Modesty is a rare commodity these days. So credit Larry Keel with having a humble attitude when a well-deserved complement is directed his way. Of course, anyone who’s made a career out of making music for nearly 45 years ought to be used to a certain amount of affirmation, but when Keel’s told that his new album, appropriately dubbed American Dream, is inspired and uplifting, he seems genuinely appreciative. And certainly for good reason as well.
“It’s heartfelt and very sincere. It’s all me, every bit of me,” he reflects. “I’ve had some time off the road to slow everything down, clear my head and get my mind right, and all kinds of ideas came to me…These songs were definitely influenced and inspired by all the turbulence we’re seeing today. It’s a world I never expected to see during my lifetime. I was trying to put a good positive spin on it all. There’s so much negativity out there, so I don’t want to spread any of that. I want to lift people up rather than bring them down.”
Recorded while in lock-down during the pandemic, American Dream is a rallying cry of sorts, one that eschews any casting of blame on either side. Instead, it encourages its listeners to find a positive perspective by leaning on their own optimistic instincts. The songs are upbeat, uplifting, and flush with a series of rich arrangements that make the material practically leap from the grooves.
These days, of course, it’s a narrow divide between offering encouragement and pontificating one’s political views. So credit Keel with simply speaking from his heart while managing to avoid any partisan pitfalls.
“I’m the kind of guy that thinks you have to march to the beat of your own drum, and listen to your own voice,” Keel explains. “It’s too much for everybody these days. Everybody’s exhausted with politics, exhausted with covid, and so I wanted to put a positive message out versus a message that’s deliberately one-sided. I’m not talking about anybody specifically. I didn’t mention one side or the other. I’m talking about all of us helping each other and simply being better Americans.”
One song on the new album, descriptively titled The Best of Man, shines the spotlight on one person in particular, his brother Gary, who Keel describes as “one of the greatest, most empathetic and wonderful people I’ve ever met. He taught me how to play guitar and just be a good person, think about other people, and do the best you can.”
Indeed, all these songs are decidedly near and dear to him, and a definitive representation of values and ideals that he holds with such reverence. It’s significant that the title track begins the record with a lyric that’s particularly prophetic (“I don’t wanna grow up to be another angry old white guy/Self-important and all wrapped up in his white lie”). Yet, the album is personal in another way as well, given that Keel opted to record it at home entirely on his own.
“I’ve toured for the last three years as my original namesake, the Larry Keel Experience,” Keel notes. “We played Seattle at the very end of February, and then they turned off the lights on everything. It had been one of the biggest years we had ever booked, but then everything went away. So I had time to write a lot of songs. There are four songs that I had written before the pandemic, and several of the others were written during the pandemic — Mars Cry, Old Man Kelsey’s and Long Way Round, among them. Try was written a couple years ago, but I never really found a place for it. It seemed like more of a relevant song now.”
With the material ready to go, Keel then determined that he would record the tracks solo, sans support from any of the other musicians. Consequently, he overdubbed each track using acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, bass, and mandolin. “I play a lot of banjo around the house, and I ended up writing the majority of my songs on the banjo,” he notes. “So after I had written these songs, my road manager and longtime friend, Steve Hevener, said that he could come to my home and record these songs with me. I liked the idea, but I didn’t know if I wanted to get him out of his safe environment to do this. Everybody was gun-shy, and they still are for very good reasons, especially having to do with the covid. I ended up telling him that I needed two or three more weeks to polish up my mandolin chops, and hone my banjo skills, and do everything I could to get it sounding recordable. I was rough on all those instruments, but I brushed up on everything and did it track by track. I started out on guitar and by singing the songs, and then I just added everything to it.”
Still, he admits that the task still felt a bit intimidating at the same time.
