When Ron Keel was in his late teens he packed up his guitar and moved from Texas to Nashville in search of a break in the rough and tumble world of the music industry. Though he was one of a very few rock musicians prowling Music Row in 1980 in leathers and long hair, it didn’t take long before he assembled a band and started playing in clubs, soon drawing in crowds with high energy shows. The challenges to fund and fuel a working band were many, but Keel was already showing signs of the relentless drive that has propelled him through an enduring, diverse career. Correctly tuned-in to the wave of metal music coming to America from England at the time, Keel moved the band–Steeler–to Los Angeles. There were packed club shows on the Sunset Strip and a successful album, but it was not until the formation of his namesake band that he first broke into the mainstream.
With releases like The Right To Rock and The Final Frontier, Keel [the band] had a red-hot run for that went for the rest of the decade. Selling millions, touring the world, parties, women, then more parties and more women would follow. But just he as saw metal mania ignite in the 80s, Keel saw that musical tastes and audiences were again changing in the 90s. He began another phase of career were he began to explore country music.
“We’ve had to learn and adapt,” Keel said of the hurdles faced by many hard rock acts. During an interview with Screamer, as he and wife Renee traveled from their home in the Las Vegas area to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show in Anaheim, Keel looked back upon his career while looking forward to the release of Metal Cowboy.
“It’s where I feel at home,” he said, describing the new album’s blend of rock and country. Always a multi-tasker, Keel wrote, recorded and mixed the entire project in about five months in 2013, all while performing at shows around the country and hosting his own weekly radio show, The Streets Of Rock And Roll.
In perhaps the most cohesive, polished collection of songs he’s created, Keel sings about the experiences he’s had and the new thrills he still plans to feel. We hear what it’s like to be a singer on the streets of rock and roll, where the residents include thieves, hookers, truck drivers, waitresses, wanderers, and musicians who spend much of their time on the road. The characters come to life in songs like The Last Ride, When Love Goes Down and – in a duet with singer Paul Shortino – Singers, Hookers And Thieves. Then there’s The Cowboy Road, with a double time ending that pays homage to southern rock classics like Free Bird or Green Grass And High Tides.
“It’s countrified AC/DC,” said Mike Vanderhule, drummer for rock road warriors Y&T. A longtime friend of Keel’s from the early days of the genre, it’s Vanderhule who laid down the rhythm and grooves for the songs on Metal Cowboy.
“Ron is a real songwriting musician,” he said, recalling Keel’s attention to musical details. The pair recorded at Vanderhule’s studio in San Jose before Keel added more guitars and vocals at another studio in Las Vegas.
The last song to make it on to the album was Wild Forever, an uplifting hit that would sound right at home after the latest Keith Urban song on the playlist of any Nashville radio station.
“That was the last song we did,” Vanderule recalled. Like many of the other songs, it was recorded as Keel and Vanderhule played live together, capturing the raw energy Keel was after. On the heavier side, through songs like Long Gone Bad and My Bad, Keel vents the frustration he feels from the viewpoint of a small business owner who is directly impacted by regulations, rising taxes and union fees.
“I’m not especially happy with the state our nation is in,” he said. “I’m not one of the forty-something percent in this country who gives their approval to the Obama Administration.”
It was during the early years of his career when Keel developed a classic, wailing metal scream before ever taking a single voice lesson. It’s that inhuman, piercing scream that kicks off his band’s signature hit, The Right To Rock. That song’s defiant call for independence and courage in the face of hard times has remained a theme throughout Keel’s songwriting career, and it shows again in Metal Cowboy. Along with the honesty in the lyrics, the vocals and instruments were recorded live, without any of the computer-timed beats or vocal effects that are so commonly used in the industry today.
“Not one note is tweaked or processed,” Keel said. In keeping with his longstanding practice of adding a favorite cover song to an album, Metal Cowboy has a updated, southern fried version of Evil, Wicked, Mean And Nasty,” a rocker that first appeared on Keel’s Larger Than Live in 1989.
