The Greatest, Most Original Guitar Player You’ve Never Heard of
By Eric J. Wallace
Photos by 621 Studios
The year is 2002, and virtuoso progressive bluegrass guitarist Larry Keel is setting up on the stage of yet another dive-bar in the hills of western North Carolina. “Larry’s doing nothing short of reinventing the acoustic guitar,” explains Steve McMurry, the big, bearlike lead guitarist of acclaimed bluegrass band Acoustic Syndicate. “A lot of people, when they first hear his music, they don’t get it,” McMurry says in a dark, almost conspiratorial tone. Tracing his index finger around the rim of a pint of beer, he mutters: “It’s analogous to Van Gogh…. Like some artist that won’t be recognized until it’s all over.”
The problem with attempting to profile a musician of Keel’s caliber and originality is that his art — the depth of its effect — lies largely beyond the scope of concrete description. It is sensual, metaphysical, a thing to be experienced in the moment. While, yes, a hyper-educated critic can espouse some high-browed analytical jargon deconstructing a performance into techniques, influences, and formal innovations — thereby intellectually testifying to the genius of a given performer — the fact remains that without purchasing a ticket to the show and experiencing the music itself, a would-be initiate might as well be staring at a mouse and calling it a bear.
Each Larry Keel show is different. To consider the music of Larry Keel “is to realize the man is doing for bluegrass what Hendrix did for rock,” says McMurry, “what Miles did for jazz” — that is, exploring the uncharted possibilities, defying the limitations of a deeply established musical form. As recently as 10 years ago, Keel’s music was so creatively innovative, so ahead of his time, that it was often misunderstood, overlooked, and even dismissed by traditionalists as unworthy of critical praise.
Over the past 10–15 years, however, as Keel began to frequently and routinely perform alongside such legendary statesmen as Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Daryl Anger, and Del McCoury — consistently earning not only a tip of the hat, but also one hell of a grin and a nod — music enthusiasts began to increasingly take notice. Then, Keel found himself in possession of an ever-growing national reputation as a cult-like underground icon, a guitar-slinger’s guitar slinger, as it were.
Hoping to capture the essence of this enigmatic, guru-esque musician in his own words, your Piedmont Virginian reporter sat down with the notorious Larry Keel.
The Piedmont Virginian: You were introduced to the guitar and bluegrass music very early on by your brother and father, both of whom were pickers. Could you talk a bit about that introduction, as well as what the music meant for you in those earliest years?
Larry Keel: I was inspired by the music I got to hear at family gatherings, where either we would go to the homes of family and friends or they’d come to ours. There were always pickers and singers…. My dad played guitar and banjo, and my brother played guitar at all of these get-togethers. As a really little kid, I enjoyed playing ‘spoons’ — you know, where you take two metal spoons and place them back to back, hold the handles lightly, and hammer them on your leg or a surface, making these fast beats and poly-rhythms. Anyway, I got pretty good at it. I’d play whenever there was music going on — at family parties, festivals and fiddler’s conventions, campsites, or wherever. Then, when I turned seven, my brother, Gary Keel — with whom I’ve had the pleasure of playing numerable shows, and recording a number of albums with over the years — bought me my first real guitar. Before that, I’d had toy guitars, but never a real instrument. From that point on, that guitar and I — we were inseparable. I just never set it down. It brought true joy to my childhood. I was always wanting to learn and get better on it.
PV: By virtue of bluegrass being such an organic component of your family life, from the beginning you were immersed within, and had access to a larger musical community. There were jam sessions at the house, family reunions, neighborhood parties, community concerts, and so on. How did this access and immersion effect your development as a musician and artist?
LK: Growing up in the countryside of Fauquier County, there was such a diverse mix of folks. My parents were open-minded, ultra-kind, ultra-hospitable people, and they tended to attract and associate with people of a similar bend. They had an active social life that pretty much revolved around gatherings and get-togethers. They liked being around really good folks, from all walks of life: super down-home country people — which is how I’d categorize my family — city people, politicians, diplomats, scientists, scholars, rednecks, hippies, it didn’t matter, so long as they were good folks. Fortunately for me, the connecting feature of this circle was a deep love of music. They’d all get together at events, concerts, festivals, cake-walks, fire department benefits, take turns throwing picking-parties, and so on. So really, we were part of one big, tight-knit community. It was inspiring. All those special, special times — the jokes and laughter, good food, people’s stories, and, of course, all that music with friends and family.
Of particular importance to my musical — and, frankly, personal — development was a weekly jam out in Amissville, Virginia, where we all got together at my dad’s pal, Ronnie Poe’s, garage. At this point, even though Ronnie passed recently, the Tuesday night jam has been going on there for over 30 years without fail, and continues to this day. So many musicians — even famous ones like Tony Rice, and various members of legendary bluegrass bands like the Seldom Scene, and the Country Gentlemen — have dropped by and sat in on that jam over the decades. So, as you can imagine, there was always some great, really high-caliber picking going on there.
