“Western Chill” (Scriptorium Rex Records)

By Eleni P. Austin

Robert Earl Keen is what’s known as a songwriter’s songwriter. Born in 1956, the Houston, Texas native grew up loving to read. He evinced a passion for literature and writing as a teen. Early musical influences included British Power trio Cream, Willie Nelson, Flatt & Scruggs Bill Withers and Jimmie Rodgers.

After high school, he picked up a guitar and taught himself to play with the help of a Classic Country songbook. He graduated from Texas A&M with a Bachelor Of Arts degree in English. Soon enough, he was playing Bluegrass and Folk with friends and offering up his own nascent compositions.

Over the next few years, He made his bones woodshedding in Austin clubs like the Cactus Café, Alamo Lounge and Liberty Lunch. In 1983, he won the New Folk competition at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival. The following year, he released his self-produced debut, No Kinda Dancer. Rather quickly, he signed a contract with a record label and inked a publishing deal. He relocated to Nashville for a bit, but ended up returning to his home state for good.


In the last four decades, he has released 12 studio albums, seven live efforts and a hits compilation. He’s made music for labels big and not-so-big, to consistent, rapturous critical acclaim. Throughout the years, he’s cultivated a loyal and passionate following. Other musicians quickly took note of his songwriting prowess and his songs have been covered by artists like George Strait, Joe Ely, The Highwaymen, Nanci Griffith and (his former college roommate) Lyle Lovett.

A perennial road dog, Robert really made his name as a live act. A witty raconteur, his wry and conversational mien was matched by a wicked sense of songcraft. His longtime band includes Bill Whitbeck on bass, upright bass and vocals, Tom Van Schaik on drums, Kym Warner on mandolin and mandocaster, as well as Brian Beken on fiddle, acoustic and electric guitars.

In 2022, Robert announced that even though he would be continuing to write and record, he was retiring from the road. As a special gift to ardent, longtime fans, he released a groundbreaking LP and box set, Western Chill. It featured a 92-page graphic novel inspired by the album, a play-along/sing-along songbook and a live DVD of the Robert Earl Keen band playing the album front-to-back. Initially, it was only available in box set form via Robert’s website. but it’s now being released as a stand-alone effort, available on digital platforms, vinyl and CD.

The album quietly takes flight with the title track. Strummy guitars, flinty fiddle, plucky mandolin and stealthy bass lines are wed to a sly, shuffle-rhythm. Robert’s warm Texas drawl wraps around laid-back lyrics that simultaneously yearn for a little down-time and display his trademark wit: “Sometimes I go down to the river and take off all my clothes, I think about that movie where the prisoners meet the sirens now I don’t want to be that guy that they turned into a toad, but if I met a siren, I’d be inclined to try a siren, Western chill, under the stars of Orion, western chill, just me and my pretty siren, it’s my own configuration to soothe my frustration, the best darn vacation in all of creation.”

In an unorthodox move, for nearly half of the record, Robert cedes the spotlight to his bandmates. Bassist Bill Whitbeck is up first, tackling three songs. On “Blue Light” knotty acoustic and baritone guitars are shadowed by shivery mandolin, lowing bass and a weathered back-beat. His tender croon frames lyrics that offer an unvarnished portrait of a working musician: “Janie pulls her boots on, looks around the motel room, picks up a ’57 Gibson, adios to Houston, look out now/500 miles on the highway toady, how the hell is Lubbock so far away, she’s got to make it, she’s got a show to play, girl’s got plenty of dues and bills to pay.”

“Mister Mockingbird” nestles in that sweet spot between Gypsy Jazz and Western Swing. Feathery acoustic guitars dovetail with plumy mandolin, sinuous bass lines and a chunky back-beat. Blue and broken-hearted lyrics look to the sky for answers: “Mister Mockingbird, have you heard, she walked out without a word, won’t you sing for me, a teal sad melody, I’m as blue as a boy can be, Mister Mockingbird, won’t you sing her back to me.”

Meanwhile, honeyed harmonies, cascading mandolin notes, wily bass lines, sawing fiddle and sun-dappled guitars are tethered to a loping gait on “Bones And Flowers.” Lyrics offer a deft homage to Georgia O’ Keefe: “She lives in the desert, another old ghost, the devil’s in the red dirt and the heavenly host/She paints bones and flowers with her eyes and her ears, she can take hours, turn ‘em into years.” Guitars keen across quicksilver mandolin on the break, as elusive and desolate as Abiquiu.

