Larry Keel

When bluegrass guitar greats Tony Rice, Norman Blake, and Beppe Gambeta sing your praises, you must be good. A two-time Telluride flatpicking champion, Larry Keel began playing at age three, was working professionally by his late teens, and has spent the last decade touring with Béla Fleck, David Grisman, and Bill Monroe. On his latest offering, Keel Brothers Vol. 2 [Keel Fish], Keel shares the bill with his biggest musical influence, his brother Gary.

“Gary taught me everything I know,” he says. “In particular, he told me what not to play. He said, ‘Don’t get in over your head. Work on your rhythm first, and then you can take a lead.’”

Though the material on the new disc features the brothers in a traditional bluegrass setting, their playing is anything but ordinary. Larry’s triplet ornaments give a nod to Middle Eastern music, and the duo’s complex counterpoint is often more reminiscent of a Bach partita than a Flatt and Scruggs duet. On such traditional standards as “Cripple Creek” and “Liberty,” Gary’s melodic bass runs intertwine with Larry’s fiery leads, creating inventive variations that could only come from years of joyful, industrious jamming.

“We just listen,” Keel explains. “Gary and I have been playing together for so long that if one of us grabs the low strings, the other will play higher up the neck. It’s pretty simple. We just keep our ears open.”

On Vol. 2, Larry is panned hard left, Gary is panned hard right, and just enough reverb is added to the mix to create the feeling you’re listening to an impromptu jam session in the Keel’s kitchen. For most of the tracks, Keel relied on his ’36 Gibson L-00.

“It’s a small guitar, but it works well for me,” he says. “I can play it hard, and it’s easy for me to get my right arm around it. Gary played his ’74 Hondo—which sounds really good.”

While Keel dedicates himself to preserving American mountain music, he’ll also throw in the occasional Bob Marley or Pink Floyd song. And when he delves into his eclectic bag of cover tunes, they always come out with an Appalachian flavor, leaving the listener to contemplate the wide influence of bluegrass on contemporary music.

“I’ve been to Green Day and Fall Out Boy concerts,” Keel confesses, “and I can’t help but hear that driving four-on-the-floor beat that bluegrass musicians have been playing for more than 50 years. And we play those fast tempos, too!”