The front-page image on flatpicker and Americana songwriter Larry Keel's website proudly proclaims him to be a "Guitar Legend and Master Fisherman." One might wonder if the mountain music man is actively seeking a second career. In October, he hosted Bass and Grass, a weekend-long fishing trip in Georgia with music in the evenings from Keel and his wife Jenny, as well as Acoustic Syndicate guitarist/mandolinist Steve McMurray and Blueground Undergrass' banjoist Jeff Mosier and fiddler David Blackmon. In 2012, Keel's music will be featured in a fly fishing documentary by Confluence Films.
I asked Keel a question last week: "Imagine you've just read The Old Man and the Sea in a creative writing class," I directed him, "and your teacher asks you to write a one-page story about your most memorable fish."
Keel quickly responded, "I would have to talk about the one that got away, for sure. I've fought some big fish where I didn't get to see 'em. That's always the hurtful one, when you fight it for 15 or 20 minutes and get it almost right to where you can finally see what in the world you've got, and then, 'Bam!' It breaks off. That always keeps me fired up to get back out there and try to get 'em again.
"It's about being able to get back to that good feeling," Keel says of his frequent fishing habit. "Playing music is an amazing high, for sure, but running up and down the road — that's the grind. You gotta beat the grind and keep on getting it, but being able to get out and do some fishing? It centers me in that kind of way."
That Keel finds the time to fish at all is amazing itself. Last year, he reconvened with banjo player (and fishing buddy) Will Lee, a founding member of Keel's longtime acoustic string band, McGraw Gap.
Lee now tours with Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, featuring Jenny Keel on bass and Mark Schimick on mandolin. The Natural Bridge name first came into play in 2005, when Keel solidified his lineup after years of various projects, including the Larry Keel Experience and a 2002 album with Curtis Burch of New Grass Revival.
Last year, Larry and Jenny released Thief, their second collaborative album with singer/guitarist Keller Williams. In November, Keel traveled to New Orleans for the second BlueBrass Sessions, a recording project in the historic Maple Leaf Bar.
Back in his home state of Virginia, Keel's at work on the final tweaks to Natural Bridge's follow-up to 2009's Backwoods, a high-energy collection of progressive bluegrass co-produced by Williams. The new album is due for release in February.
"Man, it really just came out magical," says Keel of the new recordings. "It's great to have Will Lee back in the band. He's been with me so many years, so the music is just really spiritual and really easy to play together."
Keel and the Pour House have a long history as well, dating back to duo shows with Jenny at the old location in West Ashley.
Still, despite years of playing here, Keel says he's never fished Lowcountry saltwater. "I've gone out for flounder and bluefish around Hatteras Island [N.C.], and I've always had fun. I've always wanted to get out there in Charleston," he says. "I'll fish for anything. I'm pretty much a catch-and-release guy. I've just always loved it."