Driving anywhere in Texas can cost you half a day, easy. For example, it’ll take you over four hours just to get from R&B singer Leon Bridges’ hometown of Fort Worth down to Houston, where the psychedelic wanderers in Khruangbin hail from. The state is vast, crisscrossed with rugged expanses of road flanked by limestone cliffs and granite mountains, forests of pine and mesquite, miles of desert or acres of sprawling grassland, all depending on what part you’re in. Most of it can only be traversed by car (or truck, if you’re that kind of Texan). And it’s all baking under the Texas Sun that lends its name to Bridges and Khruangbin’s new collaborative EP.
“Big sky country, that’s what they call Texas,” Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee says. “The horizon line goes all the way from one side to another without interruption. There’s something really comforting about that.”
On Texas Sun, these two members of the state’s musical vanguard meet up somewhere in the middle of that scene, in the mythical nexus of Texas’ past, present, and future—a dreamy badlands where genres blur as seamlessly as the terrain. Discovering it is like turning down a nameless country road and stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall honky-tonk, where the jukebox has both Charley Pride and DJ Screw. It was unknown territory for Khruangbin, too: The band’s first time writing with a singer found them tailoring their exotic funk to Bridges’ soulful melodies. The result makes it clear it was a side-trip worth taking.
Over a slowly rolling backbeat and strums of flamenco-style guitar on lead single “Texas Sun,” Bridges sings of the pull this unique landscape can have on you, even from miles away, his yearning to feel its warmth again answered by ghostly cries of pedal steel. It’s a stunner of an opener, kicking off the EP’s own journey through homesick reminiscences, backseat romances, and late-night contemplations, the kind of record made for listening with the windows down and the road humming softly beneath you. Like the highways that inspired it, Texas Sun is guaranteed to get you where you’re going—especially if you’re in no particular hurry to get there.
These past few years, Bridges and Khruangbin — formed of Lee, guitarist Mark Speer, and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson — have seen little of Texas outside of studio walls. Both had been touring nonstop behind their acclaimed sophomore LPs when their paths converged for a joint North American tour in 2018, a run of shows stretching from Los Angeles to New York—much of it buffeted by the kinds of cold winds Bridges sings of on “Texas Sun.” Their musical lanes were slightly different: Bridges, steeped in the smooth sensuality of ’90s R&B and country’s emotional clarity; Khruangbin, exploring the exotic wilds of global funk and spaced-out dub. Still, they shared a dusty, laidback vibe, and when a Khruangbin session yielded a song that seemed like it might pair well with Bridges’ voice, the band sent it over. As Lee tells it, Bridges returned the track with his vocals the very next day. They all soon decamped to the studio with engineer Steve Christensen, hoping to make it into a B-side. But everything flowed so naturally, it was obvious this would be something bigger.
“We try not to have too much of an intention, because it gets in the way of what the music wants to do,” Lee says. “If you just let the music do what it’s supposed to do, it will reveal itself. We tried to take that same approach with Leon. For us, it was opening up our world to have another person in it. But all of it feels like Texas to me.”
Indeed, Texas music is as varied and wild as its geography, although it’s usually reduced to a tourist-friendly montage of rhinestones and rodeos, outlaw country and electric blues. But Texas also gave us Southern rap pioneers Geto Boys and UGK, lysergic trailblazers The 13th Floor Elevators, and genres-unto-themselves like St. Vincent, Gary Clark Jr., and Beyonce. You can drive a few hours in any given direction and the sounds might change, but that essential spirit doesn’t—a sense of independence and anything’s-possible experimentation that comes from living on the bleeding edge of untamed wilderness.
Texas Sun lives there too, a record that calls equally to the cowboys boot-scooting at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, the chopped-and-screwed hip-hop fans rattling slabs on the southside of Houston, the art-school kids dropping acid in Austin, the cross-cultural progeny who grew up on listening to both mariachi and post-hardcore out on the Mexican borders of El Paso. All of these things overlap on Texas Sun in a multicolored melange, purple hues as vivid and unpredictable as one of the state’s rightfully celebrated sunsets.
“Texas Sun” gives way to “Midnight,” a daydream of young love and stolen moments outside your mother’s house, with Bridges laying buttery vocal runs over the band’s sensuously slow funk. “C-Side” comes on even stronger, with shimmering wah-wah guitar lines, burbling Latin polyrhythms, and a softly jazzy vibraphone creating a sophisticated, sexy good time where Bridges can spit his game to the baddest lady in the place. But just when you think Texas Sun is all top-down road trips and seat-down rendezvouses, it concludes on a note of absolution with the tender “Conversion,” a minor-key meditation on salvation born out of the traditional hymn “At The Cross,” and delivered with a sincerity that leans on Speer and Johnson’s decade of experience playing in gospel churches. As for Bridges’ singing, well… there’s a reason fans call him “The Truth.”
“It all feels like a cross-country Texas drive to me,” Lee says. “I hope that people can listen to it while putting themselves in that headspace. Some of my favorite moments listening to music are me by myself in a car—or preferably a truck—driving across Texas.”
But even if you’re trapped in gridlock, or stuffed onto a subway, or sitting perfectly still, Texas Sun effortlessly evokes the feeling of being behind the wheel, nothing but that big sky before you, your mind set free to wander. It’s a sound that should keep you good company on your own winding roads, wherever they may lead, and always back home. And it forges a new path for what we think of as “Texas music,” one that stretches back to the many miles that have been laid down behind it, but also veers off into this new and beautifully strange unknown.