“We played in the Western section,” remembers Larry Keel. “We had cowboy boots and hats.
“We played ‘Red River Valley’ and ‘Wildwood Flower’ — songs they thought people would recognize,” reveals the Larry Keel Experience’s flat-picking front man of his first job as a professional musician — a seven-month contract at Tokyo Disneyland.
“My brother is 12 years older than me, and had been doing music most of his life,” recalled Keel, whose LKE is headlining First Night Asheville Mardi Party 2004, during a recent phone interview.
“A friend of his had moved to Florida, and was looking through the paper when he saw an ad for musicians, and thought of me and my brother,” Keel continues. “My brother didn’t want to do it, but I was just 18, so I went down there to check it out.”
OK, so record deals rarely come out of dressing up as a cowboy and strumming ‘Red River Valley’ to Japanese tourists. Yet when Keel returned to the States, he found himself ready to get serious. His friend Mark Vann (of Leftover Salmon) suggested checking out the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
“My buddy saw a thing about a guitar contest,” Keel remembers, stressing the first syllable of his fated instrument. “I had a good time doing it, and they liked what I did.”
Which means he won first place.
By 1995, Keel and bluegrass peer Will Lee were leading their band Magraw Gap to triumph at Telluride’s band competition, beginning what Keel calls a “really good family” in the Colorado area. In the years since, Keel’s base of support has swelled to include fans in most of the western states, including California.
“We have more of a fan base out West,” Keel admits. Interestingly, his band’s jam-y bluegrass-psychedelia hasn’t caught on in Keel’s home base of Virginia, a problem the guitarist confidently attributes to “driving laws restricting the good time people have.
“We have a great fan base in other states,” he adds. “North Georgia, Alabama and, especially, North Carolina.”
Which explains why Keel and Co. are slated to play the latest installment of Asheville’s annual New Year’s Eve event. Keel will take the stage with his wife, Jenny, on bass, internationally known Dobro player Curtis Burch (who’s played with New Grass Revival) and Acoustic Syndicate’s Steve McMurry.
Though the latter band has been together more than a decade, the Syndicate’s beginnings date to the shared childhood of brothers Fitz (percussion) and Bryon McMurry (banjo and Dobro), and cousin Steve “Big Daddy” McMurry (guitar).
“We’d gather around the piano and sing with our aunts and uncles,” the guitarist once recalled. “I thought everyone did that.”
True to both their rural roots in this state’s foothill country (Cleveland County), and to their modern influences, the McMurrys pulled together to form the emotionally resonant hoedown sound that now defines Acoustic Syndicate. (Bassist Jay Sanders is a long-time band member, and saxophonist Jeremy Saunders has been playing with the group since their Terra Firma came out on Sugar Hill Records last April.)
“In the mid-to-late ’90s, we started connecting with Acoustic Syndicate,” Keel recounts. “They were just getting their music out, and we were, too. They did a big show in Hickory … and they invited us down; so me and my wife, Jenny, sat in. Now [Acoustic Syndicate] is on a little hiatus, taking more time with the young-’uns [during] the holidays. Since Big Daddy has a little time, we can get together.”
And who cares that First Night Asheville is traditionally celebrated sans champagne? To hear Keel tell it, playing with Curtis Burch is plenty intoxicating on its own.
“He’s really the super-pioneer of his instrument,” Keel declares.
Burch got his start with The Stanley Brothers during the early ’60s, before replacing Tony Rice as the guitarist for Bluegrass Alliance. His awards include Grammys for his work on Tut Taylor’s Great Dobro Sessions, and on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and he’s been recording with Keel since 2001.
“He takes it to another level,” Keel enthuses. “He can go anywhere — rock, hard-core reggae, blues-y. And a lot of bluegrass.”
Bluegrass is, after all, what LKE is known for. Well, sort of. Sometimes.
Like most of his peers on the jam-band circuit, Keel seems reluctant to be pigeonholed.
“Music — it’s just a reality that’s sorta in me,” he muses. “Over the years, I liked old-time a lot. I liked Jerry and the Dead for years, and all the old psychedelic stuff. There’s so much influence to [my] music.”
All of those influences are present and accounted for on Keel’s latest album, the independently released, 14-song Journey, which opens with a Bill Monroe instrumental, featuring Keel’s blitzkrieg finger-picking on guitar and mandolin. It’s hard to believe that the same guy who plays like he’s just downed a triple-shot latte laced with No-Doz is also the musician behind “Mother,” a slow-paced original ballad about the life of a small-town girl.
Keel’s voice is raspy, thick — calling to mind a factory worker who’s smoked too many cigarettes for too many nights at the local bar. Then there’s the trippy-redneck “Mountain Song,” another original, and the dark, haunting title track, wherein the songwriter proclaims: “Death is in your footsteps as you travel on your way.” The entire collection carries a “Shady Grove” vibe, but coated with lots of reverb.
About Journey‘s spooky tone, Keel, sounding quite cheerful, remarks: “It’s a dark time in the world, but we’re figuring it out.
“We’ve got to be true,” he goes on. “In recording, you’ve sometimes got to delve into some deeper stuff.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to stay down for long. Journey, Keel reveals, took a mere 60 hours to record.