By Matt Wickstrom
For Larry Keel, music isn’t just a passion, it’s a way of life, and Keel’s life has been filled with enough of it to fill an ocean. Keel recently released his 15th studio album, titled ‘Experienced’, under the catalogue of the Larry Keel Experience, which features seasoned singer-songwriter Will Lee on banjo and Keel’s wife Jenny on upright bass.
Keel grew up in a musical household. His late father James was a banjo player, and his older brother Gary a student of the guitar. When he was seven, his brother bought him his first guitar from a local music store.
“I’d been beating on spoons around the house before that”, said Keel. “One day I was finally told, ‘Hey! Stop beating on those spoons and play some real music!’”
In the years since, Keel has gone through many guitars, but his budding curiosity and love for music and his craft remains stronger than ever before. Not long after Keel first started playing the guitar he was performing at conventions, barbecues and other gatherings. According to Lee, it was at a fiddler convention in the early 80s where the two became acclimated with each other.
“My brother is the crazy one in the bunch”, said Lee. “He went roaming around and came back and said, ‘you gotta come check out this kid (Keel) on the guitar!’ He was picking with a bunch of fantastic guitar players. We jammed together later that night, and have been ever since.”
In 1990 Keel and Lee joined forces in progressive string band MaGraw Gap after Keel’s previous project Farmer’s Trust dissolved when then-banjoist Mark Vann left the group to found Leftover Salmon. Keel was a part of MaGraw gap for nearly six years, yielding three albums, including 1996’s ‘Buzz’, featuring numerous sit-ins from Keller Williams. Keel left the group later that year to start the Larry Keel Experience, which has become one of his most widely used touring outfits.
Lee joined LKE in 2000 for the group’s self-titled album, and has been a mainstay in the trio ever since, along with Jenny Keel. Lee’s father Ricky was a legendary guitar player for Ralph Stanley’s band Clinch Mountain Boys in the 70s.
The banjoist not only lent his magic fingers on the banjo to Keel’s latest record ‘Experienced’, but his songwriting prowess as well.
“Will has been a big part of the songwriting that we’ve put together for ‘Experienced’”, said Keel. “We’re always writing, trying to conjure up new ideas. We had already tour-polished the songs on the record, and just wanted to get together and jam to them with some of our buddies.”
Those “buddies” include mandolin fiend Sam Bush, legendary singer-songwriter Del McCoury, Keller Williams, Peter Rowan, Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass, Mike Guggino of Steep Canyon Rangers, Jeff Covert and Jason Carter of the Del McCoury Band.
In 2014, Keel and company began experimenting with pedals in their instrumentations, which has given a sonic, psychedelic vibe to Keel’s signature flatpicking. ‘Experienced’ is the first album by Keel that will feature the newly-adapted pedals. According to Keel, it’s an element he’s seen few of his fellow bluegrass musicians dabble with, citing the versatile Keller Williams as an exception.
“It’s a natural tendency to perform my music bluegrass style”, said Keel. “If I can have a different style going into writing, some distortion, it sways my way of thinking about my own music. The addition of pedals almost make it seem like there’s another person in the band; another voice to be heard.”
To find out more about Larry Keel, including upcoming tour date, history, and how to purchase ‘Experienced’, visit larrykeel.com.