“It was a very big challenge, but I was willing to meet it because I had lost all my live work for an indefinite period at that point,” Keel recalls. “Yet I knew I had to expend my energies somehow, so I decided I was going to get better on the mandolin, I’m going to get better on the banjo, I was going to get better on the bass. I was going to create these songs and see how they come out. At that point, it was something I could get into at a very trying time but not knowing what would happen.”
As Keel admits, it was a decidedly different tack from his usual recording technique, when he’s surrounded by a band.
“When I used to write a song, I’d present it on acoustic guitar and it was like, ‘Okay, here’s the song, learn it,'” he explains. “Then they would create all they’d create, and that’s how the song would come about. In the past, I’d sit and practice leads that I had heard in my head, so when it came time to put a lead in, I’d put my lead mandolin in and I’d do the same with a banjo. But I never got a chance to hear how it all came to fruition until after the song was recorded. I never really knew how it was going to come out until that point. It was like, ‘Wow, that’s what I sound like!’ It was very interesting.”
Likewise, the entire process of working up his material was now radically different from before. He says that in the past, he would develop the song live in from of his audience in order to gauge how it was going over. If he got a good reaction, he’d then go into the studio and record it.
“Early on, we would record live on four or five microphones, and press cassette tapes or albums,” Keel remembers. “At first, I would put people in different rooms of the studio and everybody would play together, so you’d create a live feeling. For an engineer, that’s the ideal way of mixing. They want one person at a time doing one track at a time. That’s going to be your best recording quality. But I wanted to keep a live feel, and keep the music from sounding stale or affected by the environment. I wanted it to have the feel it had when I played it in front of an audience. Then I read about how George Martin did the Beatles’ recordings, and how they would do one track at a time which allowed them to edit things out. That started making a lot of sense to me, and that’s the way I started doing it. When you’re in a studio, you have edits that need to happen and adjustments that make the instruments sound fuller. They’re things you do that affect the overall sound. When you do it track by track, you can mesh everything together and so it sounds fuller. Plus, there’s no outside noise. It’s just very clean that way. It’s been an amazing process, learning how to do that and picking up different tricks of the trade.”
Then again, Keel has never expressed any doubts about venturing outside the box. Having worked with everyone from Bill Monroe to Billy Strings to Leftover Salmon, while detouring in rock, country, jazz, and jam band situations, he’s always been open to navigating the various twists, turns and diversions that music has offered him ever since he began playing semi-professionally in the mid ’70s. It’s clearly paid off. Keel’s extensive list of accomplishments include the several awards accorded him at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in the early to mid ’90s, a documentary detailing his work alongside his bass-playing wife, Jenny, numerous high profile festival appearances, and consistent top placement on the national bluegrass charts.
Keel’s formal career took flight when he was in his late 20s, courtesy of his first professional band, Magraw. “We would play fraternity parties and sorority parties,” he remembers. “We’d cover a wide gamut of things, and while it could be strange, it was also very positive. We developed a thing where we could toss in a couple of Bob Marley songs, or a tune like Call Me the Breeze, a song the crowd would absolutely know, and then we’d sneak in your Bill Monroe tune or your Jimmy Martin song and the crowd would love it. You give them a little something they know, and they’ll listen to the other stuff if it’s pumped up or whatever. So you’re turning them on to the music in a weird way, sort of subliminally almost. It was really funny to see people turn around and say, ‘Wow, so this is bluegrass?! Cool! I can jam to this!’ Leftover Salmon, when they started touring, they knew so many cover songs, and the following they developed would party and dance because they actually knew a few of the songs. Then they’d throw a Bill Monroe song in, and it was probably the first time a lot of those fans ever heard a song by Bill Monroe.”
Consequently Keel deserves the kudos that this album is bound to reap. When that prediction is shared, he gratefully accepts that complement accorded him.
“It’s an album about the things that have influenced me,” he muses modestly. “Nothing else you could say would make me happier.”
It’s bound to make those that hear it happy as well.
American Dream will be released on November 6. For pre-order information, visit Larry Keel online.