Larry Keel, Virginia bluegrass legend, has lost it. Fortunately, he thinks he can find the old magic anytime he wants.
“My beard and I have recently become separated,” Keel said. “But it will be back.”
Over the years, Keel has sported a number of facial hairstyles, perhaps none more recognizable than the salt and pepper reverse goatee he shaved last year. The thing that hasn’t changed over the years for Keel is his ability to climb the ranks of the bluegrass charts, seamlessly walking the line between traditional and progressive ’grass.
“I like to play it pure, as well,” he told C-VILLE Weekly in a recent phone interview, “but I think everything needs to grow, or it diminishes.”
With or without his beard, Keel and his backing band Natural Bridge are headlining a small event on April 18 at the Verulam Farm on Charlottesville’s western edge. The show will benefit local nonprofit the Music Resource Center (MRC), which makes it pricey—$100 of the $150 tag will go toward supporting the center’s summer programs—along with being a chance to get up close and personal with a guy who’s regarded by many as the best flatpicking guitarist in the world.
If you haven’t heard of flatpicking, you’re not alone. Keel said the art of delivering runs on an acoustic guitar, using a pick as opposed to your bare fingers, is something to which many popular progressive bluegrass acts never introduce their fans.
“There are a lot of bands in the younger market that have brought awareness to bluegrass music, but bluegrass music in general hasn’t been the most popular,” he said. “It’s a roots music that needs preserving.”
Keel recognizes the “double-edged sword” of preservation, though. If mixing electric guitars and hard rock elements into traditional bluegrass can get thousands of kids exposed to the genre, he’s all for it. That attitude makes him an ideal match for MRC, which next year will celebrate 20 years of teaching primarily underprivileged middle and high school-aged kids to play instruments, sing, dance, and write and produce music.
“We have members that have gone on to a lot of exciting things in the music industry,” said Terri Allard, MRC community engagement coordinator. “The number one reason MRC was started was to give kids a safe place to go after school.”
Keel agrees that music can be empowering for youth. And while bluegrass might not seem to be the type of music that gets kids these days into a lather, Allard said the MRC’s mission is to expose them to “everything from hip-hop to jazz to rock to acoustic singer-songwriter stuff.” Plus, the Verulam Farm show, with opener the Jon Stickley Trio, is all about giving the MRC supporters one magical night.
Keel thinks he and his band can deliver. In the scheme of his illustrious career, Natural Bridge is a relatively new development. He started the band in 2005, and he said it’s grown a lot in the past decade. Today, the band includes Keel’s wife Jenny on the upright bass, mandolin player Mark Schimick, and Keel’s longtime banjo player Will Lee. The quartet has been touring consistently since it released the critically acclaimed Classic in 2012, stopping through giant festivals, small rooms, and everything in between.
“Things just have really developed into a lot of completely original sounding music at this point, to where it just feels so good, and it is a lot easier to make this music because of the combination of people I’m playing with,” Keel said.
Natural Bridge is the latest handpicked lineup for a guy who has, over the years, rubbed elbows with legends like Tony Rice, Chris Thile, Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, and Del McCoury, who made a hit single out of the Keel tune “Mountain Song.”
Keel’s other current side project, Keller and the Keels, is a collaboration with his wife, and jam circuit favorite Keller Williams.
“Keller is one of the most uniquely talented people I have encountered,” Keel said. “You talk about turning on the young kids, he surely is doing that.”
The MRC focused its spring benefit show last year around another acclaimed progressive bluegrass act, the Infamous Stringdusters. That’ll surely be a tough act to follow, but Allard is confident that the MRC has the right lineup in place to keep things going this year, when no more than about 200 fans will be able to gather in Verulam Farm’s cider barn to watch Stickley and then Keel take the stage.
“It’s this gorgeous old barn…in a gorgeous location in Ivy,” Allard said. “People will be right there watching this great concert.”
Tickets are still available for the event, as Allard said sales have been a bit slower than expected. For the bearded among us who might be looking to attend, Keel has some advice.
“I’m a man of many faces,” he said. “So I would say keep changing it up. It’s kind of like grass. If you keep mowing it, it will come back fuller.”
Guys with beards are so cool.