An Interview: Larry Keel
As the release of the new album "Thief" by Keller and the Keels approached, I had the pleasure of speaking with guitar slinger Larry Keel. Leading up to it, I was really excited about this interview as I am a big fan of Larry’s music. Our conversation started out as casual as if I were talking to an old friend...
J-man: Hey Larry, is now a good time?
Larry: Oh yeah! Wonderful, wonderful. How’s everything going with you?
J-man: Things are great; I have the day off and the sun is shinning!
Larry: Oh maaan! Lucky man.
J-man: How are things on that end?
Larry: Doin’ good. Same thing here; the sun is shinning after… I don’t know, six or seven days of rainy, rainy, rainy. So it’s really nice now.
J-man: I love the sun.
J-man: So, Growing up and what led you to mountain music?
Larry: When I was growing up, my father was a banjo player and my brother is a guitar player. We always had friends playing music around us. They came from the mountains of southwest Virginia, so they sort of brought it to the Northern Virginia area with them.
J-man: How do you approach your shows night after night?
Larry: I approach them as, I want to give the crowd the very best of me that I can give them. And that I arrange my sets so that it’s the absolute funnest time that can be had that night.
J-man: Right on. How does it feel when a bluegrass icon like Del McCoury takes and covers one of your songs, also featuring it on one of his albums “The Company We Keep“?
Larry: Oh, it’s totally amazing. It’s like a dream come true. It really is. They are so good at what they do, it’s just nice to hear my idea come to such fruition.
J-man: You’ve had a chance to play with them several times. What’s that like?
Larry: Yeah, we’re really good friends. We’ve been running into each other for many years. I guess twenty years or more. I love playing with him. I think they’re the greatest bluegrass band in the world today.
J-man: I agree… I’m a huge fan.
Larry: (Laughs) Me too.
J-man: (Laughs) When I listened to the new album “Thief” it has an almost sitting around the campfire feel to it…
Larry: Yeah, for the feel; we wanted it to feel real natural. It’s a lot of Keller’s ideas. He has boundless ideas of songs to play. Whether I know them or not, I’ll learn them and we rehearse them and go out and play them. It seems like everybody else knows them (Laughs).
J-man: (Laughs)How did you get involved with Keller Williams and what are your thoughts on what he does musically?
Larry: Oh, man. How did I get involved with Keller? I think it was a while back… I’d say almost twenty years. We were playing a lot of the same clubs, around the Fredericksburg area. I forget what his band was called. I think it was the All Natural Band. We just liked what he did, the band I was in. We hit it off right away, pretty much and just began playing music all over the country together in different places. I’ll tell you; he’s one of the most creative people that I’ve met… He really is.
J-man: I have to say, of all of the Keller projects/bands; the project he does with you guys is by far my favorite.
Larry: Well thank you, thank you. We just really get along great and we hope that translates to the music.
J-man: I think it does.
J-man: The Riverboat Record Release Party, sounds like a pretty unique happening. What prompted that event and what are your thoughts on releasing the new album to one hundred diehard fans, on a boat?
Larry: Well it is a totally unique.. I’ll say “show”, for a lack of a better word at that point. It came about because Keller lives on or near the Rappahannock River and he sees that riverboat going up and down. He and his team worked it out with the coast guard and everybody to where we could have a hundred people on there. I feel it’s a really excellent way to release the cd. It’s special, it’s very special.
J-man: Some of my friends and staff are going to be on board and they are really looking forward to it.
Larry: (Laughs) Well, tell them to come up and say hello. I’d love to meet them
J-man: Will do. What are you thoughts on Jamgrass music and what it provides or takes away from traditional bluegrass music?
Larry: Jamgrass music, it seems; sort of exploded out of the Colorado area. With Leftover Salmon, and later; Yonder Mountain… I guess you could put String Cheese in that area, but they’re not grassy.
Larry: I feel it’s sort of the western take on bluegrass music. Coming from a younger audience and bluegrass music sort of started from all of the Irish music and a lot of swing and blues. It’s a big hodge-podge of music that created bluegrass and it seemed like it was launched and founded in the Blue Ridge Mountains out here. A lot of great players came from southwest Virginia; Ralph Stanley and Don Reno and Kentucky with Bill Monroe of course.