Having the privilege of participating and listening in on those sessions played a major role in not only my cutting my ‘chops,’ but learning the rules of how to play music with other people correctly, with taste and mindfulness. All in all, Poe’s Garage was just good medicine. One of our dearest family friends, Ted Kreh — a wonderful player and singer, and collector of some of the world’s finest vintage acoustic instruments, and archivist of some of the most rare and important early blues and folk music recordings, who also tended to lead these gatherings — used to say that, where some folks pay thousands of dollars to have someone else help them with their stress and their problems, going to those jams was his ‘therapy.’
PV: Having your father, brother, and a tight-knit group of family friends play the role of your earliest musical influences must have been quite amazing.
LK: Yeah, seeing how much fun my dad and my brother had playing music, how deeply they got into it, that was a very powerful attraction for me. It made me want to learn and get better and play along too!
Another big thing was, because we were a family of musicians, we’d all listen to the radio together. We’d tune it to 88.5 WAMU Washington, and listen to the great bluegrass and old country music that, back then, played for six hours a day. We loved hearing all the greats, all the time — Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, and on and on and on.
I guess that since the ‘landscape’ of the scenes around me was filled with so much love and sharing and encouragement among friends and families, and since the music that was played at virtually every one of these gatherings — and in my own home practically every day — was bluegrass, it’s probably fair to say all that combined to create who I am as a person and as a musician. Really, those two distinctions — me as person, me as musician — they’re pretty much intertwined, inseparable — I doubt there’s much of any distinguishable difference.
PV: In the careers of most major artists there seem to be defining moments that establish a new direction and sort of revise everything that came before. Were there any instances in your early career like this?
LK: When I was really little, I remember looking at an album with Ralph Stanley on the cover, and just listening to it over and over and over again — man, his singing and banjo style really affected me. Just blew me away. On some level I was aware that both sides of my family came from Clintwood, Virginia, where the Stanley brothers were from, and that connection felt natural to make. I remember knowing then and there that I wanted to make to that kind of music.
Then, later on, when I heard recordings or radio-play of guitar greats like Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Django Reinhardt, or piano playing by Oscar Peterson, or horn playing by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, all that definitely opened my eyes towards different genres and different tones and rhythms. Hearing those styles, and realizing I could pull from them and put some of that into my own music, man, the possibilities were endless. It was ultra-exciting, discovering all that music.
PV: When you were 21, you met Mark Vann — who went on to become one of the founding members of Leftover Salmon—and this seemed to mark a definitive shift in your musical career. What musical doors, territories and/or opportunities did that friendship open for you?
LK: I got to meet Mark when one of my friends in Virginia was taking banjo lessons from him and invited me to come along to a lesson on afternoon and just hang out. He really wanted Mark and I to meet, and if there was time, do some picking. Well, we did end up picking, and Mark and I hit it off immediately — both as friends and as like-minded ‘progressive’ and ‘alternative’ type players. We both had the discipline and the homework down pretty good, and were both interested in exploring new and different territories with our respective instruments. Among all the pickers I was hanging out with at the time, Mark was totally unique. He was this amazingly creative, gifted person. And definitely a pioneer of a whole new style on the banjo. His infectious originality made a major impression on me, and is still with me today. Plus, of course, he was the one who encouraged me to go to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and check out that scene in Colorado and compete in that prestigious guitar contest.
PV: So, after Vann’s encouragement, aged 25 years, you wound up competing in the 1993 Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s guitar competition, which is probably the most preeminent competition in the world. What was that like?
LK: Winning that contest gave me a big shot of confidence, no doubt about it. And that changed things. I believed even more in my abilities and my desire to make a living playing music, to make music my main focus and my life’s work. Winning gave me the confidence to bring the band I was playing in at the time, Magraw Gap, out there two years later and enter the band competition, which we wound up winning. In addition to the group thing, we all entered our individual instrument competitions, and did pretty well: I won first place in the guitar contest; our mandolin player, Danny Knicely, won first place in that category; and our banjo player, Will Lee — who’s a member of my present band, Natural Bridge — took second in his. The whole thing felt awesome, and it made people really take notice of us. Then it got easier to get bookings and play better places.
PV: You’ve collaborated with so many amazing musicians. How was it when you first began to share the stage with guys like Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, and Sam Bush?
LK: Playing with Vassar and Tony was a true eye-opener: To be in the presence of such distinguished icons, such examples of mastery on their instruments, guys who’d cultivated what I felt were the classiest images and presentations in the medium? That really was nothing short of amazing. I’m sure I was nervous and wound-up about those first encounters, but both of those guys were so kind and laid-back and humble themselves, they made me feel instantly comfortable. They entrusted me to lead the shows, handle their sound and stage needs, make the choices for the songs we would do in our sets — it was like being in a dream for all this to be happening; only, it really was happening! I mean, it was one thing to have spent countless hours watching those guys play on stages all up and down the east coast, or listening to their recordings and albums many thousands of times over — to absorb every musical nuance I could from them in that way — but to get to play right there beside them, in the moment with them, on the stage with them, and then get to just be buddies and travel and talk and hang out, that was even more enriching than I could ever have imagined… Over the years, I was privileged enough to get to do many shows with both of those guys, and I am so deeply honored I could and can call them both dear friends. I keep them with me every note I play.
