ROCKBRIDGE COUNTY, VA – Larry Keel is a bluegrass guitar master. He has collaborated with a wide range of artists (including Keller Williams). He also fronts his own band, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge. Larry recently called in to discuss the first song he learned how to play, his songwriting process and how he is pushing bluegrass in new directions.
Stream “Country Blues” while you read:
McClain Johnson: What first got you interested in playing?
Larry Keel: My dad and my brother used to do a lot of jamming around the house. My dad was a banjo player, my brother was also. He was a guitar player. They would always be picking around the house, and having different friends over picking. I just sort of grew up around it. My brother finally bought me a guitar when I was about 7 years old. I haven’t set it down since.
McClain Johnson: Do you remember the first song you learned how to play?
Larry Keel: The first song I learned was Mother Maybelle Carter’s version of “Wildwood Flower.”
McClain Johnson: How do you feel that your sound and approach to playing has changed over the years?
Larry Keel: I mainly started out playing bluegrass music. As my ear grew, I began to listen to a lot of different things. Jazz music, rock and roll like Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix, some reggae music. I feel like all those different types of music have definitely influenced what I’m doing today.
McClain Johnson: It’s neat because you’re so at ease with so many different styles of music. You’re able to take any style and put your own spin on things.
Larry Keel: I try to. I like a lot of all of it for sure.
McClain Johnson: Are there any styles that you would like to learn how to play that you haven’t yet?
Larry Keel: Yeah. I’m always wanting to learn more. I do a lot of writing and try to express myself that way, in songwriting. As far as musics I’d like to learn, I’d like to learn classical music a little more. I’d like to learn more jazz music, a lot of music from all over the world. I just hear different things I really like all the time. I try to absorb them and learn them. That’s the way music is for me, it’s a constant learning experience.
McClain Johnson: How does your songwriting process work?
Larry Keel: It’s sort of a mystical process. I can feel that I’m getting ready to write a song. I can feel it welling up in me. I try to hear the melody that’s coming out of thin air there. I try to put words and phrases to it appropriately to where it all fits together. I come out with a nice, finished product.
McClain Johnson: Do you mostly start with the melody first and then add lyrics?
Larry Keel: I’ve done it both ways. I have different inspirations from the people we meet, or places we’re at or stories we hear. Sometimes, I get a lot of words that come to me or a phrasing style, and I put the words to that. Other times, I hear a tune in my head and I try to pt words to that. It comes both ways.
McClain Johnson: You’ve collaborated with so many folks over the years. Are there any folks you work with that you haven’t yet?
Larry Keel: Yeah. I’m always loving a chance to bend the ear of a fellow musician, have them bend mine, and see what we can come up with. I’ve been doing some shows lately with Danny Barnes, who I consider one of the greatest songwriters of today’s time. I think he’s just a brilliant songwriter. Getting ready to do some with Drew Emmitt I definitely love his songwriting and have for many years There’s a lot of people I would love to do collaborations with. Tim O”Brien, I’d love to work with him some. I’d love to make some music with him. He’s a fabulous singer. Paul Brady, from Ireland. I’d love to get together with him and work out some stuff. The list is pretty much endless.
McClain Johnson:You’ve collaborated with Keller Williams. How did that come together?
Larry Keel: I’ve known Keller for a long time. We met up in northern Virgina, near Fredericksburg, near his home. I had a band at the time that was playing sort of the same circuit that he was. We constantly ran into each other. We hit it right off and went to playing. We started doing shows and we’ve been playing ever since. Pretty much 20 years ago or more. We’ve been great friends the whole time. We’ve got a lot more shows to do together. I’m really looking forward to it.
McClain Johnson: That’s what is so neat about the scene, there are all these great bands that are seeing each other and playing together. It must be an amazing way to meet folks.
Larry Keel: Absolutely, it really is. You meet people and you take it all in. It enriches your life.
McClain Johnson: What have been some of your favorite times on the road over the years?
Larry Keel: There’s so many great ones that I think about. Traveling throughout Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. Getting to do a lot of fishing out there, meeting a lot of folks, developing friendships everywhere. Really getting to know so many different people in so many different places. We’ve been really blessed to play with amazing people, a lot of them have passed on now. Look forward to many more years of it.
McClain Johnson: Bluegrass is an amazing way to connect with so many folks. It’s a really universal kind of thing.
Larry Keel: It really is. I think people really want to preserve it, because they see it’s part of their way of life. They might have heard their grandfather play it or their father. Just sitting at a campground somewhere where somebody was playing music. A lot stories of America are in there, the folk-life of America. I think people see the need to preserve it.
McClain Johnson: You’re really carrying that tradition on, but you’re pushing it into new areas. That’s awesome to remind folks of the past, but push it forward in a new direction.
Larry Keel: Yeah, I feel that everything must grow. I love traditional music, and I want to pay my respect to it. The way it goes. It doesn’t just have to be the traditional sound of bluegrass to be bluegrass. A lot of people want to hear a reggae song, or an original song, or a rock song, done bluegrass style. I think that turns a lot of the younger audience on to the music. If I can play a Bob Marley song, and all the young kids like it, then the next song I play is a Ralph Stanley song. I feel like I’m turning some people on to bluegrass that might not have necessarily got to hear as much of it. I’m therefore preserving it to a younger and newer audience.
McClain Johnson: Once you hear that bluegrass sound, you want more of it. It gets under your skin.
Larry Keel: Absolutely. It’s got a driving beat, good lyrics, good singing. I think it really affects people.
Larry Keel currently has over 30 dates booked in 2011. To find out when he’s playing near you head over to his official website atÂ http://larrykeel.com.
To download a soundboard recording of one of his recent shows head over to The Live Music Archive.