When bands such as Keel signed major label deals in the ’80s, the recording contracts were often not designed with the best interests of the artist in mind. Like many of the bands who formed in that era, Keel did not have control over the very songs, like The Right To Rock, that he and the band created. It took about 20 years to gain control of the band’s extensive back catalogue, which was a lesson not lost on the business-savvy Keel when it came time to make plans for Metal Cowboy. Though he considered putting out the album through a label – including Shrapnel Records – the label that put out Steeler’s debut recording back in 1981 – Keel decided to make it his first independent release. By putting it out through his own company, Wild West Media Productions, Metal Cowboy is the first record over which Keel has total control. After a discography filled with dozens of albums and soundtrack appearances, it’s feeling of satisfaction that the artist enjoys.
“This time it’s mine, it’s my baby. It’s not under anyone’s thumb,” he said.
Wild Forever and a few other cuts off the album have already been appearing on radio, but some of the first audiences to hear the songs performed live will probably be those on board the Monsters Of Rock Cruise ship shows set for late March. An entertainer to the core, Keel will perform his new songs with the same energy he brings to the more familiar hits.
“The main thing about Ron is that he doesn’t really believe in musical barriers, there are no partitions,” said Ohio-based guitarist Charlie Tatman. They first met when Keel was touring with the southern rock band he founded in Ohio called Iron Horse.
“Years ago I was playing in a bar, using a double neck guitar for [Marshall Tucker Band song] Can’t You See. I was playing the 12 string and up walks Ronnie right behind me and he starts playing the lead on the six string,” Tatman recalls.
In 2007, Keel wrote a song called You Can Have What’s Left Of Me for an album Tatman released titled Free And Easy. The two have since performed several times together, usually when Keel tours through the Midwest.
“We don’t rehearse,” Tatman said. “It’s more like two buddies getting up on stage together and just playing.”
Tatman said that fans of slide guitar will find a lot to like about Metal Cowboy, where Tesla guitar slinger Frank Hannon guests on songs like Wild Forever and The Cowboy Road.
In addition to rock musicians like Hannon, Vanderhule, Shortino, guitarist Brent Muscat and Keel band bassist Geno Arce, Keel also brought in Travis Toy from Rascal Flats to add dobro on a few songs.
“It’s no coincidence” that the album’s release comes at the same time his autobiography, Even Keel: Life On The Streets Of Rock And Roll, [read full review here] is also now available. The book, with its honest, straight-from-the-heart account of the musician’s colorful career, makes for a perfect companion piece to Metal Cowboy. While full of juicy stories of fast times and excess in Hollywood and encounters with some of rock’s biggest names, the author says, “the only person I throw under the bus is myself.”
Keel said that throughout his career he has always kept success in perspective: “If five million people bought what you just did, that means there’s a few billion who have never heard of you.” He credits Renee with bringing him to a place of happiness that he might not have thought possible just a few years ago.
“Without her I’d be out in the desert somewhere with a bottle,” he said.
Now, after so many years of playing guitar in studios and stages all around the world, Keel’s hands ache so badly that it’s a struggle sometimes just to twist open a ketchup bottle. But a love of entertaining people continues to motive him, and 2014 is already shaping up to be another busy year. His band plans some 30th anniversary shows in the spring, notably the M3 Festival set for Baltimore in April. Before that, there’s a trip to San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Theater in March, where Keel will perform a solo acoustic gig to open a 40th anniversary concert for local favorites Y & T.
“[The band] Keel is about celebration,” he said. “But Metal Cowboy is about a brand new start for me.”
Whatever notions fans may have of the seeing the rocker go acoustic, Keel promises the show will please fans of all stripes.
“I still do the scream,” he says.
Metal Cowboy is available at:
For information on Mike Vanderhule, visit:
For information on Charlie Tatman, visit: