Larry Keel loves to fish — and so does his band.
"We all are just very attuned to the natural outside world and really just enjoy connecting that way as much as we can," Jenny Keel said. "We just love it. That's our goal, is to create more Fishin and Pickin events."
Virginia-based bluegrass band Larry Keel and Natural Bridge pairs its passions in Fishin and Pickin, an online community for lovers of live music and sports fishing. Larry, Natural Bridge and friends also host "Fishin and Pickin Presents" weekend events across the U.S. These feature instructional workshops in both arts, as well as general merrymaking in nature. The group hopes to expand these events, which have names such as "Trout and Tunes" and "Bass & Grass," across the country.
Award-winning flat-picker Larry is a performer in his own right, having released 14 albums and collaborated with the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band, Keller Williams, Railroad Earth and other newgrass giants.
“Larry’s known for recruiting vast rosters of extremely talented musicians and involving them in his ensembles and projects,” upright bassist Jenny said. “But maybe around six or seven years ago, Larry decided to solidify a single unit, a full-time band of players that could really zero in on a sound that would be consistent and be developed — a lot of strong, steady musicianship in a unit that you can count on and depend on day in, day out."
Larry Keel and Natural Bridge consists of Larry on guitar, Jenny on upright bass, Mark Schimick on mandolin and Will Lee on banjo. The quartet’s 2005 self-titled debut is a testament to the enduring spirit of pure bluegrass, but its more recent releases, 2009’s “Backwoods” and 2012’s “Classic,” are a more progressive take on mountain music. Indie, metal, jazz, reggae and other genres now inform the band’s sound.
“Everybody in the band knows the traditional bluegrass background, and it’s a very meticulous art,” Jenny said. “It’s a very appealing combination of folksy rootsiness and high-end intellectual mastery too.”
Jenny and Schimick first encountered bluegrass during their college days, she said. Lee and Larry, however, learned to love it in childhood.
“Both of them were born into bluegrass families, if you want to call it that,” she said. “That came to them just out of their heritage. They were surrounded by a bunch of really, really skilled and talented musicians and fun characters. They love the bluegrass heritage, if you want to call it that, and what it taught them — the rules of how to play music, play correctly.”
In addition to knowing the particulars of performance etiquette, Jenny said, the leading bluegrass players are masters of technique.
“The best musicians that really do apply themselves to the intricate work on these stringed instruments, they are among the most skilled masters of music and stringed instruments in the world,” she said. “The best bluegrass musicians really are up there with the best classically trained musicians.”
But something besides virtuosity draws listeners to old-time music.
"There's something about that spirit and that interaction between musicians sitting around hooping and hollering and just having a really good time," Jenny said. "The bluegrass thing just has this great spirit and energy and lively, loving, embracing quality about it. We definitely try to take that as a mission and apply it to even the basic rock show we put on these days in our live performances."
The band is writing new material, Jenny said, but doesn't yet have solid plans for it. However, listeners may expect a new release in May, a collaboration between Natural Bridge and a group of New Orleans musicians. "Blue Brass" is a melding of two high-energy genres — jazz and newgrass.
"It's just really funky and awesome," she said. "Just the unique chemistry from two seemingly different worlds — but not really. There's a world of tunes in common between all American styles of music, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes, they can overlap just beautifully with a whole new type of presentation."
WHEN: April 25, 10 p.m.
WHERE: Green Room
This show is part of the Athens Americana Festival. A full schedule of the festival is available here.
Corrections: Mark Schimick's name was misspelled and Jenny Teal was incorrectly referenced at one point as "Susan." The Red & Black regrets the error.