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Article written by TJ Boley, music writer in Southern West Virgina

The folks at Rivermen Whitewater are rather proud of their new facility perched atop the New River George on Ames Heights Road. If you would like proof of their pride, just stop by and take a look around. You will soon be accosted by a friendly staff member who will more than likely insist on showing you what they have to offer. If you run into staff member Jim Heffernan as I did, your look around might take awhile.

Heffernan is quick to point out that Rivermen is “so much more than just a whitewater rafting company. Of course we offer the full gambit of whitewater experiences, but with the new facility, we have become a resort destination that a family, group, or individual could spend an entire week or more enjoying.” And if one partook of every activity that the New River Gorge Adventure Center (made up of Rivermen, Class VI, and Mountain River Tours) has to offer, it may well take more than a week.

And Heffernan has more. “Our guests can camp, stay in rustic cabins, or sleep in top of the line resort quality accommodations, ” he points out. “ And they can choose between three great restaurants on site, the newest being Bufflers Barbeque. We also have a masseuse on staff, and you can’t forget the Treetop Canopy Tour.”

The Tree Top Canopy Tour starts at the Rivermen facility, and after a short hike and a brief training period, you soon are zip lining through the magnificent foliage of the New River Gorge, under the watchful eyes of not one, but two highly trained guides. Jim points out that the Canopy Tour was recently featured in Popular Mechanics Magazine.

After another long list of activities too great to cover here in depth, Mr. Heffernan offers a nice segue to the real reason for my visit. I’m there to discuss this Sunday’s upcoming live show featuring Larry Keel and Natural Bridge. Jim leads me right to it.

“One of the things of which we are most proud,” Heffernan says, “is our 10,000 square foot entertainment area that features a game room, a lighted volleyball court, a viewing area for our in-house rafting videos, and a performance stage where we feature local and national artists.” And with that, we are at the crux of the matter, for Larry Keel and Natural Bridge are of the latter group, and truly have a national following. For those that follow acoustic Roots Music, Americana, or bluegrass, Keel and his band are a big deal, and the buzz around the area has been growing louder by the day since the gig was announced.

Photo By Jon C Hencock taken at the International Newgrass Festival

Photo By Jon C Hencock taken at the International Newgrass Festival

Larry Keel, internationally recognized as one of the foremost guitarists in the business, was equally enthused about his visit to the Gorge in a telephone interview on Tuesday. His travels have brought him from his native Virginia to our mountains many times, and he indicated a fondness for our locality in his conversation. But, as much as he enjoys the area, it is the crowd and the music that drive him in his pursuit of musical excellence.

Having grown up with a father playing the banjo and a brother playing the guitar, it was a natural thing for him to listen to Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, but he soon branched out in his musical tastes, and started listening to pop acts, as well as the early beat-box master Grandmaster Flash, and ranging afield to Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and many classical and jazz artists. And he acknowledges that these influences have a bearing on his style of music.

“I’m influenced by all of the music I like, and the places I’ve been, and the people I have met,” Keel commented. “I hear different kinds of music in my head, and I need to get it out there.” And perhaps different is the best way of describing his sound, without trying to pigeonhole him into a certain category. And once you hear Keel sing, you will realize that he is far from being like anyone else you have ever heard.

Some might argue that Keel is a bluegrass musician, simply because he plays music that is identified with bluegrass, performs it on bluegrass instruments, and is frequently seen performing at bluegrass festivals. But there is a difference in his music that has to be heard to be recognized. And that difference is first of all found in his voice. If bluegrass is known as the “High, Lonesome Sound,” Keel might be disqualified from bluegrass immediately, as his voice is dark and smoky, soulful and of a far lower register than that of most bluegrass singers. But he shares the commonality of great singers in that, like all great voices, he has the ability to make the joy and the sorrow come out in his songs.

Add to the voice the fact that he is said to be by some the greatest flat-picking guitarist alive, and you have a truly incredible musical experience. Throw in mandolinist Mark Shimick and banjoist Jason Flournoy, along with Jenny Keel, Larry’s wife, on bass, and things just seem to come together. And coming together is the goal, according to Mr. Keel.

“We hope,” says Keel, “to achieve a commonness between everyone that listens to our music, and let the magic of the music take over the moment and bring everyone together. We want them to be pulled into the music.”

This Sunday evening at 8:00 no doubt the music of Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, along with the beautiful setting of the Rivermen Resort will bring out the magic of the evening, and it will be an event not to be missed.

For tickets to Sunday’s show, or more information about Rivermen, visit www.rivermen.com, or call 800-545-7238, and for more information on Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, visit www.larrykeel.com .

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