By Jeffrey Smith
Prepare yourself for a one-of-a-kind “musical adventure ride,” the Larry Keel Experience is coming back to town. The band, which plays Nederland’s Caribou Room,
Aug. 5, features innovative and exhilarating flatpicking guitarist Keel, his wife, Jenny, on upright bass and Will Lee on banjo and vocals. The Nederland show brings the Keels together with renowned, genre-bending banjoist Danny Barnes for an even more progressive, experimental musical excursion.
Keel is the product of his “bluegrass family” upbringing that included relatives “deeply steeped in the rich mountain music culture and heritage of Southwest Virginia.” This “solid” musical foundation, coupled with a “natural-born talent,” has led to an original, incomparable approach to flatpicking the guitar along with the respect of today’s top acoustic musicians. His deep rumbling voice, earthy and imaginative song-writing and “down-home-gritty-good-time charm” has also earned the admiration of fans around the world.
Well-known for choosing “interesting and appealing material” from all realms of music to feature in his various bands and collaborations, Keel records and performs an eclectic mix of styles including wide-ranging songwriting subjects in both the music he covers and in his original material. He says it’s his “spirituality and determination to create my own voice and my ability to walk to the beat of my own drum” that ties them all together and has “no apologies for that ever.” For Keel, the musical mission is always clear: “to let technical skill, honest emotion and fearlessness connect the playing and singing to audiences, to entertain and to thoroughly enjoy the experience of creating and sharing in music.”
Throughout his prolific career, the acoustic flatpicking guitarist has released 15 albums and is featured on 10 others. Fans of Yonder Mountain String Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon have likely heard the guitarist regularly collaborating on stage or studio recordings. He’s also teamed-up with artists including Drew Emmitt, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Bill Monroe, Tony Rice and, on numerous occasions, Keller Willams. “Keller is an old friend from back when we were both playing open mic nights at local taverns in the Fredericksburg, Va. area and surrounding towns,” Keel said. “He’s always been a buddy and a musical ally since we were very young. Keller is perhaps the hardest working, most dedicated musician I’ve observed, and one of the most generous and gracious people I know.”
Keel considers Williams a mentor in the music industry. He introduced the guitarist and his wife to many “great” artists and promoters and involved them in “the country’s best concert events” while “recording great projects together and always continuing to inspire us and fire us up year after year.” According to Keel, with Williams, “it’s no holds barred; and that’s the way we like it too.”
No holds barred is the perfect way to describe Barnes’ style, too. The banjo player, known for his work with Bad Livers and others, is considered one of the most innovative, versatile and adventurous banjo players playing today. “[He] is a true original,” Keel said. “His songwriting is so natural, and his musicianship is not only technically exceptional, it’s otherworldly and has a voice all its own. He is a Buddha of the banjo. When we play together, we joyously and fearlessly go deep! I can’t wait to pick with that man again.”
Many of Keel’s connections came together to help him record his latest release, “Experienced.” The album is an entirely original work showcasing the exceptional songwriting, singing and jaw-dropping instrumental performances. Added to the “raw sophistication” of Keel’s progressive acoustic style are several guest-musician-friends including Rowan, Bush, Del McCoury, Williams, Jason Carter, Mike Guggino and Anders Beck.
“I put together a list of friends I wanted to have on the CD that I was working on, and after contacting them, each one agreed to perform,” he said. “My thing is, always try to surround yourself with the best players. What better way is there to elevate your own musicianship and creativity? Good things happen; it’s a very natural process. I’m honored and lucky to get to meet and know a lot of amazing people in my line of work.”
Despite his obvious success from a fan’s point of view, Keel is somewhat humble in his definition of success. “The most special accomplishment is having my music requested, especially by children and young folks, and then to see them sing every word, dance along to my tune, all that. Wow! And, being able to share the music with my loving wife and soul mate, and with my life-long friend and band mate Will Lee. All of these things definitely make me feel like I’ve ‘made it,’” he said.
Keel is looking forward to his upcoming Colorado performances, which includes an appearance as Larry Keel & Friends at the Breckenridge Brewery Hootenanny, July 9. He returns with the Larry Keel Experience to perform in Nederland’s Caribou Room, Aug. 5; Rhythms on the Rio Festival in South Fork, Aug 6; and Keystone Bluegrass & Beer Festival, Aug. 7.
The guitarist recently performed with Williams at this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he made his first visit to Colorado in 1993 to participate in the festival’s prestigious guitar contest. He went home with first place. He returned two years later with his band Magraw Gap and won first place in the band contest as well as the guitar contest for the second time. Over the years, he’s returned to the state numerous times including appearances at NedFest in 2008 and 2011.
“Since my very first visit to Colorado… I’ve carried with me all that energy and big, open-space feel that you get from being in the Rockies,” Keel said. “And, there are so many hungry, ultra-enthusiastic music lovers out there that appreciate good music with such a passion. For a musician, it makes you want to give it all you’ve got. The people of the Rockies, and the mountains themselves, are so inspiring. Being in Nederland just makes us feel even more creative, and ready for anything and everything. Hell yeah!”
Originally published int he July 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly