A couple months ago, I addressed the idea that far too few of us bluegrass musicians give a “tip of the hat” or “shout out from stage” to the musical artists from whom we gleaned our technique or crafted our sound. We pick up licks and recognizable musical phrasings from them, yet never reveal the back story. Read my gentle rant here.
This lunar cycle, my mind is wrapped around the idea of the wide ocean of signature sounds and musical ideas still waiting to be discovered and then fished out by creative and open minded musicians.
That’s what Bill Monroe did.
Mr. Monroe lived in a time and a place where, for generations, there was a singular expectation of how string bands should play and deliver mountain music.
The genius of Mr. Monroe was his taking the *expected form* of mountain music and opening it up with sensational instrumental solos, thus allowing the musicians under his watch to express their signature sounds and style of delivery. So in a very real way, Mr. Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys are our musical genre’s original “jam band.”
To this day, to be a an amazing jam band musician, just as in the days of Mr. Monroe, you must be excellent at your craft, creative in your delivery and have a tremendous ability to seamlessly weave musically between the solos of your band mates.
My most recent Artist2Artist Radio interview, this time with guitarist Larry Keel, illuminates this theory.
Listen to our talk here:
Our on-stage chat took place in front of an audience at doors open prior to Larry’s show at the Georgia Theater in Athens, Georgia. What an appropriate town, as so many genius musicians and songwriters in all musical genres have used Athens as their woodshed musical stomping ground.
To look at Larry Keel, well he is a study in opposites, sort of a mix of professorship with his working-man’s eyeglasses perched on the edge of his nose. He gives off that overworked college professor feel, all scruffed up with a swath of unruly hair and mustache. His necktie assortment would capture the eye of any Grateful Dead fan.
But don’t allow that laid back feel of his fool you, because when he has guitar in hand, Larry Keel plays with a deliberative musical eloquence that his peers refer to as “Signature Keel.”
Larry Keel is one of bluegrass music’s own, and just like Mr. Monroe, he doesn’t fear change.
“I think that when there is change, everything changes. You can’t stop a change or avoid a change. It just seems that it’s a timing issue – not musical timing, not the rhythm of timing – just the timing of life. I’ve had a lot of different people to play music with. People who have gone on to different bands… I’ve loved watching them spread out and do their thing. We still communicate and play music. Sometimes people got to go walk to the beat of their own drum basically.”
Larry is an artist, who like many, has spent some early years dipping his toes into the festival music competition world – you know the kind of contests – the ones that are full of instrumentalists who play a brew of rote and sameness.
But unlike many contest guitarists, Larry did not sanitize his style in such a way that it came off sounding like a machine gun round of highly practiced notes. And he won some significant titles. There must have been some very perceptive, open minded judges who recognized Larry for the quality of his tone and his unique stylized delivery. I would have liked to have been there to give those judges some sincere ‘thank you’ hand shakes.
In the decades following, Larry Keel’s unique musical friendships influenced the development of his authentic sound.
He has shared the stage or recorded award-winning albums with acoustic music’s most progressive geniuses such as Vassar Clements, Tony Rice, Wyatt Rice, Mark Vann and Will Lee. He has played on stage with Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, and Acoustic Syndicate – these are bands who profess that Larry Keel is the reason they play in the style they do. That’s quite a compliment, because these musicians and their avid fans thrive in live show environments built around exploring unexpected and changing musical ideas, and doing so with excellent technical proficiency and precision.
As Larry told me…
“I see a lot of young musicians today and fortunately I get to play with a lot of them. I try to have them out to open a show for me and my band, to help support them. It’s really energizing. Every time you play music with someone, you take a piece of them with you. And enjoy them. I get told by a lot of the younger bands that they came to see a show of mine and got really inspired…”
Just like Bill Monroe and his jam band expectations, Larry has set a standard for excellence in our current “jam band” genre. His guitar style continuously explores interesting rhythmic expressions and note selections. His songwriting honestly expresses real issues that affect real people.
Larry is on tour with his band, The Larry Keel Experience, and sometimes you can catch him playing in a solo presentation or as a duet with his bass playing wife Jenny, or even with Sam Bush. And for all you bass fishing fanatics and bass fishing widows out there, check out Larry’s 7th Annual Bass & Grass Weekend Music Festival extravaganza coming up in late October in the fishing mecca of Perry, Georgia.
Disclaimer: I don’t know if Perry, Georgia is a fishing mecca, but the gathering looks like a world of good times. You go boy!
Thanks for reading and I’ll be back here on the next full moon. Until then, play nice on the planet.