Biscuits in his Gravy: Keller Williams

Feb 2, 2011 by

Biscuits in his Gravy: Keller Williams

mousFor many of you, Keller Williams needs no introduction. But for anyone left out there who hasn’t heard of Keller, seen his ledendary solo act or followed his many other incarnations, well… I guess I’ve got some ‘splaining to do. Yet how the hell do you write a quick intro about a guy who has just released his 16th album (his first geared towards children), hosts his own syndicated radio show, has five side-projects listed on his website, recently published his first children’s book and is currently touring with a three-piece bluegrass outfit to promote an album of cover songs from artists as diverse as Kris Kristofferson, Amy Winehouse and Marcy Playground? It’s been said that his “Entire career seems like a eries of side projects.” And that can be a good thing or a bad thing. He’s got so much going on right now, so many irons in the fire, that it might be easy to say that Keller can’t seem to pick a lane or that he’s a jack of all trades, master of none. But there is a lot more to the story than all that, and if there is one thing that Keller is an expert at, it’s being Keller. Describing just exactly what that is however, or predicting where it might lead next, is a bit like trying to grasp water.


Growing up in Fredricksburg Virginia, Keller says he had an early love for a hockey stick that he would wield as an electric guitar. It wasn’t until age 13 when he first picked up an acoustic guitar, and perhaps because of all that practice on the hockey stick, by the time he was 16 he had already landed his first ‘real gig’.

“Around that time I was also doing temporary jobs like landscaping, and I was making the same amount playing music as I was shoveling mulch and digging up weeds for eight hours in the summertime at minimum wage. So it seemed like the obvious choice was to play music.”

As a theatre major at Wesleyan in Virginia, he never really studied music formally, but he did study music, “I listen to all kinds of music. I’m a music-lover first, musician second, and a songwriter third. And I think that all comes out in my solo shows.”

You probably won’t find a lot of guitar players or musicians who will name both the Grateful Dead and Michael Hedges as early influences, but Keller wasn’t going to short-change himself by ruling anything out. “A friend gave me a cassette tape of ‘Live on the Double Planet’, a Michael Hedges record. I was about 18 and just like a musical sponge. I got turned on to him at a really influential time and he really spun me around and showed me how it could be done with one person, with one guitar, on stage alone. Not only from his playing style, but the way he was able to take cover songs and change them into his own, I got a lot of that from him.”

Also by this time, Keller was deep into the mystery of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. “I studied and learned their music and went to the shows,” and adds that Jerry’s playing had a tremendous influence of his own approach toward music.

“I started to work and over the years I incorporated more technology. The looping thing started to happen and tickets were sold and people came to shows, so there wasn’t any reason to fix something that wasn’t broken.”

What he refers to as ‘the looping thing’ is a trick he learned during a stint opening up for Grammy-winning bassist Victor Wooten. Using a Gibson Echoplex delay system, Williams is able to simulate an entire band with his own two hands. “My solo thing is definitely based around freedom and the somewhat self-indulgence of the kind of music that I’m into.” And since those songs are all created track by track out of thin air, he sometimes comes off as much of a magician as a performer. It’s a bit like watching someone pull a song out of several different hats, with nothing up his sleeve, and without a net if he blows it or drops a loop. And if he does mess up or suffers technical difficulties, you won’t find him stopping the show and apologizing, Keller will keep on keepin’ on with whatever is still making noise, perhaps mimicking a trumpet or beat-box with his mouth while using his guitar as a drum. It’s these qualities like this dedication to his audience and the fearlessness that allows him to pull off an acapella Bohemian Rhapsody as an encore, that have made him and his shows an increasingly ‘above ground’ sensation. And he’s got Colorado connections that run deep.


In the early nineties, Colorado was fertile ground for progressive bluegrass and of course Telluride, CO was where the sun shone brightest. It was also where some of Keller’s Blue Ridge peers like Mark Vann and Larry Keel had already left an idelible mark on the Rocky Mountain soundscape.

In 1995 Keller made his own pilgrimage to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and in a basement bar on Main Street he discovered a newly-formed acoustic band that he felt a deep kinship with. They were calling themselves the String Cheese Incident, and were hardly known beyond the picketed crest of the San Juans at that time. Keller enjoyed their style and their adventuous spirit and instantly became a fan.

“I saw them… (String Cheese) and just loved the way it was all acoustic back then, and they were jumping from genre to genre and I went and saw them a couple of times before I ever met them.”

And the ‘Incident’ wasn’t his only discovery in Telluride. The Rocky Mountain climate and altitude can be hard on acoustic instruments, and in a moment of self-preservation Keller took drastic measures.

“I noticed that the bridge was peeling off this one 12 string that I had so I took off a couple strings and lowered the tension to try to get through this series of gigs.” Neccessity is the mother of invention, and stripping down his guitar proved to complement his playing and served to further distinguish his sound and style.

