Each year, the Boston Bluegrass Union uses the occasion of its annual Joe Val Festival to present its Heritage Awards, which highlight substantial contributions to the genre in New England. This year’s musician award is going to a pair of recipients, Bill Keith and Jim Rooney, who had a formative role in the early days of New England bluegrass.
Besides notable performing careers as a pair and individually, both men have played significant roles in numerous other areas of the music business. Over the course of a 50-year career, Keith has played with the likes of Bill Monroe, Judy Collins, Tony Rice, Clarence White, David Grisman, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Jonathan Edwards, and Paul Butterfield. He developed a melodic style of banjo playing (often referred to as “Keith-style’’), invented an innovative tuning peg for the instrument, and founded a company to produce and sell it.
We reached Keith at his Woodstock, N.Y., home to talk about all of those strands.
Q. Congratulations on receiving the award. It’s interesting that you and Jim Rooney are receiving it as a pair.
A. Thank you. It’s quite an honor. Jim and I started out playing music together, first at Amherst College. We actually played on a little UHF TV station out of Springfield - a quick show around the time of the weather forecast or something in the morning. We played for years at Club 47 [later Passim] in Cambridge. And the first album that I ever made, “Livin’ on the Mountain,’’ was with Jim Rooney. We recorded that in 1962.
Q. While you both have had remarkably varied and independent careers, you’ve maintained that musical partnership.
A. We have taken different paths, but those paths have crossed quite a lot. We played last summer at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where I won the banjo contest 49 years ago. We do play fairly regularly. And of course we’re doing a show at Joe Val.
Q. You have both had an effect on bluegrass and other roots music in many other aspects and well beyond New England as well.
A. Jim has been involved in the publishing business, me much more on the performing side of things. An important landmark in my performing career was working with Bill Monroe back in 1963 and introducing the “Keith style’’ or melodic style of playing in his band.
Q. You spent a little under a year in Monroe’s band. How did that time with Monroe, brief as it was, contribute to your career?
A. Long-term, it’s had a great effect. I got national exposure at a time when that was difficult to get. When I left the band, the next thing I did was return to Boston and join Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, which was certainly not a bluegrass band. I guess I felt that after being with Monroe, playing with other bluegrass bands seemed a little anti-climactic. And the Jug Band was a group of my peers; we were all equal. With Bill Monroe, you were definitely working for somebody.
Q. You’ve been involved from the start of your career in musical projects and approaches that operated on the fringes of classic Southern bluegrass or brought different elements to it. In particular, there has always been a strong folk strain to your career.
A. “Folk’’ is a more encompassing word than “bluegrass,’’ but includes bluegrass. And my interest in the five-string banjo was sparked by a consummate folk musician, Pete Seeger. So my interest in folk music preceded my interest in bluegrass, but continues in a parallel way.
Q. You also had a part in founding what came to be known as progressive bluegrass, and you performed and recorded with many of that style’s luminaries.
A. I certainly have always had a healthy respect for the original traditional approach, even though it was one step removed culturally to an urban guy from the Boston area. I was more attracted to the instrumental side than the vocals, and it just seemed too normal to take the bluegrass techniques and use them in other music that doesn’t seem bluegrass. We were trying to play those tunes as if a bluegrass band was playing them.