Bluegrass evolution

The man whose seminal “alternative” bluegrass band, New Grass Revival, created not only a whole new sound but the moniker for a whole new genre (that would be “newgrass,” in case you’ve been living on Jupiter) admits that he can still learn a thing or two from an upstart like Virginia-based champion flat-picker Larry Keel — such as how to feel truly relaxed on-stage.

Curtis Burch had always considered himself a laid-back kind of guy who was particularly comfortable in front of an audience — or so he thought. “I remember the first night I played with [The Larry Keel Experience] down in Athens, Ga., Larry said to me, ‘Now, just be real relaxed when we get up there to play,'” Burch explains. “So I get up there on-stage and was looking down at my dobro, and then I glanced across the stage, and I realized I was the only one wearing shoes! So to say they’re relaxed on-stage is an understatement. I suddenly felt really out of place, just because I had shoes on.”

Keel and Burch met when they both played the Acoustic Stage in Hickory last year, and the musical chemistry (and mutual admiration) were immediate. “Larry’s a wild man,” Burch notes gleefully. “And I see, definitely, parallels with what New Grass was doing and what he’s doing. He’s taking the music to the same level. … Larry’s a very talented guitar player and very much a stylist, and incredibly meticulous.”

As for Keel, he can’t say enough kind words about Burch — who is one of his musical heroes. “New Grass Revival was a humongous influence on me, because of their bold new way of going about things,” relates Keel. “Their music was just truly incredible. … When Curtis was playing with them, it was all about stretching the boundaries and seeing … what they could get away with. It’s such a thrill and a total honor to get to play with Curtis, because he’s such a wonderful guy. … And just standing there listening to him play, and accompanying him, it’s a beautiful thing — a whole evolution of it all coming back around. I mean, I was listening to New Grass as a kid, and now there’s this strange, beautiful turnaround.”

New Grass Revival sprang onto the scene in 1971, born from the regrouping of a band called Bluegrass Alliance. Sam Bush (mandolin, vocals, fiddle, guitar), Courtney Johnson (banjo), Ebo Walker (upright bass — though he was soon replaced by John Cowan on electric bass), and Burch (dobro, guitar, vocals) took the name for their new band from a Bluegrass Alliance album cover, which depicted a package of seeds emblazoned with the words “New Grass.” Little did the group know, back then, that they were naming not just a band, but an entire genre.

Routinely called “the premier progressive bluegrass band” and “the ultimate progressive supergroup,” New Grass blended traditional bluegrass instruments with rich vocal harmonies. What made the band “new,” however, was the addition of jazz, rock, reggae and R&B influences to create a striking sound that many traditionalists insisted had nothing to do with bluegrass. Burch points out, though, that the band actually did perform many traditional bluegrass tunes, including a host of Bill Monroe-penned standards. But the experimental stuff was the band’s true focus and also drew the most media attention.

“Our reason for doing the newer-type music wasn’t pretentious or irreverent or sarcastic or disrespectful,” explains Burch (who’s still a little defensive about the flack the group took from traditionalists, even after all these years). “We just felt like people were ready to see that you could really expand the sound, using those same instruments.” He’s particularly proud of the influence New Grass had on young people. “I feel like we turned … a lot of younger people on to the idea of bluegrass who otherwise wouldn’t have come to it.”

Burch played with New Grass for a decade, recording six albums and touring the world numerous times. In 1981, though, he and Johnson parted ways with the band. “At the time I left, we … had gotten to the point where it just seemed like we’d leveled off and weren’t going anywhere further,” he remembers. “We’d been together a long time, and I think everybody was just kind of wanting a break from each other and wanting to do something different. And basically, Courtney and I just wanted to get off the road for a while — that was really killing us. We were the oldest, at that point, and it was just running us down.” Burch says he regretted “losing the music” and missed his bandmates, but, “It was the getting there that I didn’t miss.” New Grass continued after that, with Bela Fleck and John Flynn stepping in.

Burch went on to record with a host of luminaries, including Doc Watson and Leon Redbone. In 1993, he appeared on the Jerry Douglas/Tut Taylor-produced CD The Great Dobro Sessions, which won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Instrumental Recording, and also scored the International Bluegrass Music Association award for Instrumental Recording of the Year. In 1997, Burch received the prestigious John Dopyera Award for achievement and excellence in the art of dobro playing, at the world-renowned Dobro Festival in Slovakia. These days, however — when he’s not busy touring with Larry Keel and others — Burch plays the blues (this guy’s nothing if not versatile) in clubs around the Southeast, with Michael Gough and John Martin.

The Larry Keel Experience breathed itself into consciousness about three years ago. In the wake of Keel’s breakup with Magraw Gap, a popular Virginia bluegrass band, he met his soon-to-be-wife, Jenny, on the Rockbridge County, Va., old-time music circuit (she was a die-hard fan). Jenny had never even picked up a stringed instrument until she met Larry. But he needed a bass player — fast — so he could form another band and get back on the road. “There was a bass laying around, and Larry said, ‘Hey, pick it up and see what you can do.’ … So I did,” remembers Jenny. These days, Jenny Keel plays upright bass like a veteran. “My formation as a player was definitely on-stage,” she notes with a rueful laugh, adding, “I went at it ass-backwards from normal players.” The Keels were originally joined by Christen Hubbard on mandolin — since replaced by Jason Krekel, who also plays with the Boone-based Snake Oil Medicine Show.

Driven by Keel’s distinctive, gravelly baritone, the Larry Keel Experience — much like New Grass Revival — takes traditional bluegrass and tweaks it big-time, adding jazz, reggae, psychedelic Dead-drenched sounds and country to the fluid mix. “I call the music original, alternative bluegrass,” he notes. The group’s latest CD, The Sound (Little King Records, 1998), is a collection of Keel-penned gems that’s garnering acclaim far and wide. Keel — a two-time Telluride Bluegrass Festival flat-picking champion — has won or placed among the top three finalists in flat-picking and “hot licks” competitions all over the country. He boasts worldwide name recognition, due in part to a somewhat surreal stint he did a few years ago, playing (together with a few other American pickers) at Disneyland in Tokyo — six shows a day, six days a week, for seven straight months!

Both Burch and Keel hail from highly traditional bluegrass backgrounds. Burch’s father, Curtis Burch Sr., is a well-known, respected banjo player — with a somewhat, er, painful Asheville connection. As a houseguest of mandolin player Ralph Lewis (formerly one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and now the leader of Asheville’s premier progressive-bluegrass band, Sons of Ralph), Burch received a dubious welcome from Lewis’ youngest son, Marty (now Sons of Ralph’s rhythm-guitar player): a whopping bite on the leg, from which the elder Burch still bears a scar. Keel’s father and older brother were popular bluegrass pickers who played old-time dances and other social gatherings throughout northern Virginia. Keel calls his late father “my greatest musical influence.”

Perhaps it was Burch and Keel’s traditional backgrounds that led the two musicians to rebel. As Burch puts it, “It was like, the more static we got, the more rebellious I became.” (He admits, though, that it did make him happy when more traditionalists finally began to accept the New Grass sound as viable, in its own right.)

Both men also share a healthy skepticism toward purists who continue to complain about what they view as the bastardization of an American musical heritage. “It seems like a lot of ‘purists’ … well, it’s like Duke Ellington said — they’re limited by their opinions,” Keel declares, adding, “We just play what’s in our heads and our hearts, and it’s great when people like it.”

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