FFO: Heavy Metal, Cowboy Metal, Hard Rock
While the Ron Keel Band recorded the 2019 original album Fight Like A Band, the musicians warmed up each day by cranking out some of their favorite southern rock tunes. Bandleader Ron Keel, who has walked the line as a metal, hard rock, country and southern rock mainstay for decades, kept many of those tracks while finding some favorites from the vault to release as a new covers album, South X South Dakota, on the HighVolMusic label.
Ron Keel is known as an original member of the metal group Steeler and for forming his own metal group, Keel. The band enjoyed success in the 1980s, having sold two million records and touring internationally. They also received a boost when iconic KISS vocalist and bassist Gene Simmons produced two of the group’s albums, The Right to Rock and The Final Frontier. Following the band’s dissolution in 1989, Keel has released several solo albums and fronted other groups, including Fair Game and IronHorse.
Released Apr. 4, 2020, perhaps it is fitting that an album of covers featuring the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers and The Outlaws, among others, was released while much the world has sheltered-in-place. Keel’s philosophy on creativity and art is to continue at all costs without sacrificing quality. With his current group, the Ron Keel Band, the outspoken rocker and ever-present South Dakota music and radio personality had a chance to deliver a unique album during an unprecedented period in modern American history.
Musicinterviewmagazine spoke with Keel about South X South Dakota and more.
An Interview With Ron Keel
Why was this the time to release a covers album?
Ron Keel: The new album South X South Dakota is our tribute to the heroes of southern rock, a collection of timeless classics written by the legends of that genre. And usually springtime is a great time to release new music, as bands gear up for summer touring season and obviously, this year’s different. But we didn’t want to delay or postpone the release; people seem hungry for new music and SxSD is the perfect soundtrack for working around the house, grilling on the porch, going for long walks or long drives, camping trips, all the stuff people are doing right now.
On what song do you feel you took the biggest risk?
We could be taking a big risk releasing “Red White & Blue” as the first single. One, because it’s a power ballad, which usually isn’t your first single and two, while it’s not a political song it is very pro-America at a time when some people may think it’s not cool to show pride in those colors. The song and the new music video pay tribute to those that serve; our military, first responders, health care workers, even the trucking industry, because they are keeping America’s wheels turning right now.
What song do you feel lends itself most naturally to Ron Keel Band’s style and sound?
The songs on SxSD are all very comfortable for us. Playing them live or in the studio is like hanging out with an old friend. I think the listeners are hearing and feeling that same comfort like we are. RKB is right at home cranking out the 1980s Keel classics: Steeler, Black Sabbath, music from last year’s Fight Like A Band album, as well as these southern rock anthems from SxSD.
One of the album’s highlights is the guitar work on “Homesick,” originally recorded by the Atlanta Rhythm Section. How did the complexities of that song inspire you to cover it?
When we rebranded the group as the Ron Keel Band in 2017 after a couple of years under a different name, I was looking for a song to record and release as a summer single that year. I was doing my daily radio show on KBAD 94.5 FM when that song came up on my playlist. I remembered it from back in the day and as I was listening on the radio show. About halfway through that signature guitar harmony riff I decided “Homesick” was perfect for RKB. The power of the music, that guitar work you’re talkin’ about and the lyrical message, about being on the road and loving what you do, that all really fits us like a leather Harley Davidson glove.
What is your approach to performing a southern rock song as opposed to a country song? For example, do you have to tune your instruments differently or even assume another mindset?
On South X South Dakota we took two approaches. Some of the songs are pretty faithful to the originals, like “Flirtin’ With Disaster” and “Train Train,” while some songs have definitely been “Keelized,” like “Fire On The Mountain” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”
The main objective with recording and performing songs is the same: sell it to ourselves from a musical and emotional standpoint and then hopefully sell it to the audience. And by selling it I don’t mean exchange it for cash. I mean deliver it in a way that we’re proud of and in a way that will entertain the listeners. The songs have a magical habit of singing themselves to you, in your head and then it just becomes our job to bring that to life with our instruments and our voices.
Why do you feel southern rock has such longevity?
Because it is a true American art form, built on a solid foundation by the bands we’re paying tribute to on this new album and because there’s a new generation of important artists perpetuating that art form. These are bands like Blackberry Smoke, Blackstone Cherry, Every Mother’s Nightmare, Whiskey Myers and the Ron Keel Band.
