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True Red, White & Blue: An Exclusive Interview With RON KEEL

By Ruben Mosqueda, We Go To 11
Monday, May 18, 2020 @ 10:59 AM

"Man, KNAC was the vehicle between us and our audience, without KNAC we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did. KNAC was the first ‘outlaw’ station that helped break bands like KEEL."

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Live Photo By Larry Petro/Petrofyed Photography

KNAC.COM caught up with frontman and ‘Metal Cowboy’ RON KEEL who of course has history with KNAC going back to his days with KEEL. Ron released his latest album with the RON KEEL BAND titled South X South Dakota on April 24th, an album of covers that spans some of Ron’s influences that range from LYNYRD SKYNYRD to MOLLY HATCHET to THE OUTLAWS, amongst others. “I’m so emotionally attached to this record, it was so much fun to record and the response has been positive”, says Keel about the latest record South X South Dakota. We covered all things South X South Dakota this time around though we did manage to squeeze some KEEL related stuff toward the tail end. RON KEEL is a blast to speak with, so we’ll do it again soon no doubt.

KNAC.COM: You have a new album South X South Dakota, an album of southern rock and twangy tunes. How many songs did you have to cull from? Did you have a list?

KEEL: South X South Dakota is unlike any album that I have ever done. I didn’t go into the studio with songs, I didn’t have a plan. Let me explain: When we went into the studio to record our last album Fight Like A Band, we’d warm up by jamming “Flirtin’ With Disaster”. We’d wind down at the end of the day with a couple of cocktails and jam a couple of more tunes. After 4-5 days of this, I realized that our producer had been recording these jams, so I asked him to play them back. I was sitting there in front of the speakers listening back to them and I thought we had something there. It was organic, it was natural, it was fun. I felt we had the foundation for what could be a very strong southern rock tribute album. It was then that the title South X South Dakota crossed my mind, it wasn’t anything that I put much thought into or pondered over, it just came to mind.

We already had “Ghost Riders In The Sky” in the can because it was our 2015 single which was produced by Henry Paul from THE OUTLAWS. We also had “Homesick” which was our 2017 single, so we had two songs that we could add to the pool. So I started thinking about what we might be missing. If you’re going to do a southern rock album, you have to include something by THE ALLMAN BROTHERS so we cut “Ramblin’ Man”. Then we went with a lost track from the genre by THE ROSSINGTON/COLLINS BAND, “Don’t Misunderstand Me”. A lot of people aren't familiar with that and are now hearing it for the first time on this record. THE ROSSINGTON/COLLINS BAND was the first taste we got by members of LYNYRD SKYNYRD after that tragic plane crash and I think it was equally as important in the fabric of the genre. I recruited JASMINE CAIN, she’s a South Dakota native, born and raised. She was born during the Sturgis bike rally! You can’t get more South Dakota than that! She’s a good friend of mine so I had to ask her to do the duet with me. That pretty much rounded out the list, except for the CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL medley. I thought that was a great piece to include on this album because it was RON KEEL BAND’s first ever performance. CCR might not be considered ‘southern rock’ but it’s about as ‘swampy’ as you can get! I think that was a great memento of our first performance in 2015.

KNAC.COM: When you went to cover a [LYNYRD] SKYNYRD track you went deep and you reached for the Vicious Cycle album and you selected “Red, White & Blue”. That’s a great song.

KEEL: That’s a song that I fell in love with several years ago. I have been performing it for a while now. That song really resonates with me and the guys in the band, it’s the first single from the album. It’s classic SKYNYRD and it was a top 30 hit for them back in 2003. Listen, we could have done “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Freebird”, but if you’re going to tackle SKYNYRD you have to tread lightly and we went with “Red, White & Blue”. I think it matches up to some of the classics and it’s such a perfect song for this time, 2020 and what we are going through as a country. It’s timeless. We’re pretty excited not only about the single but the music video. That will premiere on May 28th on ULTIMATECLASSICROCK.COM.

