Rolling Stone: Robert Earl Keen Is…Making Graphic Novels and Teaching College?
Robert Earl Keen is late for this interview. But the Texas troubadour arrives with a valid excuse, one he’s used over the years, albeit truthfully — a guitar store caught his eye in transit and he just had to stop in to see what was on the racks.
“This is a Duesenberg [guitar],” the 67-year-old tells Rolling Stone backstage at the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, Texas, holding up the instrument. “It’s the same name and color of the car in my graphic novel. It’s serendipitous. I just had to buy it.”
Serendipitous is a word that could be used to describe the whirlwind life and rollicking good times — the devil-may-care legend and enduring lore — of one of the most beloved singer-songwriters to ever emerge from the Lone Star State. Despite retiring from touring last fall, Keen just released a new multimedia album. An ode to his current state-of-mind, Western Chill includes a vinyl record, live DVD, songbook, and, yep, a graphic novel. The record was mixed by Keen’s 27-year-old daughter, Clara, who also produces his Americana Podcast.
Written by Devin McCue and illustrated by Bryan Burk, the 92-page full-color graphic novel focuses on a singer-songwriter, loosely based on Keen himself, and his dog, who communicate telepathically with each other while traveling the road.
“They are basically following the constellation of Capricorn around the state of Texas,” says Keen, whose birthday is Jan. 11. “They hit the road with all these adventures going on. They end up in Marfa, where they get involved with this environmental group and a big conflict arises.”
Aside from the elaborate, intricate beauty of the graphic novel, the album itself is a collection of original songs, either penned by Keen or members of his alt-country band. He tasked them with singing whatever songs they brought to the table.
“They said, ‘What’s the deal? You’re going to learn our songs and you’re going to sing ’em?’” Keen recalls. “And I said, ‘No, you’re going to sing your songs and I’m going to sing my songs, and we’re going to put ’em all together.’”
Keen strums the sparkling red Duesenberg behind the Longhorn during its grand reopening celebration in March. He’s in Dallas to see his daughter, who’s at the Longhorn as part of a film crew working on They Called Us Outlaws: Cosmic Cowboys, Honky Tonk Heroes and the Rise of Renegade Troubadours, an upcoming six-part 12-hour documentary.
“You know, I’ve had some great, great moments in music,” Keens says, gazing around at the crew and musicians milling about, including Old Crow Medicine Show, with whom Keen will perform “Walkin’ Cane” later that night in a surprise cameo. “I’ve been able to get these front-row seats for these moments, either backstage hanging out or just simply performing.”
From humble beginnings kicking around Texas saloons and haphazard open-mic nights in the early 1980s to playing some of the biggest stages in the country, Keen, a Houston native who took off from home at 18, is adamant about doing what he wants on his own time.
Western Chill then takes that notion of artistic freedom to a whole new level, coming less than a year after the musician gave his “final performance” in front of 3,000 Keen diehards on Sept. 4, 2022, at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas. Incessant touring took up most of Keen’s career, leaving little time to pursue other creative outlets. Ultimately, it led to him stepping away from the spotlight.
“I’ve fought every fight and climbed every mountain [in the music industry]. Some of them were just hard and no fun,” Keen says. “And there are so many ways now that I know I can just sidestep some things.”
Western Chill represents a creative burst of inspiration and new freedom, along with lessons he plans to share with another generation. He recently visited with representatives of Schreiner University in his homebase of Kerrville, Texas, not far from his family’s sprawling 500-acre ranch, and will teach a limited class there this fall.
“I had this thought that maybe, somehow, I could pass some of ‘this information’ on,” Keen says. “[Schreiner] offered me this three-day seminar where I can do anything I want to do, to talk to the kids that are [studying] music.”
With a copy of Western Chill in his hands, Keen pulls out his trusty pocket knife and attacks the package like an eager child on Christmas morning, poring over each item he curated for the box set. There’s joy in his face, this man at the end of a long, yet bountiful journey and readying himself for the next, be it graphic novels, new albums, or even college courses.
“I have great memories of what I did, but I certainly don’t miss the road,” Keen says. “And now? I still have some energy, still play guitar, and still write songs, where I get to do other things I just never had time before to do… Life is good, no matter what I’m doing.”
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