I originally made my mark in hard rock and metal with my band Keel. I had a measure of success in country music as well and for the past couple decades I’ve combined both into this cowboy-metal hybrid thing. I think it’s really cool that a lot of my hard rock and metal fans are enjoying South X South Dakota so much. It’s got all those same elements, including massive guitars, the biggest drum sound I’ve had since the 1980s and a singer belting out songs about working hard, playing hard and partying hard.
You have publicly stated that you like playing covers to draw people in at live events. What songs do you feel represent RKB best?
I like giving the audience a great show, period and many of these huge events we play, the big bike rallies, state fairs, casinos and local festivals, if we’re playing for 20,000 people, 19,000 of them may not know who I am and they don’t know that I sold a couple million records back in the day. So we’ve created these 10-12 minute medleys, like a tribute or a showpiece, that let us include these classic iconic songs into the context of the show.
For instance, there’s a live track on the new album, our “Creedence Medley,” which is a perfect example of this; pieces of the hit CCR songs, woven together in an exciting and entertaining mash-up that works perfectly in our show. And another thing that’s really cool about this live “Creedence Medley” on South X South Dakota, it was recorded at our very first show ever, back in 2015, so it’s nice to have that memory immortalized on the new album.
What is next for you in the way of recording new and original music?
In 2004, I released my solo acoustic album Alone At Last, which I’m very proud of. This year, we’re releasing the sequel, Alone At Last…Again one song per month at my Patreon page. We’ve already released several songs, including my solo acoustic version of “Hearts Gone Wild” and the live version of “Calm Before The Storm,” recorded on the very first night of my recent Australian tour. Then at the end of the year, all subscribers will receive the signed limited-edition CD.
How will you address COVID-19 and the state of the world in the next album?
I think we’re addressing that with South X South Dakota. Not only with the message of the first single “Red White & Blue,” but with the epic music video that accompanied that track. All of the band members shot in isolation, each at a different iconic location, like Mt. Rushmore. Divided by fate, we stand united. I’m proud to announce the world premiere of that video is set for May 28th at UltimateClassicRock.com.
How has the pandemic affected you? Obviously touring had to pause. How much are you itching to get back out there?
Never mind the money, I hate losing the time. Nobody wants to take a year off from a job they really love. So I keep doing my job, by releasing this great new album, by doing interviews like this one, the day-to-day business of music, by writing songs, by producing the new “Red White & Blue” music video and by entertaining my fans online.
I miss the interaction with my band and crew, we are truly a family and it was tough even on the location video shoots to keep our distance, not hug or shake hands, which hurt. And I miss the fist bumps and high fives from the people in the audience, the energy that you only get at a concert.
How has the pandemic influenced you to innovate in the way of writing?
I have a system for writing tunes, for capturing musical and lyrical ideas and molding those ideas into songs. That system is never influenced by outside conditions. It’s kind of like giving birth. When it’s time, it’s time and the rest of the world will have to wait until the song is written.
How do you use technology and social media to stay in touch with fans?
As far as engaging with fans, I do that as much as I can, any way I can. I’ve been doing live streamed interaction with the Keelaholics at the Patreon page for over a year now. We have live online video chats, house concerts live from the “FanCave” at my house, guitar sessions, songwriting workshops; fans can go on there and post their own photos and comments and get in touch with me immediately and directly via Patreon message.
You have such a colorful career. Is there an influence that might surprise your fans?
One collaboration I’m most proud of is our new book, Anything But Pink: On Becoming A Cancer Survivor, which I co-wrote with my wife Renée about her battle with Stage 3 breast cancer. As she was going through that, the chemo, radiation and multiple surgeries, she kept a written record of the experience and I contributed my viewpoint from the husband’s perspective. My portions of the book also include the effect on Ron Keel Band, and how that impacted the creation of Fight Like A Band. Anyone who’s interested can find the book online at ReneeKeel.com.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming bands and players in the new state of the world?
My philosophy and my recipe for success remain simple and unchanged regardless of the situation. You do whatever you can. You do whatever it takes. Do your job. It’s a tough business and now it’s going to be harder than ever to succeed and make a living in music and entertainment. But it’s not impossible. You gotta want it bad. You gotta want it more than anything, more than everybody else wants it. If you give it your all and don’t stop working hard and dreaming big, you’ve got a fighting chance. And sometimes a fighting chance is all you need.
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Justin Smulison is a professional content writer and producer whose first love is music. Smulison’s digital and print copywriting experience spans music, law, true crime, advertising and real estate, among other subjects. You can often find JS in Long Beach, New York, either running on the boardwalk or in the sand with his family.