Stealing time to talk about “Thief” Keller and Larry Keel

Jamband fans may think Warren Haynes is the hardest working man in the music business, but Keller Williams probably has him beat.

Over the past few years, Williams has had his hand in many projects, from his solo work to the WMDs. One of his stronger efforts is his bluegrass band with Larry and Jenny Keel.

Keller and the Keels just released their second album, a disc full of cover tunes aptly titled Thief. Both Williams and Larry Keel took time out to chat with Honest Tune.


Honest Tune: (To Keller) You have a new record out with Larry and Jenny Keel. Would you mind giving abriefintroduction to The Keels – how you guys came together, and how the whole creative process has grown to the force that it is now? 

Keller Williams: We have now known each other for years and this is our second record together with the last one being Grass in 2006. I met the Keels back in the early ’90s in a bar in my hometown of Fredricksburg, Virginia, and Larry was playing with a group called Fizzawah,  which was a side project to Mcgraw Gap, which is another amazing bluegrass band. I was a fan of that group andgot to open for them and play with them some.

Then Larry and I just kept intouch over the years. Larry and Jenny are just real. Collaborating with them isjust so natural. They bring an authenticity to my world, as far as the bluegrass thing goes. They are so authentically steeped in the bluegrass world andin allhonesty, I am simply appreciative that they have sunk to my level.  (Laughs)

larry2.jpgHonest Tune: (To Larry) And what was your original impression of Keller?

Larry Keel: Well, I had been hearing about him and my recollection of the meeting is entirely thesame. Everything that I had ever heard about him was how hard of a worker hewas, particularly in the Virginia area. Then I met him and I was like, “I like what this guy has got going on.” It is totally unique, and it is his own thing,which is something that I have always tried to do in terms of having my own sound.

Since then, my respect has remained in the utmost of ways. He has stayed on his own path, doing his own thing steadfastly. Then there is the simple fact that he is just a good guy who has become one of our very best friends.

HT: In terms of you and Jenny (Keel), obviously being married, you have extra chemistry in there. Does that make it easier to step on stage and play off of one another,or does it make it more difficult when you get home and she is pointing out all of your mistakes – sarcastically speaking of course.

LK: It is a wonderful thing. We decided long ago  that we wanted to have a career that we could both be a part of and work together at. It works out perfectly because she is an incredible bass player and singer.Then there is the spirituality end of things – it is just wonderful.


HT: Keller makesmention of you being “authentically steeped in bluegrass.” It has been interesting to see how the genres of jam and bluegrass have entwined both instrumentally and in terms of scene and crowd. What are your thoughts are in regards to this?


LK: It is an interesting thing the way these crowds have come together with a lot of these young people today, with folk coming from the Phish crowd and Widespread crowd.Then there was String Cheese, who sort of did a unique combination of some of that. Part of what I do is try to keep and preserve, and promote bluegrass for all of these young people. But I also realize that we need to play them something that they already know and like, maybe a reggae song. It is almostlike getting them to listen to it through due process.


keller2.jpgHT: Retrospectively thinking, what can you reflect on in seeing the evolving of bluegrass frompicking in a bar or a standard bluegrass festival to now looking out into the crowd and seeing a 19-year-old girl hula-hooping?


LK: Well my thing is that I truly want to share and enjoy music with as many people from as manydifferent walks of life as possible. That is the beauty of music. It brings everybody to the same page. They can all take their mind off of their troublesfor a little bit, whether it is a final exam or being laid off from a job with kids to worry about. What has happened lately is that the crowds are getting larger and we enjoy that aspect.

From a musician’s standpoint, these are exciting times because everyone can create a level playing field for themselves withsocial networking and other internet technologies as well.


HT: Keller, I remember reading the schedule I was handed back in 2006 at Vegoose. This was the last billed “Keller Incident” (Keller Williams with String Cheese Incident) to date, of which I am aware. I vividly remember reading where you referred to yourself as a “Bluegrass Poseur.” Do you recall that?


KW: That definitely sounds like something that I would say! (Laughs)


jenny2.jpgHT: With this album here, it is straight, raw, grab-your-partner bluegrass. Do you think that you have superseded the level of poseur now?


KW: Some may consider me as something other than a poseur. But if you look in the real bluegrass world, what I am doing on this record is kind of like I am trying to emulate or simulate a mandolin, [using an instrument that is] actually a mini 12-string [guitar] that only has eight strings on it, so in that sense the poseur status remains because in effect, I am now a poseur mandolin player.

As the years go by, I think I may be slowly creeping away from poseur-dom. I hope so at least.


HT: With this record, Thief, you guys have definitely put some interesting cover song choices together. Songs like “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse. How did this come to pass?


LK: You guys kill me with this poseur stuff. (Laughs) Well, when [Keller] was proposing his ideas, I actually only knew two of the songs from previous listening, “Rehab” and the Kris Kristofferson tune. I had never heard “Sex and Candy” and all the other ones. It is hilarious now because apparently I was one of the only ones, because when we step out on stage and play them, the whole crowd is singing along. I am like the odd man out. (Laughs)

So anyway, when we sat down to rehearse before going into the studios, I did not have a big preconceived idea on the tunes. I just sort of took them at face value.


HT: The interesting thing is that it all actually works. When you were collecting songs that you would like to actually place on an album, what went into the thought process of”let’s put a bluegrass version of ‘Rehab’ on a record?”


KW: As with a lot of things, there actually was not much of a thought process. We just kind of sat down and did it.  We have never done “Rehab” live together, but it just seemed like it would be a good fit. So we sat down and rehearsed it a few times the day before we went in the studio,and actually went into the studio and what you hear is our first and only official take on the song. I am real proud of the result.


kellerkeels1.jpgHT: Rightfully so. Perhaps the best part of this album is that it is just a truly fun listen. Too many people in general take themselves far too seriously and there is a true need for simple, fun, and borderline mindless music. It produces smiles which are unfortunately are too few and far in between.

As songs on most records are, the tracks on this album are straight run-throughs. If we are to see these songs live over the coming months, do we expect straight run-throughs or some improvisaton and jamming?


KW: Of course. On most of these songs, there is ample space to open up with and jam.


LK: Improvisation is probably the truest form of freedom – not following the set path of the music and letting it breathe and evolve. When we can truly break free on stage and do that, to me that is the true magic of music.


HT: Keller, You area busy man sir, and festival season has arrived. Does that excite you?


KW: Yeah, the festival season is definitely an exciting time for a lot of reasons. First of all, it gives me needed time to be with my kids whereas in the fall and spring we are constantly touring. Then in the summertime performing is kind of reserved for weekend festivals. So I will be home with the kids from like Sunday through Wednesday or Thursday and then gone for the weekend.

And festivals are a fantastic way to get to people who may have never seen me or us before. And the people are having fun and feeling good in mostly beautiful outdoor settings, on a big stage with beautiful scenery, top of the line PA systems. People can simply stumble up on the stage I am playing and dig what they hear. Situations like that can be really beautiful. It happened to me in1995 at Telluride Bluegrass Festival when I saw Ani DeFranco for the first time. She just blew me away – I left the festival and bought up all of her albums and continue to do so.


keller1.jpgHT: I am interested to get your two cents on which modality you enjoy delivering your music through. Do you prefer the whole one man band gig to the collaborative side projects if you will?


KW: The intention for me even from the beginning was always to play with humans and actually make music with other people. That is where camaraderie is built and where communication without language is able to thrive. The solo thing begun out of necessity and having to make a living – I was making so little that I was unable to support other humans.

Then it just became that the solo thing was working and it is always best to not fix something that is not broken. But playing with others is what I have always wanted, but my audience has come to want the solo thing more than the side projects. I am so grateful for that, but playing with a band for an extended period helps me enjoy playing solo even more and vice versa.

When I am with a band, there is no loss of freedom as some might think. The freedom is definitely still there. It is just that I have got these great folks around me that are joining me in my vision and I am joining them in theirs. The process just becomes that much more beautiful, from my perspective at least.