Brian Beken comes into focus on a couple of tracks, “The City” and “Waves.” “The City” is powered by bramble-thick acoustic guitar, braided mandolin, thrumming bass, willowy electric guitar and a barely-there beat. His tough-hewn vocals mirror the carnal chemistry of a chance encounter: “I’ve always noticed you, long before you ever knew, said you like what I do, I’d like to have one or two/and the blood is moving through my veins like before, there’s no way anything can keep me from coming back here so much more.” Courtly Spanish guitar intertwines with spiraling mandolin on the break.

On “Waves,” piquant mandolin darts between plangent guitars, angular bass and a whispery beat. Heartache is just beneath the surface, briefly bubbling up as some hard truths are acknowledged: “I don’t really say a lot, and never gave it much too thought, how many times I bought what you’re selling me…and it almost sounds like waves crashing.” The shimmering instrumentation nearly succeeds in cushioning the lyrics’ emotional blows.

For the remainder of the record, Robert’s in charge. His droll humor is in full display on both “Let’s Valet” and “Mr. Blues On The Run.” The former is a frisky amuse bouche, that matches tart mandolin runs with shang-a-lang guitars, slinky bass and a percolating beat. Lyrics advocate for luxe treatment: “Let’s valet in silk and sequins, mais oui, mademoiselle, step right this way…we’ll order razzle dazzle, we’ll share some, what the hey, our night is off the menu…let’s valet.” A Django-riffic guitar solo unspools on the break doubling down on the opulent Francophilia.

The latter is a twangin’ Texas Two-Step accented by stuttery guitars, loose-limbed bass, sepia-tone mandolin and some frolicsome fiddle. Chirpy lyrics note it’s hard to wallow in the mire when a sprightly melody is on deck: “I like the sexy, sassy sound of an easy conga drum, loosey-goosey feel of Riviera swing, add a tad of “COOL MAN,” just for fun. ain’t nothing but a thing, send Mr. Blues on the run.” The instrumentation syncs up and struts across the break just before Robert insists “Mr. Blues ain’t nothing new to me, I don’t let it get to me, he can have the rain and clouds, I’ll take the sun.”

The best tracks hopscotch through a surfeit of styles, managing to exhibit a Lonestar State of mind. “Balmorhea” is a South Of The Border charmer that blends breezy guitars, buoyant bass and a rattle-trap beat. Lyrics pay homage to the Toyahvale park that includes a cienega wetland that was created during the Great Depression: “Baby, it’s been a good day to get away and leave it all behind, if we could we would buy a little place and live there all the time, paint our mailbox yellow, let the world go to ‘hell-o,….it’s easy living here, lying on a blanket watching clouds roll by, I really hate to leave, it’s really where I want to be by your side, all the magic places, none compare to this oasis.” Filigreed guitars wash over the break on this sparkling respite.

Meanwhile, “Sweet Summer Rain” is as slow as molasses. Agile guitars sidle up to roiling bass and a brushed beat. Robert’s slightly hangdog vocals manage to dirty up the pretty as lyrics long to be washed clean: “Just when you think the sun’s gonna bake this land from here to Coeur d’ Alene, rain clouds roll in on their friend the west wind and your prayers have nor been in vain..”

Finally, “Marfa” is a bare-bones lament that takes place in the tiny Texas town that is best known as the set for James Dean’s final film, “Giant.” Sinewy guitars partner with spidery bass and a heartbreak beat. The yearning is palpable a tender farewell is in the offing: “Raise your glass to Marfa, to me, the train, the art, and to how we cross your mind, like you cross your heart.”

Other interesting tracks include “Hello Stranger,” a Celtic-flavored breakdown that builds to a stunning crescendo. Then there’s “Walking On,” a rugged ode to perseverance. The album closes with “Rippling Waters,” a tribute to an easy-going love. Mandolin licks lattice sweet-sour fiddle, finger-pickin’ muscular guitars, sturdy bass and a lanky backbeat. The lyrical tone poem pools and eddie, celebrating a free-flowing romance: “Rippling waters, all I can see, so captivating and desperately free, just like my baby, here and gone, rippling waters, here and gone.”

Robert Earl Keen never disappoints. There’s a lot to unpack on this record, which is less a conventional effort, that hews more closely to an old-fashioned guitar pull. Everyone takes a turn or two, allowing each band member to bask in the sunshine. Western Chill is a smorgasbord of sound, restless, reckless and reflective. In short, exactly what we’ve come expect, from this songwriter’s songwriter.