“It turned out that the lower you go the better the guitar sounds. Lower register, lower notes… and solo I really thought that was important to really have the bass lines and the low end come through to fill out the sound a little.” Though that original guitar hangs on his wall at home, he hasn’t yet retired the technique.

“I have a baritone 12 string that I travel with and it currently has nine strings on it.”

After visiting Telluride and then deciding to settle in Steamboat Springs for the winter of 95/96, 15 years later Williams can still quote snowfall numbers. “It snowed 221 inches just in the month of January alone. I had a good time living in Steamboat for sure.” He paid his bills by playing bars and clubs six nites a week in Steamboat and Summit County, feeling fortunate to make 50$ and dinner. And this is where he finally got the opportunity to actually meet the String Cheese Incident.

“When I met them I gave them my CD and offered my services as an opening act, and I’m very greatful they took me under their wing. They gave me the national exposure that I would not have had otherwise. They took me out of the bars and the restaurants and I actually got to play real venues with a stage and PA and a green room, which wan’t really something that was normal in my world.”

What Keller is referring to is a relationship which included being signed by their SCI Fidelity record label, the 1999 release ‘Breathe’ as the Keller Williams Incident, national touring as a supporting act, and various sideprojects with various members of SCI. And it turns out that Colorado has provided a few other seminal experiences during his career as well.

“The first time playing Red Rocks always stands out in my mind, that was in 1999.”  And the first time I played with Bob Wier was at Red Rocks and that was 2001 I believe, and that was definitely one of the highlights of my career, I think, playing with Bob Weir as a duo at Red Rocks. That was unbelievable for me.”

That night at Red Rocks led to recording with Weir as well as playing with Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman in the Rythm Devils. And while we’re talking about side projects, I counted no less than five listed on Keller’s website. Asked about these diverse projects Williams responds, “The most intense one I think is the band with Keith Mosely on bass and Gib Droll on guitar and Jeff Sipe on the drums. That’s a very powerful one I think. The product that came out double live (STAGE) with the bonus DVD all in the same package I’m quite proud of. I hope that can see the light of day again and we can take that back out. But right now The Keels is what we’ve been doing recently. We played a lot of festivals this summer and we’re doing a holiday run together.”


The Keels is one of Keller’s more recent projects, but it could be said that it was 20-some years in the making. Keller began playing seriously with Larry and Jenny Keel in 2004, and in 2006 they teamed up for the bluegrass album not surprisingly titled GRASS, but their friendship and musical collaboration goes back to 1991 when they were all involved in the local Fredricksburg music scene. Larry was playing in a band called Fizzawah, a side-car to his main oufit McGraw Gap and Keller would sit in, and vice versa.

Though they lived a few hours apart in Virginia, it never kept them from getting together for an afternoon jam when they had the time, and Larry also had his own connections to Colorado in the newly formed Leftover Salmon’s original banjo player Mark Vann (a TBF winner himself). Keel and Vann had been friends since they first met in ’89 and formed a bluegrass outfit called Farmer’s Trust and in 1993 Vann convinced Larry to come out to Colorado for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival where Larry surprised even himself by winning the flatpicker’s contest. “I was completely surprised, because there was wonderful talent in the whole thing, you know. Just seeing all that and getting to take in Colorado was prize enough. It’s kept me coming back for years.” Keel says about the mountains and the music during that first visit.

And fortunate we are to have enjoyed those visits over the years. With an unofficial title of ‘Bluegrass Legend and Master Fisherman’, Larry is considered one of the best flatpickers on the planet. Steeped in the old-timey and with a gravelly voice as deep and rich as mooshine on a riverbank, it’s a nice complement to Williams’ smooth-as-silk delivery. Larry’s flat-picking style is as seamless as it is gymnastic and he’s a master at simulating banjo rolls, mandolin runs or even parts that you would normally hear played on a fiddle.

The bridge between Keller and Larry is provided by Larry’s wife Jenny on the upright bass. Born into the bluegrass tradition herself and a young enthusiast, Larry and Jenny met at a bluegrass festival and were soon playing together anywhere and everywhere they could.

The whole album couldn’t flow any better, managing to create a commonality and a cohesiveness to the scattershot playlist. On youtube I found videos of the trio playing songs from THIEF alongside the gentle Rappahannock river in Virginia and the chemistry between the three is captured perfectly. Keller leading the way, at times chopping hardwood, other times throwing in his fluid and almost a-rythmic rolls and fills. Larry charges up and down the neck with his unique style of rollicking flatpicking while the beautiful Jenny Keel ties it all together with her solid timing and gentle attack, sometimes drifting off with a wistful smile, but always keeping one eye on Keller and watching out for his surprises. These videos are a testament to the essence of bluegrass, the depth of their friendship, and that good warm feeling of fraternity that only bluegrass music and good whiskey can produce. It is obvious that these people have nowhere else to be, and nothing else they’d rather be doing than playing music together.

