Photo by Anna Norwood
Article & Interview by Miles Hurley
This past summer, The Poke Around had the esteemed pleasure of interviewing the one and only Larry Keel, leader of course of The Larry Keel Experience with his wife Jenny Keel, but also renowned roots and bluegrass guitarist that has shredded for years beside musical contemporaries and close friends such as the late Tony Rice, David Grisman, The String Cheese Incident, and many more.
Modern bluegrass aficionados, however, know that Keel is known just as well for his guitar skills as he is for his time-tested penchant for artistry and great songwriting. This year, Keel has proved this once again with American Dream, his brand new record which was released back on November 6. Written and performed exclusively by Keel himself, American Dream features the multi-instrumentalist playing all of the musical parts, from mandolin, banjo, to even all the bass parts. The new record also tackles with unflinching sincerely issues like the current pandemic, systemic racism, our current political climate and more, all presented through Keel’s well-loved, and humble, storytelling style.
Below, check out the conversation we had earlier this summer with Larry Keel, and below that check out a live version of the new album’s “Precious Times,” performed by The Larry Keel Experience in October at Asheville, NC’s Salvage Station.
The Poke Around: Larry Keel! How are you doing today?
Larry Keel: Hi there! It’s going well, it’s cool and cloudy here in the blue ridge mountains, just one of those days.
Thanks for talking with me today. I’ve been spinning American Dream and it’s fantastic. But even more fantastic is that you wrote and recorded the whole thing this year. What was your experience like making this album this year?
Well let’s see…. So, back in February, we played Seattle, we played a big thing called Winter WonderGrass out there. And that was right when Covid had starting hitting that area. Fortunately we were fine getting out of there. After that, our gigging and everything just dried up entirely, for understandable reasons. So, my wife Jenny and I quarantined at our house in Lexington, and we didn’t go anywhere, and I had a couple of songs I’d been working on. A lot of times during time off I’ll sit down and play banjo, and when playing banjo, I tend to think about music differently, different melodies and things. Therefore I write a lot of my music on banjo. So, I found myself where I had written about seven new songs during the first couple months of the quarantine. With that being said, I thought that I wanted to record these songs. But I didn’t want to bring my band into a studio, and I don’t even think studios wanted to work with people during this scary time.
So, my longtime engineer and road manager, Steve, brought all of his equipment to my house, and we recorded an album in my house. And, I play all the instruments on all of these songs, and that was a task for me. Because, I play guitar all the time, but I fiddle with a mandolin, love playing banjo, I’ve played bass before. So I just had to take time sitting with the banjo and make sure I could play these songs to a recordable level, and had to do the same with the mandolin and bass. So it was a process across a couple months of woodshedding, getting better on the instruments, and everything. Then Steve and I sat down and started recording the whole project, we did it track by track. First I would sit down and play guitar and sing a song, then I’d come back and add the mandolin, banjo, bass. Then I’d finally get to hear what the song sounded like as an ensemble—an ensemble of me! Haha.
Right, so the funny thing is that the first time I listened to the album, I was thinking how well the instruments sounded together, and I made a note to myself to ask you about who these different players on the record are—and it turns out it’s all you!
Hahaha! Well thank you, I really appreciate that a lot. Yep, exactly. I had a wonderful time making it, just trying to get better at these instruments. But yeah, it was an interesting process, very much a learning process for me. Probably the most fun album I’ve done in my history, just because I really tried to give it my all on many different fronts. I might end up doing another one, before this is all over.
You’ve also been pretty busy this year with live shows. Has that given you a chance to perform on these different instruments live, playing these new songs out?
No, I really haven’t performed with a banjo or any of the other instruments live before. I have with a mandolin on a couple of occasions, but not recently. We’ve sort of morphed the sound of the album and the sound of my trio, The Larry Keel Experience, together. We combined it together to make the songs fit that format, and they’re growing as we speak.
I have to ask: your wife, Jenny Keel the amazing bass player she is—surely she must have had some opinions about your bass playing on the album?
Hahaha, oh yeah. She said stuff like, “Huh. That’s interesting…” or “Oh, I don’t think I’d do that…” or what not. But you know, it was what I was hearing, what I felt. I left the music unchallenged or uninfluenced by anyone. But yeah, that was funny. Of course, she plays the songs now and she has wonderful bass lines that she adds to everything. Like I said, it’s nice to see it breathe and grow.
