor?’ And she goes, ‘Let’s valet!’ I said, ‘You know what, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me, ‘Here’s a great song title, here’s a great song,’ all that stuff. But Taylor, bingo—That is a song title.”


GW: You did a graphic novel to go along with this project. It features a guy named Zane and his dog, Mac, that go on this adventure across Texas, starting in College Station. Did the songs come first or the graphic novel? How did it come to be?


Yep, Zane is me and the dog is my dog, Mac. It was one of those things that kind of evolved. I wanted to put some life into what “Western Chill” was and following this Capricorn line that goes out to Marfa then up to Abilene. It’s like following the stars but with some drama. [In the story] we have one person [a record label rep] chasing us while we are trying to find Utopia. In the end Zane finds a way to make it work from himself and not the A&R person [the record label rep in the story]. I’d really love to make a real cartoon with Mac and Zane. They are a good pair, with Mac [the dog] being the comic relief, not putting up with Zane’s crap and being disgusted when he has to deal with it. It's kind of a buddy cop thing.

GW: In the graphic novel, I noticed a lot of resemblances to people and things in real life. There’s a reporter in there that Looks like Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy character, the recording studio in it looks like a converted Pizza Hut.

REK: [Laughs] Yes that’s exactly what it was! Also, Fran Drescher’s character from the movie ‘Spinal Tap’ was the model for the A&R rep in the story. I love that movie and if we were going to have an A&R rep in the story, we needed a badass like Fran Drescher.

GW: Before we get to some of our fun questions, is there anything else we need to know about Western Chill?

REK: With Western Chill, there is a beginning, middle and end. The song “Western Chill” is really the prologue, it sets everything up. Then we are sitting on the side of a mountain and imagining stuff, and things start happening in the universe. At the end…I like to write what I call “SnapChat Songs” that are mostly facetious. They typically last about 90 seconds, don’t repeat the chorus and have a single theme. The last song, “Rippling Waters” started out that way, but I thought it was really cool. So instead of turning it into a joke or weird, oblique reference, I just played the one verse, then sang it differently the second time, and like I said it just fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

GW: It really sounds like you had a great time making this record. You can hear the joy in your voice.

REK: I loved it. One of the things I fought is when I tried to explain this to the record companies. And this sounds cynical, but I think they wanted to get ‘the LAST record’ and it just irritated me. They’d go, “well we were just looking for a Robert Keen record” and I said “Well this is the Robert Keen record that I want to put out.” I’ve been a band leader forever but I have a bunk like everybody else. I try to treat everyone as equals and this record is what WE wanted to do.

GW: Is there a difference between the Robert Earl Keen who wakes up in the morning now versus the one waking up before quitting the grind of constantly touring?

REK: I changed my hours. I was the guy who stayed up until 4am and got up around 10am, then grogged through the day. When I got off this train, I really surprised myself, because now I go to bed at 10 or 11 at night and get up at 5 or 6am. In a way, I never got to see the magic of the sunrise and enjoy it. Now I get up and write poems. I’ve written over 100 poems about everything from “my phone is killing me” to “there’s an alligator gar in this lake that may be the devil” [laughs].

GW: At least with poems you don’t have to worry about creating a melody to go along.

REK: It's freed me up quite a bit not having to grind through the music. Music is kind of my limitation. I love music, but to make it where it really matches the words is sometimes difficult. I do the words really well, and then the music has to fit. So, I work on the music harder than I do the words. With poetry I get to just say what I want to say and like a song, it can seep into your soul. Then there’s a line or two that you can’t get out of your head, and you think "That’s worth all these words to get that ONE line that says what you want to say."

It's really about getting the thought down. Because if you’re not intentional, then it’s just confetti.

To be up at 5am and look through the trees and see the sun coming up over a lake or a river, I’d trade in every midnight in the world. You can FEEL something else working in the universe at that time.

GW: It sounds like writing is just part of your soul and you’re going to do it until the day you die.

REK: Absolutely! [chuckles] I can’t lose it, ya know? I spent a lot of years not being very confident about it, then I realized that you don’t have to have confidence, you just have to get it down. Worry about if it really works later, but just get it down. I have a few [songs] that are unfinished because I was having so much fun with them and didn’t want to screw them up, so I stopped working on them. I’ve done that with a lot of songs over the years. I’ll get the first chorus or maybe the bridge done and think, “I want this to work out really well” and then put it aside for a while until eventually it comes to me.

GW: Do you ever chain those unfinished songs together? Two ideas or poems that were never intended to be put together, then end up in a song?

REK: Yeah, on “Walking Distance” I did a thing we called “the sweep” where there was a transitional melody and a little word bridge going on. It was three different stories and was loosely based on “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy.

GW: Ok, we always do a couple of fun questions so if you can give me some latitude...

REK: Sure!

GW: Do you still keep in touch with Tarzan and Adonis and do you still memorize your license plates?

REK: [Laughs] RHP997!! I don’t know where the hell those guys are! They were probably extras in some movie like “The Demise of Arnold Schwartzenegger.”

GW: Name Association. What's the first thing you think of when I say these names.

Wille Nelson

REK: The Universal God of Music.

Lyle Lovett

REK: An incredibly incisive lyricist

Joe Ely

REK: Explosive

Jerry Jeff Walker

REK: He warms my heart, but I’m not sure if he ever liked me very much [laughs]. I always feel connected to him. I always liked him and his music. His style was so easy and warm.

And of course, a place: College Station

REK: That’s where I came out of the womb man. I was born in College Station, washed in the blood of maroon and white!

GW: And finally... You are on the Mount Rushmore of whatever you want to call this “Texas Music Scene.” It’s truly unique in its longevity, tradition, and the passion of it’s fans. Through your eyes, how has it evolved over the years?

REK: Today I see it as an industry, and like all industries there are good actors and bad actors. What’s really exciting to me is seeing somebody get the light shined on them. When I started, I broke a lot of ground. These clubs only took national acts, and then used small regional acts to fill in. I did my own booking and I called people and convinced them. Billy Bob’s only did national acts…Floore’s Country store…only national acts, except for Willie Nelson because they had a connection… I had to go down and meet with these people. I got into Austin City Limits by walking in and saying, “You need to put me on in here.” I also got into the Houston Rodeo and San Antonio Rodeo that way. I was setting the foundation, and while people give me a nod for that, I’m not sure they realized how hard I had to work to do it.


Get your Western Chill on by streaming the new record, and then head over to REK website to snag you that box set or merch before it’s gone.


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