Larry Keel and Malcolm Holcombe are often called musician’s musicians. They’re both masters of their respective crafts—Holcombe a deeply insightful lyricist and Keel best known as a fast-as-lightning flatpicking guitarist—and they’ve both shared the stage with many more-recognizable roots music icons.
They’re also both Blue Ridge natives—Holcombe born and raised in the mountains of western North Carolina, while Keel hails from up the chain in Virginia. And both have raspy, powerful voices: each sings like a variation of Tom Waits born in an Appalachian holler. They’re also prone to giving their respective acoustic guitars bruising, soulful workouts. By coincidence they’re also both releasing guest-filled new albums this month.
Holcombe’s Another Black Hole (out February 12) is his fourteenth studio album to date. His career has been prolific and independently scrappy with one notable go at the mainstream two decades ago. Back in 1996, he inked a major-label deal with Geffen Records, but his dreams were dashed when the label decided to shelve his debut A Hundred Lies. Before heading back home to North Carolina, though, he did manage to make some notable friends. Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris added vocals to Holcombe’s 2012 album Down the River, and his new one has some impressive guest contributions as well.
To make his latest album, Holcombe teamed up with former Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, and some percussion help from Futureman of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones was assembled to give Holcombe’s songs a sturdy country-rock backbone and the hearty support of extra acoustic strings. There is also some electric muscle added by bayou blues guitarist Tony Joe White.
The sounds are used to accentuate Holcombe’s vivid blue-collar tales. In songs like “To Get By” and “Don’t Play Around” he describes hard-luck characters trying to survive their (sometimes self-imposed) desperate circumstances. In “Papermill Man,” a song set to a rollicking honky-tonk groove, the main character suspiciously watches “dirty smoke blowin’ up in the air” and endures sawdust in his lungs while working for a dollar a day on the Pigeon River.
Holcombe looks like he could be one of these characters, and he’s openly discussed battling personal demons. He has the deeply embedded facial lines of someone who’s lived hard, and when you see him perform it’s immediately obvious there is nothing contrived about his look or his notebook. As he sings on the new album’s contemplative closer, “I wallowed in my bad moves and hollered in the dark.”
Keel’s songs also come from a very real place. Growing up in western Virginia near Lexington, he recalls that family members, particularly his brother Gary, taught him old mountain songs from a young age. His skill level was exceptional, and in 1993 he went west to the venerable Telluride Bluegrass Festival and placed first in the guitar competition at the progressive picker’s mecca. Two years later he went back and won the contest again, and this time Keel’s first notable band, McGraw Gap, was also recognized, taking top honors at the festival’s band competition. Keel’s old bandmate in McGraw Gap, banjo player Will Lee, is now his sideman in his current touring band the Larry Keel Experience, which also features his wife Jenny Keel on bass.
Through the years, while often staying under the radar, Keel has collaborated with some of the best in bluegrass. With a style of guitar playing that’s fiery and expansive, he tends to attract those in the genre who are open to experimentation. He penned a song on the Del McCoury Band’s Grammy-winning album The Company We Keep, and he’s played shows with Tony Rice and Sam Bush.
Some of these high-lonesome heroes agreed to lend a hand on Keel’s new (and 15th overall) studio album Experienced, which is being independently released on February 26. The album starts with Keel, Lee, and Bush (doing double duty on fiddle and mandolin) trading blistering solos on the six-minute newgrass workout “Ripchord,” but fleet-fingered fun is only part of the equation on this seven-track effort. “Lil’ Miss” is a bluesy shuffle that works well with Keel’s gruff vocals, while “Miles and Miles” is a patient, open-hearted highway song that features a vocal assist from jam troubadour Keller Williams. McCoury, an elder statesman in the bluegrass world who once sang with Bill Monroe, shows up too, harmonizing with Keel and fiddler Jason Carter on the fast-paced foot-stomper “Fill ‘em Up Again,” which also features mandolin help from the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Mike Guggino.
The album serves as an impactful cross-generational testament to Keel’s influence in his genre. As McCoury puts it, “I think what makes Larry so powerful is that he has lived his songs, he’s not sitting in a room trying to write the hit of the week, he’s writing what’s in his heart and on his mind.”