One impression I really get as I’m listening to the album is this real swampy sort of country rock, which is a really cool mix with the traditional bluegrass that you play. Has that always been a genre you’ve been into?
You know, that probably comes from a lot of different influences, old blues like Howlin’ Wolf. I’m a serious classic rock lover, I love all the older stuff, Clapton and Hendrix and all that. And I was about beaten to death with country music as a kid, those days being the heyday. The Hank Jrs. and the Merle Haggards, I’ve got a lot of that in there too. I’ve just sort of always really liked that gritty, swampy style, and have always sung songs in that style. So I guess it’s a trademark of mine, of sorts. Jerry Reed would probably be one who influenced me in that way, too.
I also can’t help but feel that this album, especially being made during this crazy year, must be inspired by what’s going on in our society right now. Would that be a fair assessment to make?
Oh yeah. I would say this album is a compilation of my thoughts and feelings about how I see the world. How I’d like the world to be versus how it really is. But I really tried to present it honestly, and in a positive fashion. That’s what I wanted to do, because there’s so much negativity out there today, that the world definitely doesn’t need anymore of that. I feel like you can say what you have to say in a brighter way, and not bring anybody down, you know? Instead of bringing people down, try to lift them up, and help be who they can be, that’s the way that I look at it. These days we’re all getting slammed from one place or another, and I’m looking forward to a brighter day. And if I can help anybody have a brighter day, then that’s what I’m gonna do.
One song from the new album I want to ask about in particular: “Best of Man.” I learned from someone in your camp that that one was written about your brother? Has he been a big influence in your life?
He certainly has, in so many ways. Musically, he’s probably the biggest influence in my life. He bought me a guitar when I was eight years old, and had the patience to hang for many years, showing me different songs and ways to play ‘em. Yeah, he really set me on the path and set me with the basics, the meat and potatoes, played me all the progressive guitarists in my genre back then, Tony Rice and all them. So I’m eternally grateful for all that. Just the type of person he is, he’s one of the best people on the planet that I’ve ever met, as far as a great human in terms of morality and empathy and caring and love. So I wanted to honor him with a song, and so I did.
The live shows that you’ve been doing this year: what’s that been like? Has it been pretty different or similar to touring in the past?
Well, the drive-In shows, we did one of those down in Kings Mountain, North Carolina and it was very cool, very well done. The venue parks a car, skips a space, parks a car, and so on. It’s pretty socially distant, and if people leave their spot, they put their masks on. It’s certainly an interesting experience for anyone that went, because they can see the music on this big screen, and get the music piped into the car stereo. It’s just a really cool thing. The only thing I experienced with a drive-in before this was Jeremiah Johnson when I was four or five years old, haha. So it’s really neat to get to do this. But then we also have gotten to do these backyard events, little private events of whatever the state mandate of people is—some are twenty-five, some are fifty. But we make sure if you come near us, you have to wear a mask, usually there’s hand sanitizer everywhere, no passing of liquor bottles between each other, of course.
And as far as the music goes, it’s been really amazing, for me. After a long break of touring for many years, to finally come back at it with a fresh breath is just a really rejuvenating experience. And to watch the crowd, some people will be crying, some shaking over joyously. People have really missed it, and I have too. And if we all continue to do this the right way, we can get back to what we love to do, and what people love to come to see.
And you’ve got one coming up with Sam Bush, exciting! You and him must go way back.
Oh yeah, we go way back. And I’ve really been missing Sam during this whole thing, because it always seems like we get a chance to pick, or do a whole set or whatever together. I’ve been missing that. The chance to stand by that right arm of his and hear that alter rhythm machine that he is, you know? It’s always an honor, and even a better one to call him my friend and to know what a wonderful person he is.
Well, now you can show him all your new mandolin skills!
Hahaha, no I’m not gonna play that for him. I actually copped a couple of his licks in the new album. What that’s they say about imitation being that best compliment….
Check out a recent live version of “Precious Times,” one of the songs on the new album American Dream, from The Larry Keel Experience at Salvage Station in Asheville, NC, courtesy of Keel’s official YouTube channel. For more information, head to Keel’s official website here.