Larry Keel still remembers the struggles at the start of his career three decades ago. “Being a touring musician is a hard grind for many years: a lot of low-paying gigs, sleeping on couches. And running many miles in between gigs to get your name out,” he recalls. But Keel persisted, becoming a celebrated flatpicking guitarist and singer-songwriter who has appeared on more than 20 albums.
Learning how to survive as a working musician made Keel adaptable, so when the pandemic hit last spring, he looked for a productive way to spend his time after he was forced to cancel shows and go into quarantine. “It all came to a screeching halt for my music business,” he says of his normally hectic touring plans. “So I took some time to reflect, and a lot of music came to me.” He began writing songs, which eventually turned into a full-blown recording project in his home studio. The end result is a new full-length album, American Dream, which is set for release on November 6.
Besides composing, recording, and producing all of the tracks on American Dream by himself, Keel also played every instrument. While he’s best known for his masterful acoustic guitar playing, these new songs provide fans with a unique opportunity to hear his multi-instrumentalist skills, though he admits it took him a little time to feel ready to record those parts. “I had a lot of time where I could sit down and practice my mandolin playing, my banjo playing, and my bass playing – brush up and make it recording-worthy,” he says.
While the pandemic lockdown restricted Keel from physically moving much beyond his home, he was able to allow his imagination to explore a wide musical territory. As a result, this album “crosses a lot of musical boundaries,” he says. “It’s got Americana pop, country style rock, bluegrass, blues, and psychedelica.”
Keel also allowed himself free rein with his lyrical ideas, touching on many topics throughout American Dream, but he singles out the title track as an especially meaningful subject. “It’s like my anthem,” he says. “It’s my thoughts on the way the world is, and the way I’d like it to be. I want to help everybody I can, and be empathetic and moral. It’s a positive take on the current environment.”
The energetic lead single, “Try” (released on October 7) also contains particularly important ideas for Keel. He says it discusses that situation where “You’re trying to do something and you can’t get it done, so you get frustrated or edgy. So I tried to create an edgy, Bo Diddley swampy New Orleans feel about it. All you’ve got to do is try and figure out all the challenges and the mysteries that life brings you. Just getting up every day and trying as hard as you can to make it all make sense. Get on with it and try to get on to a better place.”
In order to keep these lyrical and musical ideas seeming fresh during the recording process, Keel says, “I tried to go as live-sounding as I could.” He notes that he mostly did only one or two takes for each part. “I tried to leave it raw to where it sounds natural.”
Playing music has always been a natural thing for Keel though. “I just always loved playing music,” he says of his childhood in Virginia. “My father was a bluegrass musician and a country singer. My brother played guitar and accompanied him. I was just always around a really happy music scene. People getting together and having potluck food and music on Saturday nights. It really inspired me. It was a great way to grow up, for sure.”
Keel says he joined in the fun when he was about seven years old, when his father began teaching him how to play the guitar. When he was 14, he began writing his first songs – instrumentals at first, but then he added in lyrics as his songwriting skills matured.
Now Keel has written songs that are so well-regarded that they’ve been recorded and performed by legendary artists such as Del McCoury and The Infamous Stringdusters. Even so, he remains unpretentious about his songwriting skills. “Every song of mine is probably not for everybody,” he says, “but there’s probably a song in there that will suit you and make you feel good.”
Keel (along with his wife, Jenny, who plays bass) has become renowned for his energetic live performances, and he says he looks forward to playing these new songs for people. He has already begun playing a few shows recently – outdoors and socially distanced – now that pandemic restrictions are easing.
Returning to the stage after so many months off the road, Keel says, is “a very fresh and energetic and very positive feeling. Looking out across the audience, you can see it, too. These people have been starved for art and music and positivity.”
Whether Keel’s fans listen to American Dream at home or see him perform the songs live, “I hope it resonates positively with everyone because that’s the total intention of the music,” Keel says. “I hope it can brighten someone’s day, makes them feel good, and energizes them.”
American Dream can be pre-ordered here.
photo by Lyric Photography Charleston