Speaking of their friendship and collaboration with Keller, Larry says, “I’ll tell ya’, he’s always amazed me with his creativity and his ideas and the directions he heads with all of his playin’ as far as not just your typical cover songs or his original material, he’s always got a surprise in there for ya’. His rythm capability is as good as it gets, it’s the best I know of and I just love playing music with him you know, it really fires me up. We tend to read each other like a book now, it’s pretty awesome.”

And when it comes to the diverse origins of the material, the legend from Natural Bridge, Virginia says, “You know with a lot of these songs off of THIEF, me not being the big radio listener of popular music, I hadn’t heard of any of the songs that were on the CD. It was hilarious, we rehearsed ‘em and got ‘em all down and had ‘em tight and then we go out to play these shows in front of thousands of people… and everyone’s singing the words to them. I feel like the odd man out in weird way, but we put our touch on ‘em and I’m real happy to be a part of it.”

It’s easy to get caught up in those cover songs, the diversity of the source material and the unlikliness of it all.  Pickin’ on the Butthole Surfers? Amy Winehouse on corn liquor rather than crack? And who the hell are the Presidents of the United States of America, anyway? But the reality is that this is damn good bluegrass from any angle, and as far as the art of taking other artist’s songs and making them your own while still allowing the songwriting to shine through on its own merits, it is brilliant. These folks are impeccable at playing these songs, without once ever getting in the way of the songs themselves, and I can only imagine that the original artists are delighted to see their material handled with such dexterity and humility.

When I ask Keller how they chose the material for the album, it becomes clear why the choices were so succesful. “You know, a handful of those songs were road tested by the Keels and I and we definitely played them live for a couple of years before we recorded them, so that was really easy to choose those. Others were road tested by me solo and then there were a few others that we put together right there in the studio that I thought were really cool. Like the Raconteurs song, the original is very rockin’… if you listen to the words it’s kind of like one of those old bluegrass murder ballads and it works really well bluegras. It was all about the songs I knew that people would either know and sing along to, or like even if they were hearing it for the first time.”

This album proves beyond doubt that digital technology can and does capture that analog magic, as long as the magic is there to begin with, and in my mind cements Keller Williams as an incredibly talented producer. The irony is that this album is anything but a ripoff. Though it may be other folks that writ the songs, each one is left improved upon, the paradox being that Keller, Larry and Jenny bring out each song’s hidden potential by stripping them down to volume, tempo and timbre. If Keller wasn’t stuck on one-word album titles he might as well have called this record “Pimp My Song – Mountaingrass Edition”.


Of course, just because he’s not playing solo so much these days. It’ doesn’t mean that Keller is slowing down any. Just like his solo act, when it comes to his career he is just as likely to find himself with several irons in the fire at once. He released an album for kids this fall, appropriately titled KIDS, and a companion book to go along with it. You can find out more about these projects following this article, and read a review by Mousike’s newest correspondent, 1st grader Xander Armistead.

Keller also had a co-producer credit on Larry’s newest album Backwoods,  a more traditional bluegrass project recorded with his band Natural Bridge. Larry is not one to sit idle either, and has started a series of Bluegrass and Bass Fishing camps which are proving popular. “They’re both an incredible escape from the day-to-day you know, ‘cause music has it’s magic and fishin’ does too. They’re two of my dear loves for sure… gotta have ‘em.” says Keel. Don’t be surprised if you see him in Colorado soon with Bluegrass and Brownies, because his love for the Rockies is evident in his voice.

“It is so amazing. I can remember when I went out there as a youngster, and then gettin’ to go back out there this year and play with Keller and the Keels in Telluride… every time you go there it’s the most magical thing. We dearly love Colorado, we’ve made some wonderful friends out there.”

Keller and The Keel’s have three Colorado shows coming in February that are guaranteed to be a good time. They’ll hit the Vilar in Beaver Creek, a gig at the Sheraton Ballroom in the Boat, and a final gig at the Aggie in Fort Collins.

Each venue has a charm and a following of it’s own, so I ask Keller if he’ll mix it up a bit for the different audiences. “We’ll definitely do a different set every night.” says Keller. “It’s not like the Vilar is really a listening room, people still get up and boogie. Last time there was a nice mixture of the patrons and the young hairy folks. The Vilar is by far one of the nicest places that I play. It is as aesthetically pleasing as they come. Just amazing to step foot in that place for the first time and see the beauty of the architcture on the inside and how they’ve really grabbed ahold of the Colorado mountain lodge vibe.”

And speaking of beautiful venues, Keller has recently been tapped for a Neil Young tribute concert at none other than Carnegie Hall. Though he does know which song he gets to play, he’s not at liberty to say which hit it will be, but he’s obviously excited. “I was invited to play one song. Just to be in Carnegie Hall, not necessarily on the stage but just to be in that building, that would be a real rush for me. I’m really excited. The fact that I get to play a song makes it all just like gravy.”

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