I see Jamgrass as a young persons take on bluegrass. Where bluegrass, was and sort of still is liked by an older generation. It’s good in a way, because that’s continuing on, preserving bluegrass. Jamgrass is helping to preserve bluegrass.
J-man: I agree with that. It’s not very typical to hear folks say that. A lot of bluegrass musicians have come to shun jamgrass music.
Larry: Yeah, I know… and I don’t feel that should be done. If someone is really putting their heart and energy into the music, how can you judge them?
J-man: Right. Speaking of jamgrass, you have a project with Adam Aijala from Yonder. Can you talk about how your project with Adam came about and the full sound that the two of you create?
Larry: I guess it was probably ten years ago, I was doing a big run of shows with Yonder Mountain String Band and I was sort of the supporting act, doing a solo guitar act. At the end of my sets, Adam would come up and play two or three guitar tunes with me, before they came on. So it was a special sort of thing.
We, throughout the years we honed it in to playing some music that we want to play. Adam has such a diverse repertoire. I mean he listens to punk music, and heavy metal… All kinds of different influences. He’ll bring a song to the table that you wouldn’t figure would be a song that would sound good with two guitars. But, by the time we work it out and get our own feel on it, it’s cool stuff and I think, there again; that’s the kind of stuff that turns the heads of a lot of young people towards bluegrass. Because it’s something they know, or like. Like I said, I don’t know a lot of these songs. I had sort of a strict bluegrass raisin’ you know? It’s interesting for me to learn all of this diverse material and it’s a royal blast.
J-man: Additionally, your playing translates well to that sort of style. The full sound being created by the two guitars, immediately draws folks attention.
Larry: Well, thank you. He is an incredible player (Laughs) and every time I pick with him it seems like he’s gone steps and steps beyond what he was the last time; and that was incredible, so…
J-man: Yeah, absolutely. It must be a really special thing, playing and sharing the music you love with your wife, Jenny. Can you talk about what playing music with her means to you?
Larry: Yeah, you know; it really is special. We decided long ago that we wanted to melt our career together to where we could be together all of the time, because that’s what we wanted. We have a happy time… I can say we never fight or any of that, but you know how that goes… That would only be good press (Laughs).
Larry: It’s a great time and it’s awesome having someone on the same page.
J-man: The year 2009 hits and I see your music was featured in a documentary film about promoting environmental protection in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. As well, you hosted a “Bass & Grass” fishing technique camp in southern Georgia, also hosting a camp in Ohio at Jorma’s guitar camp. What prompted your directional and conscious shift towards other means of sharing music?
Larry: You know… I’m not the type that just wants to have an extremely laid out perfect course for myself. I like to keep all of my avenues open, just seein’ what’s out there because it’s so enriching when you actually open you eyes and see what’s going on. A lot of the teaching events are so worth while. It is, it’s like giving back in a way, but it gives back to me to be able to see someone getting better at being a musician and finding happiness in that. Or getting out and forgetting about their troubles for a bit and grabbing a fishing pole. Or like you said with the mountaintop removal… that’s just, in my opinion; a heinous crime. If I can let people know about it any way I can, I’ll do so.
J-man: I’m not a fan of gear/equipment questions…
J-man: (Laughs) … But what kind of strings are you using, Larry?
Larry: I use D’Addario Strings…
J-man: Great. Well, I’m a huge fan so this meant a lot to me to be able to have this conversation with you. I greatly appreciate it.
Larry: Well, I do too and I appreciate your time. I hope to see you somewhere, sometime. Are you in the New York?
J-man: Yeah, I’m in Upstate New York. By the way, you are badly needed up here (Laughs).
Larry: (Laughs) We will definitely work on coming up there to see you. It’d be nice to put a face with the name.
J-man: You guys are doing Delfest, correct?
Larry: Yeah, my band will be there; are you going to be there?
J-man: Yeah, I’ll probably run into you at Delfest.
Larry: Alright, wonderful. Please introduce yourself and it would be great to meet you.
J-man: Will do. Thank you very much, Larry. Enjoy the sunshine.
Larry: Alright, you too.
Rex Thomson of MusicMarauders Review of "Thief".