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By Adam Harris

July 29, 2009, WV Gazette, Charleston, WV

http://www.wvgazettemail.com/Entertainment/gazzmusic/200907290463

Larry Keel and his group, Natural Bridge, spend much of their days on the road. The hard-traveling band zigzags the country most of the year playing their brand of tradition-friendly progressive bluegrass and currently promoting their new studio album, “Backwoods.”

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Jason Flournoy (second from left) plays fiddle with bluegrass band Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, but it wasn’t always that way. He originally played guitar and majored in Jazz Theory and Composition in college.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Bearded bluegrass poet Larry Keel and his group Natural Bridge spend much of their days on the road. The hard-traveling band zigzags the country most of the year playing their brand of tradition-friendly progressive bluegrass and currently promoting their new studio album “Backwoods.”

So banjo player Jason Flournoy, a Louisiana native raised in Alabama and now living in Asheville, N.C., knows how to make the most of his short stints at home. “I like to cook and hang out at home, play pinball. I got a big flower garden, and I like tending to those,” he said, phoning the day after getting home from a tour stint. “I keep it pretty simple and laid back.”

The group hits the road again for a string of dates that includes Tomahawk’s in St. Albans on Friday.

Flournoy originally played guitar and pursued a degree in jazz theory and composition after high school. He rendezvoused with the banjo at a music store and quickly recalibrated his career path.

“I fell in love with the sound of it, and I couldn’t really do anything else. Within just a couple of days, I had pretty much put the guitar down. I just couldn’t stop playing. It wasn’t anything that I had control over. So I quit. I decided I didn’t need to go to school to learn how to play.”

Like a lot of people, Flournoy says he came to banjo music through Old & In The Way, the ’70s bluegrass group that featured Jerry Garcia on banjo. That group’s progressive approach, strongly rooted in prior traditions while opening up its stylistic boundaries, has a lot to do with the philosophy of Keel and company’s brand of acoustic music, which initially attracted Flournoy to the band before he joined in 2006.

“I was always a big fan of his music. I like the humanity in it, and he’s got a delivery that’s different than a lot of people in acoustic music,” Flournoy said. “He’s not concerned with sticking super-close to any specific genre. He can do an older tune that’s simple and down to earth and as traditional as it gets, and then he can go to any other genre and push boundaries.”

Flournoy’s path led to playing music in Colorado as part of a more rock-oriented group, although he would sit in with Keels whenever he could — mostly when they crossed paths at festivals. Keel asked Flournoy to sit in with Natural Bridge at a Colorado gig.

“His music had been in my head for a long time, and I knew the guy, but I showed up trying to get the job,” Flournoy said. “That was the only week I had off that summer, and he was doing a run in Colorado. I hopped in the van and did a few more shows around Colorado, and I moved back South two months later.”

Larry Keel is the group’s namesake, but he runs a smooth democracy artistically, Flournoy says. “You don’t find that with a lot of bandleaders. Some just want to play their own material or the stuff they pick out. Larry is very open and excited to do anything someone has to offer from a creative standpoint.”

Flournoy’s contribution to “Backwoods” is a steady-rolling instrumental called “Bohemian Rag,” nodding to Flournoy’s decidedly non-bluegrass upbringing and his knack for a great tune.

“I don’t have any bluegrass background,” Flournoy said. He heard a lot of Zydeco and Cajun music initially in Louisiana and his parents fed him a varied diet of Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, with some Hank Williams Jr. and Merle Haggard mixed in.

“There was always music going on,” he recalled. “Not so much banjo music, but there was always music.”

Although he moved to Asheville to join Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, Flournoy says being closer to his mother in Alabama and his family in Louisiana was a bonus of his decision to move. “I’m a Southern boy,” he said in a noticeably Southern draw that proves his point. “Living down here is just more my speed.”

“Asheville is a great place to come home to,” he said. “It’s strange. Every time I come home, I can be exhausted from driving, be ready to pull off the road and take a nap, but as soon as I come in on [Interstate] 26 from Johnson City, and I cross over the mountains leading over here, there’s something that energizes me, makes me feel good. They’re some of the oldest mountains in the world, and there’s energy to them. West Virginia is the same way.”

WANT TO GO?

Larry Keel and Natural Bridge

WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Tomahawks, 5930 MacCorkle Ave., St. Albans

TICKETS: $8

INFO: 304-201-2070 or http://www.tomahawks-wv.com

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Charleston Daily Mail, Arts and Entertainment, Thursday July 30, 2009

by Zack Harold

http://www.dailymail.com/Entertainment/200907290569?page=2&build=cache

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There’s always been a dispute in the traditional music community about what constitutes “real” mountain music. Are banjos and fiddles required? Are drums forbidden? Does one really have to be from the mountains to play it?

Though fans and scholars probably won’t ever reach a consensus, all can agree on one thing. Whatever “real” mountain music is, Larry Keel plays it.

But that’s not to say “real” music has to be “traditional.”

Born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Larry is an award-winning guitar player, longtime student of bluegrass music and a prolific songwriter who has penned songs for big name acts like the Del McCoury Band and Acoustic Syndicate. Still, Larry’s music doesn’t really sound like anything else.

Backed by Natural Bridge (made up of wife Jenny Keel, banjoist Jason Flournoy, and mandolin player Mark Schimick), Larry breaks from the three-chord, four-beat formula of traditional music. Though he always keeps an ear for tradition, Keel’s brand of bluegrass is infused with the spirit of jazz and rock.

“I just tend to listen to what’s in my head and don’t ever listen to what the critics say,” Larry said. “I like it all so we play it all.”

Larry Keel and Natural Bridge will bring their unique brand of bluegrass to Tomahawk’s Steakhouse and Saloon on U.S. 60 in St. Albans at 9 p.m. Friday.

Their philosophy also is put front and center in their new CD, “Backwoods,” released in February.

The album, the band’s second studio release, took two years to record. The band started out with 25 songs for the record, and had to cut them down to just 10. Larry said they were careful about song choices for “Backwoods” and wanted to make sure the songs were cohesive.

“I’m proud of the material, both the sense of fun and depth of emotion,” Jenny said. “It spans all the spectrum of human emotion. We finally got the result we wanted out of many attempts in studios.”

Larry says Natural Bridge is a much tighter band than any he’s previously worked with.

“In the past I’ve had more loose-sounding, improvisation-based bands…but Natural Bridge is a very honed tool,” he said.

And other musicians have taken notice. Larry Keel and Natural Bridge have played with many musicians from all corners of the bluegrass world, including such big-name acts as Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck and Chris Thile.

Jenny Keel says Natural Bridge’s tight-knit playing makes it easy for other pickers to join in. “We’re kind of like a hub that other musicians can merge with,” she said.

The big-name pairings have produced positive results for Natural Bridge.

“We’ve been seeing a growing fan base every week we go out,” Larry said.

Larry came to music through his father and older brother Gary, who both played music and performed around town at social events. Larry grew up listening to his family and their musician friends, and would come to share their love of bluegrass.

“I remember at a really young age listening to Ralph Stanley, his album ‘The Man and His Music.’ It just kind of struck me, his mountain sound,” Keel said. “I guess it’s in my blood. I just love hearing it and playing it right.”

Larry began playing music when he was eight years old, after Gary bought him a guitar. Like so many other fledgling guitar pickers of his generation, the first song he learned was Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower.”

By the time he was 14, Larry was playing around town and attending fiddlers conventions with his family, meeting and playing with pickers his own age. When he was 18, one of Larry’s friends called to tell him about an amusement park audition in Orlando, Florida – for Tokyo Disneyland. Larry went to the audition and got the job. He spent seven months in Japan performing bluegrass classics like “Rocky Top” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in six half-hour sets a day, six days a week.

Upon his return to the U.S., Keel met some other musicians at the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax, Va. The group would become Magraw Gap , Larry’s first band, and would tour together for the next decade.

His years with Magraw Gap were good ones for Larry. He took first place in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s prestigious guitar competition on two occasions, and even aced the festival’s band competition with Magraw Gap.

The band also helped Larry find wife and soon-to-be bass player Jenny. At the time, Jenny didn’t play any instruments but as she started hanging out with the Magraw Gap boys, she started messing around on the upright bass. “I guess I just absorbed it from their encouragement,” Jenny said.

After two years of backstage jams, Larry left Magraw Gap to form his own band with Jenny on bass. Jenny says the instrument was a natural fit for her.

“It was just something in me that pumps, that heartbeat.”

She sees her role in Natural Bridge as a counterpoint to the rapid-fire picking of her band mates, the solid foundation that “glues it all together.”

Over the 15 years they’ve been together, Larry and Jenny have played in several bands, including Big Daddy Bluegrass, Keller and the Keels and the Keel Brothers, before starting Natural Bridge in 2005.

Now the band has toured all over the United States, and usually plays more than 125 shows a year. That’s a pretty hectic schedule, but Larry’s just pleased he gets to play music for a living.

“I feel very fortunate in these crazy times. I feel very blessed.”

Contact writer Zack Harold at  zack.har…@dailymail.com or 304-348-7939.

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