Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part column highlighting the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown and its overall contribution to the community.Guitar player Larry Keel is a perfect performer for Colorado bluegrass festivals. He’s a musician rooted in bluegrass music, a masterful, daring and powerhouse of a guitar player educated in the history of the music Bill Monroe had a hand in creating 70-some years ago. He’s also someone, if the mood fits, daring enough to take some liberties and push the genre into other directions.
The Larry Keel Experience is one of the 29 bands that will perform at this weekend’s Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, which is celebrating its 25th festival.
While very much a Colorado festival, it is still, for the most part, a traditional festival, meaning the bands booked play the style of bluegrass of Monroe’s intention; guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and bass. Even though Keel is known around the jam-band world as someone capable of stretching things out, you’ll likely catch sets steeped in bluegrass tradition while giving a subtle push of the envelope.
“When I’m playing bluegrass with a great bluegrass band, I want to play bluegrass the way that bluegrass should be respected and played,” Keel said. “But when you’re mixing it up, well, it’s a lot more improvisational and you have to leave room for that. But when I play to a crowd that’s used to hearing bluegrass and that sort of thing, well, a lot of the music I write is deep rooted in bluegrass.”
Keel got his start playing guitar as a young kid growing up in Virginia. With his brother and father, both musicians themselves, it was only natural that he, too, gravitated toward music. He was 6 years old when he got his first guitar, played the annoying kid brother role to his older sibling wanting to be shown chords, and immersed himself in all things bluegrass, country and, eventually, rock ’n’ roll.
“From 6 to, I don’t know, 12 or 13, it was all about bluegrass to me. My father played a lot of old country music on the guitar; Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow and that type of stuff,” Keel said. “It was good music to learn from and get a good base going. Then I went through all the guitar standards. My brother always bought every record that came out back then. Doc Watson, Clarence White, Tony Rice, and of course, I fell in love with all of that stuff. As I got older, you get to hanging out and you learn different influences. You hear your first Grateful Dead cassette tape and you go, ‘ooooh, now that’s different,’ you know?”
For fans of flat-picking guitar, Keel is a not-to-miss act. The winner of the guitar competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival back in 1993, Keel has carved out a long career centered around his aggressive and tasteful guitar playing.
Some of the other bands playing this weekend’s Meltdown, which include Junior Sisk and The Songs From the Road Band, are friends of Keel – acts he’s stoked about catching as much as he is playing his own sets.
“For me, that’s my prize. That’s my special kick-back, that I get to sit and listen to such great writers, artists like Junior Sisk. I love The Songs From the Road Band, they are some of my best buddies. I get to hang out with fans, get personal and try to enjoy the whole experience like they are,” he said. “I hope to be picking with a lot of these buddies. That’s the favorite perk of the job, getting together and playing something different together. I love listening to any picking going on, and if I can be a part of it, that’s the best.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.