Hello, dear readers! I’ve returned to the states. And one thing that my year away from home made me really appreciate is the things that are uniquely, beautifully American. And to that end, I’ve decided to learn to play the banjo this summer. So you might see an increase in banjo-related posts. Hope you have a high tolerance for twang!
Bill Keith is one of a handful that come up whenever you talk about the greats of banjo playing (the others being, Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs, Jens Krüger, Don Reno, Alison Brown). I mean, there’s loads of great players in many styles, but these are the innovators, the seeds if you will. And Bill Keith did just as much as any of them to push the limits of what the banjo was capable of. Like Doc Watson, he brought fiddle tunes to a fretted instrument, syncopated them and spawned a style of his own. And he didn’t stop there. He co-wrote the book on banjo with Scruggs, but was cut out of the royalties and recognitions. He was the first guy to start teaching banjo players music theory rather than hot licks. He’s been a member of some of the all-time greatest bands folk & bluegrass: Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, Muleskinner, etc. But he’s never gotten much fame outside the bluegrass community, and though he’s got thousands of session credits, he has relatively few albums of his own.
This album shows the whole gamut of what Keith was capable of. Bluegrass, Newgrass, Jazz, Fiddle-tunes, popular music; all rendered in his impeccable, crisp and sparkling style.
Bill Keith had great impact on modern banjo playing, particularly in the direction of “newgrass.” He even had a picking style informally named after him.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Keith began taking banjo lessons at a young age, and also learned to play piano and ukulele. During adolescence, he played in a few Dixieland bands, but by the late ’50s, became interested in folk music after listening to such inspirational artists as Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs. Using instruction books, the Amherst college student began learning their two different styles. Eventually, Keith began developing his own unique style, which became known as the melodic, chromatic or “Keith” picking style. This distinct technique was borne of his desire to play fiddle melodies on his instruments. In 1958, he teamed up with fellow Amherst student Jim Rooney and began playing at local coffeehouses and on campus. Eventually they hooked up with promoter Manny Greenhill; with his assistance they founded the Connecticut Folklore Society, which sponsored a series of traveling campus concerts throughout New England.
Following graduation and a brief stint in the US Air Force Reserve, Keith began learning to make banjos with Tom Morgan. Later he, Rooney, mandolin player Frank Wakefield, and guitarist Red Allen formed the Kentuckians. In 1963, Earl Scruggs contacted Keith to lay out the tablature for the instructional book Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo. Later that year, Keith and his former Amherst classmate Dan Bump developed a new kind of tuning peg that was adopted by Scruggs who provided a name for the resulting company in 1964. In the mid-’60s, Keith joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, where he was listed as Brad Keith. He left the band after only eight months to do more session work and by the year’s end had joined Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band where he would stay for four years. After that he played with the Blue Velvet Band. He abandoned the banjo for a while in 1968 to become a pedal steel guitarist. In 1970, Keith moved to Woodstock, New York, and spent a year with Jonathan Edwards. He then went on to work with Judy Collins. He and long-time cohort Rooney also toured together in both the U.S. and in Europe during the ’70s and ’80s, with Keith developing a particularly large following in France. When back home in Woodstock, Keith began playing banjo for the Woodstock Mountain Review. In 1977, he worked briefly as a columnist for Frets magazine. Later, in 1989, Keith, Rooney, Eric Weissberg and Kenny Koseck re-formed their old group, calling it the New Blue Velvet Band.
Review by Chip Renner
Catch Tony Rice, David Grisman, Jim Rooney, Tom Grey, Vassar Clements, Ken Kasek, and Al Jones on this album. The bluegrass is top-notch, and Bill Keith struts his stuff.
1 No Expectations – Jagger, Richards – 3:09
2 Green Mountain Hop – Reno – 3:05
3 I’ll Stay Around – Certain, Stacey – 3:10
4 Crazy Creek – Jackson – 2:55
5 Pain in My Heart – Funches, Junior – 2:20
6 Farewell Blues – Traditional – 3:04
7 Caravan – Ellington, Mills, Tizol – 5:19
8 Detour – Westmoreland – 2:47
9 Sugar Foot Rag – Garland, Vaughn – 1:49
10 Jordu – Jordan – 2:25
11 Rickett’s Hornpipe – Traditional – 1:21
12 Auld Lang Syne – Burns, Traditional – 3:23
* Bill Keith – banjo, pedal steel
* Vassar Clements – fiddle
* Tom Gray – bass
* David Grisman – mandolin
* Al Jones – vocals (Pain In My Heart)
* Kenny Kosek – fiddle, piano
* Tony Rice – guitar
* Jim Rooney – guitar, vocals
get it while its auld.
vinyl, cleaned | mp3 >192kbps vbr | w/ cover | 59mb
this post is dedicated to Rounder and his blog, Friends of Old-Time Music, where you can find several other Bill Keith albums recently posted.
Bill’s still playing and teaching, so check out his myspace and see him live, and seek out his cds!