From fruit boxes to main stage: Keith Little steps out as bluegrass bandleader
Playing professionally since he was a teenager, Keith Little is an acclaimed singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and performer who has recorded and toured with the likes of Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, The Chieftains, Rose Maddox, David Grisman, Peter Rowan and California bluegrass pioneer Vern Williams. Through his role as bandmember and sideman, Little’s musical contributions (including work on three Grammy-winning albums) are known more widely than his name. But even though he’s lead artist on only a few of the 60+ albums on which he’s played, he has devoted fans.
And those fans are excited that Little has formed a new group.
“I see motivation for band-forming resulting from the natural process of artistic unfolding,” said Little recently, “and has taken shape over the years as I’ve grown in my ability to present it.”
Little says that, while he’s started several bands and played guitar and sung lead (his roles here) in various groups, this project’s different.
“The LittleBand is my first outing as a creative leader,” he said, “or ‘soup stock’ if you will. I bring the basic recipe to rehearsal, and the rest of the band adds spices, colors and finishes the dish. We all have a say in how this happens, which gives the presentation real strength.”
His sense of musical presentation serves Little well. Whether he’s working with A-listers or developing bands, “creating a sound that’s authentic and unique is the most challenging aspect.” He’s pleased with his quintet’s progress, saying “we’re onto something here.”
While Little’s a versatile multi-instrumentalist with an unerring ability to blend his harmony singing with lead vocalists (IBMA winner Claire Lynch dubbed him “the blend-meister”) he focuses on guitar and lead vocals in the LittleBand, describing himself as “primarily a singer, who started on guitar,” an instrument that “drew me to music as a youngster.”
“I was always captivated by the tone of the guitar and vividly remember resting my ear on the upper bout of my father’s guitar, and listening to the sound of the open strings played one by one. Listening to the growl of the bass notes and hearing the treble string overtones was like some kind of magic potion.”
Many fans associate Little more strongly with banjo, an instrument he learned as a teenager after he “fell under its spell by way of my father and Earl Scruggs.”
“The banjo drew me into music in a very deep way,” he said, “and listening to Earl Scruggs continues to captivate my musical sense. Along the way, when something interesting from the banjo caught my ear, I would transfer it to the guitar. I think it’s easy to hear the banjo in my guitar playing. It’s banjo-esque.”
But, said Little, “The guitar is a singer’s companion, and while singing lead, or composing, it’s always my first choice.”
The “animation of performance and performers” also attracted Little.
“My normally stoic father would transform into a vivacious entertainer whenever he had an instrument in his hands,” he recalled. “I remember standing on a fruit lug box, imitating ‘performing,’” he said, describing it as “very powerful medicine.”
“Powerful medicine” aptly describes Little’s performances. He leans athletically into his instrument during solos, and moves on-stage with unobtrusive confidence. Little can launch his clear tenor voice into bluegrass’ classic “high lonesome sound” or sing with soft poignancy. He weaves his contributions through the entirety of songs, stitching the parts into a complete whole.
Little described learning the “entirely new skill set” of bandleader as “exciting and challenging,” likening his approach to “designated driver” rather than “boss.”
“The LittleBand is the most enjoyable assemblage of musicians I’ve ever been around, and has allowed me to unfold as a bandleader. The other members (Michael Witcher-dobro, Josh Tharp-banjo, Luke Abbott-fiddle, mandolin, Steve Swan-bass, special guest Blaine Sprouse-fiddle) are very supportive,” Little said.
“I’m happy to say that I enjoy the gig.”
For more information, visit the venue’s websites and keithlittle.com.
Keith Little’s upcoming shows with The LittleBand and other configurations:
Friday, February 6th, 2015
Winters, CA – The Palms Playhouse
13 Main Street, Winters, CA 95694
Showtime: 8:00 p.m. <http://www.palmsplayhouse.com/>
with the LittleBand & special guest Blaine Sprouse
Saturday, February 7th, 2015
Mountain View, CA – Redwood Bluegrass Associates
1667 Miramonte Avenue, Mountain View, CA 95603
Showtime: 7:30p.m. <http://www.rba.org>
with the LittleBand & special guest Blaine Sprouse
Saturday, February 21st, 2015
San Rafael, CA – Kanbar Center for Performing Arts
200 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael, CA 94903
Showtime: 8:00 p.m. <http://marinjcc.org>
with Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
Saturday, March 14th
Crockett, CA – Joe Clement Record Release Concert
St. Marks Hall, 800 Pomona Street, Crockett, CA 94525
Showtime: 8:00 p.m. <sweetthingmusic.net>
with Jim Nunally, Michael Witcher & Sharon Gilchrist
Sunday, March 15th
San Jose, CA – Foothill Community Concert Series
Foothill Community Presbyterian Church
5301 McKee Road, San Jose, CA 95127
Showtime: 3:00 p.m. <foothillcommunityconcertseries.org>
with Michael Witcher & Sharon Gilchrist