The Playlist

Flatpicking Guitarist Larry Keel’s Natural Bridge Between Bluegrass and Jam-Band Rock

By Kevin Oliver
Friday, July 11, 2014 |
Larry Keel | photo by William David Lawrence

To borrow and bastardize a well-worn phrase — if you’re not grooving, you’re standing still.

Acoustic flatpicking guitar wizard Larry Keel knows this better than most, having managed to keep grooving and keep his music moving forward with the help of many collaborators and co-conspirators.

What: Larry Keel Experience
Where: Magnolia Lodge, 631 Longtown Rd., Ridgeway
When: Saturday, July 12, 7 p.m.,
With: The Mustache Brothers
Price: $14
More Info:

“I’ve always enjoyed bouncing music off of other musicians and having them bounce music off me,” Keel says, speaking to his musical progression since starting out in bluegrass back in the early ’90s. “Me not wanting to keep playing the same old thing has always led to meeting up with different folks.”

Some of these conspirators include frequent sparring partner Keller Williams, guitar legend Tony Rice, Peter Rowan and — most recently — Sam Bush; the fiddler, mandolinist and New Grass Revival alum will share the stage with Keel at September’s jam-centric Lockn’ Music Festival in Arrington, Virginia.

“It’s all about creating something fresh and energetic,” Keel adds.

The guitarist’s career has careened from one project to the next. His early progressive bluegrass band McGraw Gap won bluegrass festival competitions in places such as Telluride, Colorado, but soon yielded to the even more out-there Larry Keel Experience, which absorbs rock influences into the acoustic format. The traditional Natural Bridge swung things momentarily back to straight bluegrass before it, too, began incorporating forward-thinking elements.

“Natural Bridge came about initially when I wanted to express my bluegrass roots and record some songs I really like,” Keel explains. “Today we’re more like a loud progressive bluegrass band with extreme rock ‘n’ roll volume. It’s just the evolution of my music.”

Keller Williams, who performs as a one-man jam band, has been a constant companion for Keel on this artistic journey, with many mutual tours and a couple of albums as Keller and the Keels to their credit.

“I’ve known Keller so long we’re just comfortable around each other,” Keel says. “He always has these really unique, cool ideas and we both sort of recharge each other. It’s really fun playing with him, but it takes a lot of sitting down and practicing different things to have that confidence you see on stage.”

The relatively straitlaced bluegrass scene seems an odd fit for Keel’s adventurous tendencies, something he readily acknowledges, wishing it weren’t so true.

“I love playing bluegrass and I love the sound of traditional bluegrass, but I think free thinking is very limited in that genre,” Keel says. “I see bands like Yonder Mountain String Band not recognized by the bluegrass community but drawing 5,000 young people to their shows — that’s preserving bluegrass music to more of the masses than the whole traditional scene really is.”

Keel’s method of bluegrass preservation focuses on moving the genre forward. Along with his bass-playing wife Jenny Keel and longtime band member Will Lee, Keel’s acoustic trio sound can stand tall on a festival stage in front of a few thousand people. He’s one of the fastest flatpicking guitar players you’ll ever hear, and yet his runs remain melodically grounded instead of just intricate and flashy. He understands that improvisational skill isn’t worth much unless it’s used in the service of good songs.

Keel’s next detour is a return to the name and attitude of the Larry Keel Experience. A new digital recording will arrive soon, using the core band of Lee and the Keels along with “many, many special guests” — a happy benefit gleaned from a long and twisting career.

“It has been a wonderful road to hoe,” he says. “When I play music today I think back on old friends who I used to play with, and they’re still with me through that experience.”

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