Robert Earl Keen Discusses ‘Western Chill’ and His Brief Return to Touring: Exclusive

Robert Earl Keen announced his retirement from the road in 2022. The next year, he exclusively released Western Chill as part of a boxed set. Today, almost exactly a year later, Keen has released the album to streaming platforms, giving many fans the chance to hear it for the first time. He’s also on a short tour to give fans a taste of how select cuts from the album sound live.

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Fans everywhere will finally be able to click “play” on Western Chill today and find that the album does exactly what it says on the tin. The 14-track collection is the sonic embodiment of a summer day with a good breeze and a clear schedule. It’s the kind of record that invites the listener to close their eyes, dive in, and ride the wave.

It also features songs written and performed by members of Keen’s road band. Bill Whitbeck (bass) wrote and sang on three tracks, Brian Beken (guitar) took the lead on the two tracks he penned, and Kym Warner (mandolin/mandocaster) contributed “Hello Stranger,” an instrumental that is a highlight of the collection.

Ahead of the digital release of Western Chill, Robert Earl Keen sat down with American Songwriter to discuss the album, the timing of the release, and his current tour.

Robert Earl Keen on the Troubled Distribution of Western Chill

“I call it the Fitzcarraldo of all music projects,” Keen said.  “Fitzcarraldo is a real story about a man who tried to push a boat over the Andes going down the Amazon and it was a total disaster. A bunch of people died. Then, Werner Hertzog, the documentarian decided to copy that and the same thing happened to him. Actors quit on him, people died, they got bit by snakes, and they never made it over the Andes,” he explained.

Keen went on to say that bringing the band together during the Pandemic to record the album, shooting the live performance DVD, and creating the rest of the elements of the boxed set went smoothly. After that, though, the project “had one stumble after another.” First, a deal to put the live footage on the concert streaming service Nugs fell through. Then, the distributor of the boxed set backed out due to the shipping cost of the four-pound boxes—even after Keen offered to offset the price. As a result, he sold the set on his website. That brings us to now.

“The only thing that I had in my back pocket was that we didn’t put it out digitally,” Keen said. “Basically, what I want, at this point is to get the music out there,” he added.

Western Chill Came Together Smoothly

“The record really does reflect this philosophical idea of just chilling out, being in the West, taking it easy, living in the moment, that kind of thing,” Keen said of the collection. “All of the songs are like that. I was really lucky. The guys brought songs that really matched the whole idea. With the tradeoff of voices, I feel like it has a broader scope. This is one of those records that you put on and you don’t want to skip songs, you just want to listen all the way through,” he added

Keen said that after the Pandemic put things on hold, he and the band laid low for a while. Then, after some months of downtime with everybody being in good health, they started to get together for rehearsals. He came up with the idea for this project during those seasons.

“We started doing some rehearsal stuff and got into this whole idea and wrote five or six songs in a couple of days,” he recalled. “I told them like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to do this thing called Western Chill and you bring all your songs and we’ll go through all the songs,’” he said. At first, the band thought they would bring their songs for Keen to sing. He told them, “No. You’re gonna sing them and I’m gonna sing mine and we’re gonna put it all together.”

Robert Earl Keen’s Mini-Tour

After decades on the road, Keen retired from touring in 2022. Since then, he’s played a handful of shows, mostly in Texas. Then, he embarked on a short run in support of Western Chill. During a show at Knoxville’s Tennessee Theater, he and the band proved that they hadn’t lost a step in their downtime.

They performed the 2003 album Farm Fresh Onions in its entirety. Then, Keen dipped into classics like “Feelin’ Good Again” and “Gringo Honeymoon” before playing select cuts from Western Chill. “Let’s Valet,” “Blue Light,” “Waves,” and “Hello Stranger” were on the setlist, showcasing the band’s contributions to the collection. Then, they closed the show with “I Gotta Go,” and “The Road Goes on Forever” with “Rippling Waters,” the final track on Western Swing for an encore.

“We’re gonna go out on this little mini tour and play select cuts from Western Chill and then we’re going to do Picnic, my record from 1998 in its entirety and we’re going to do Farm Fresh Onions which came out in 2003 front to back. We’ll alternate those,” he said of the trek. “It’s something that I’ve never done. I’ve really enjoyed this whole rehearsal thing. Some of those songs reflect who I am better than the stuff I’m known for as far as like ‘The Road Goes on Forever’ and that kind of thing. I’m glad to flesh out some of my catalog,” Keen added. “We decided we’d use this as the point of the spear to get this thing cranked up again.”

Western Chill is available to stream everywhere now.

Featured Image by Emma Delavante

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