PV: So I think this is a great segue to our next question. For so many bluegrass and acoustic music fans, you’ve sort of stepped into the void that was left with Tony Rice’s departure from the stage. Was there a definitive moment when you realized, or became aware you were becoming the bluegrass guitar-hero for the present generation?
LK: For me, I just always want to do my very best and inspire people — especially the youth of today — to enjoy and preserve bluegrass music, but also allow it to expand. To make it new. Because, you know, everything has to grow, or it dies. And I’m doing my very best to let it grow.
Second to that, I really feel the most important thing is that everyone — musician or otherwise — needs to try their hardest to find, discover, and cultivate their own voice. I’m not sure when, specifically, that transition happened for me —maybe when I started really listening to those other styles of music outside bluegrass: hearing Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, et-cetera.
But at any rate, many years ago, Tony Rice told me something along these lines that stuck with me: “Keel,” he said, “I like your style so much because it’s truly your own. You’re not trying to copy me, or anyone else, and I love that.” To hear a thing like that from him — a guy I’d spent my teenage years traveling all over the place and spending all of my money watching play hundreds, if not thousands of shows — I really took that statement to heart. Tried to let it grow. And what I’ve come up with is: Even after you’ve learned from the greats, done all your homework, and put in the hardcore hours to get good at something, it’s crucial to be willing to take chances and let go and see what’s really brewing inside you. That’s the way to the true sound.
PV: Could you tell us one of your favorite stories about collaborating with one of your heroes?
LK: There are so many fun stories about our shows with Vassar Clements — we had some great times with that guy! I especially loved reminding him of tunes I’d heard his recordings of way back when, and trying to get him to play some of that older material with us. I’m not sure if he was messing with me or otherwise, but sometimes he would fuss and say, “Oh Larry, I don’t know that tune. Where’d you come up with that?” And I would say, “Of course you know it Vassar, you recorded it back in 19-so-and-so!” Well, we’d go back and forth like that until we settled on the tune he really did want to play — as opposed to what he was probably trying to throw me off of playing!
Now, more recently, I’ve been doing some collaborations with another hero and legend, mandolin player, Sam Bush. I’ve wanted to do a trio-format with Sam all my life, and this past summer, at the prestigious Lockn’ Music Festival right here in Arrington, VA, I was given the honor of choosing to pick a collaboration for a set. When I suggested Sam, my wife Jenny on the bass, and myself, the promoters really got into it. Before the festival, we had a great time getting to rehearse with Sam — visiting his home up in Nashville, catching up at hotels, just getting our set all dialed in leading up to the Lockn’ date. And then there was the night after, when Jenny and I got to check out the Tom Petty show with him and his wife Lynn — it was like the four of us being on a date at an enormous rock concert, fists in the air and everything!
It was a major accomplishment in my life, getting to play with Sam there — it was another ‘dream come true,’ and, more importantly, down-right fun!
PV: Through the years, your bands have mostly all featured your wife, Jenny Keel, on the stand-up bass. As musicians, it’s quite the feat, the two of you being able to travel together, avoiding the pitfall of so many road-songs wherein singers lament those long periods of sad separation. How has your marriage, and your ability to travel together effected your music?
LK: There’s no denying that having Jenny in my life has had a major influence on everything I’ve done with my career and my music. She’s inspired me since the first day we met — and now we’ve been together for 21 years, and celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary earlier this month. She and I are life partners, business partners, and best friends. We support and encourage each other always, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her love and devotion. In fact, I’ve just written a new song about my feelings for her, called “One,” and it’s really special. It pretty much says how I feel about her, what she’s meant, as best as I could hope to say it. I’m hoping to record it soon, but, for the time being, we’re all enjoying playing it at shows.
PV: The two of you have chosen to live in Natural Bridge, Virginia. With your success and notoriety, presumably you could live wherever you wanted. Why then the Virginia Piedmont?
LK: I was born here in Virginia and all my closest family are still here, so it’s natural for me to stay near to what’s always been special and meaningful to me. Jenny and I continue to live in this area because it just calls to us. Of all the places in our travels, the Blue Ridge Mountains are the most purely spiritual, magical, and inspiring to our hearts. Being here never fails to soothe us and restore us when we’re road-weary.
PV: In a world that oftentimes doesn’t seem to give much of a damn about our hopes and dreams, how do we stay true to ourselves and create a life that’s worth living? Could you leave us with some words of wisdom?
LK: What works for me might not work for everyone, you understand, but my basic motto and mission objective is that you can achieve anything if you set goals for yourself and work really, really hard. You absolutely have to be willing to work at something, stay with it, and stay focused on your goals. Once you start feeling purpose and a sense of accomplishment, no matter what the goal is, I think it leads to a sense of self-worth and happiness. It does for me, anyway.
Other than that, question authority, and don’t be afraid to come up with and follow your own ideas. Strive to do your very best at whatever it is you do, every day. Be nice, but don’t take any crap!