Mixing the old and the new
Even though the native Virginian comes from a long line of bluegrass musicians – Keel’s dad and brother were “always picking around the house” and traveling to play in music festivals – he likes to listen to and play just about anything.
“I like my own music, of course, but there’s just so much amazing stuff out there right now,” says Keel, who will be playing with his band at the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville on Dec. 14.
Keel’s thrilled that bands like Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Keller Williams and Mumford and Sons are exposing a new generation to the “amazing diversity” of traditional, and new, bluegrass music.
He bemoans that traditional bluegrass musicians too often reject them and their attempts to put a modern spin on the music.
“Anything that’s different is too often cast out in bluegrass circles. But, if something can’t grow, it dies,” says Keel.
Of his own musical style, Keel says, “There’s a traditional bluegrass sound to it, no doubt about it. But I’d say my music is ‘high energy, new and old mountain music.’”
Keel picked up playing the spoons at an early age so he could jam along with family and the many pickers and grinners who’d drop by to play at the family’s home near Fredericksburg. But, at age 7, his musical chops changed forever when he picked up a guitar. He was instantly hooked.
And, indeed, watch a Larry Keel music video on YouTube – there are many – and it’s easy to see the decades of love he’s poured into his style of playing. He’s a flat-picking virtuoso. Keel’s large hands and deft fingers fly up and down the fret board.
Most of Keel’s music is original, but he’s also known to produce some intriguing music covers as well. A recent backstage YouTube recording at the Suwannee River Hulaween music festival in Florida showed him, along with his bassist and spouse of 16 years, Jenny Keel, putting his own unique spin on U2’s “Magnificent.”
It’s a mesmerizing take on the rock group’s hit song, with a touch of bluegrass and folk thrown in. And it works.
Yet another video finds him and Keller Williams playing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” – a song that lends itself well to a bluegrass interpretation.
“When I’m listening to other music, something will just strike me about a particular tune and I’ll sit down and learn the song. Then I’ll put my own mark on it. But, I’m mostly interested in finding my own voice and playing my own music. There’s where I’m at now,” says Keel.
Keel cites as an inspiration the highly original, category-defying approach of musicians like Keller Williams, a fellow Fredericksburg native, with whom he’s played with often.
“I like how he does things his own way,” says Keel. “He refuses to be categorized.”
Today Keel calls Lexington, Va., home. He and his wife Jenny tour about 100 days a year, playing the summer-centric bluegrass music circuit all around the country, but primarily out west. They’ve also played in Jamaica and Japan.
Come winter, they play clubs and venues closer to home.
Keel recently played the Watermelon Fest, a veritable bluegrass feast for area fans that Keel calls “something beautiful.” His performance there generated heavy buzz in the local music community, which is deeply rich with its own bluegrass talent (think: Furnace Mountain and the Woodshedders).
“I see so many family and friends when I’m there,” Keel says. “It’s always magic.”
Keel, who speaks in a deep baritone with a thick Virginia drawl, is unfailingly polite and speaks with passion and enthusiasm not only about his music, but also about his other great love: fishing.
He grew up within casting distance of three bass ponds and said that when he wasn’t picking a guitar, he could be found with a fishing pole in his hand, sometimes both.
Keel and a couple partners started sponsoring events that featured traditional music and sport fishing. He says the events are aimed at a natural target audience: those who love music, fishing and the outdoors.
The retreats feature day-long fishing trips, music workshops, evening jam sessions and an evening group dining event for everyone to share in the day’s catch, which Keel says is often the most popular function of the retreat.
Keel’s group has already held events in Elk River, W.Va. (“Trout & Tunes”), and Perry, Ga. (“Bass ’n ‘Grass”). They’re also looking to hold retreats in Snake River, Idaho, New River, W.Va. and a possible local event at Watermelon Park on the Shenandoah River.
“I’d like to see this become my retirement plan,” laughs Keel.
One thing for certain: Keel doesn’t intend to sit still for long.
“Playing music is a constantly evolving process. I want to take in, and put out, as much music as I can while I’m kicking,” he says.
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