We had some challenges when it came time to film the video. In this time of isolation, how do you do that? I was at Mt. Rushmore, our keyboard player is at a park in South Dakota and our bass player on top of a truck. We wanted to pay tribute to our nation’s truckers so everyone was in a different location. I was at Mt. Rushmore Ruben. Normally this time of the year the park would be packed. There wasn’t anyone there, no one in the parking lot, no one in the park and no one in the gift shop. I’m not a fan of the ‘lockdown’, but I don’t think we could have filmed an ‘epic’ video like this any other time. I think it’s going to turn into a video scrapbook of what we all went through in 2020 because we’re isolated, but in times like this we have to stand united.

KNAC.COM: I remember seeing SKYNYRD on the Vicious Cycle tour and witnessed them perform that song. That’s one of those tunes that give you goosebumps, it’s such a well written song about everything that is America. Your rendition gets me too.

KEEL: Thank you. I’m so in love with our version of the song. I hope that when SKYNYRD hears this, I hope that they hear a guy that loves the band and is giving a salute to SKYNYRD.

KNAC.COM: “Train, Train” also made South X South Dakota. What’s the story behind that making the album?

KEEL: RON KEEL BAND has had this ‘train’ theme going back to 2015. We were putting together the stage set and designing our show and we had a drum riser built that looked like a train. It looked like the front of a train, it lit up and would blow smoke! I’ve always loved the BLACKFOOT version, it’s one of the ‘heavier’ southern rock songs, and you know I’m a metal head! [laughs] I like to throw in something to show the fans that RON KEEL is still heavy but he’s expanding his musical horizons.

KNAC.COM: The CCR medley with the hits “Born On The Bayou”, “Bad Moon Rising” and “Fortunate Son”, who could not love that? What a great way to close out the album.

KEEL: We love doing that. Ruben, a lot of times when RON KEEL BAND is performing, we’re at a biker rally and I know that 90% of the people there don’t know my history. They don’t know who RON KEEL is, don’t know “The Right To Rock” or any of those songs that I did in the 80s with KEEL. We include some of the KEEL classics and we also include songs from Fight Like A Band. We want to include them and we do medlies like you hear on the CCR medley. We have a medley that’s a 12 minute tribute to SKYNYRD. We do a verse, a chorus of the classics, a kind of what you’d call a ‘mash-up’.

KNAC.COM: You also did a killer KEEL medley on the last album.

KEEL: Yeah, we did one on Fight Like A Band. We do that live too, when we are supporting someone and we only have so much time to kill, we have to kill it! [laughs] We do it with medlies. We do a 17 minute KEEL medley which covers some of the music that has put me where I am. I’m really proud of the recording “Because The Night” and “Somebody’s Waiting” [KEEL Medley] on Fight Like A Band, thank you for mentioning that. I also have to point out that the version of “The Right To Rock” on Fight Like A Band is in the same key that it was originally recorded years ago--I’m really proud of that. I wanted to take a shot at the classics just for my own personal reasons and I think they’re pretty faithful to the originals which the fans love. I’m letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak. We’re going to do more KEEL music on the next RON KEEL BAND album along with original music. We’re going to include three recordings of KEEL songs that will include...I don’t know maybe “Here Today Gone Tomorrow”. [laughs] I didn’t say that! [laughs] I like incorporating my history and my past on RON KEEL BAND albums because it’s worked so well.

KNAC.COM: It sounds like there’s some new RON KEEL BAND original music coming in the next year?

KEEL: Absolutely, we’ll have a new album in 2021. It’s not until recently that I understand the DEF LEPPARD process of making albums and why it took them so long. There’s the writing of the songs, the refining of the songs, the rehearsing, the preproduction and then recording of the album. I can appreciate what they were doing now. I can’t imagine 2021 without a brand spanking new RON KEEL BAND album. I started off 2020 on January 1st by writing a song with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. I can’t tell you the title because it will more than likely become the title of the record. The first thing that I did was GOOGLE the song title to see if anyone else has a song by that name, no one does, it’s a simple title, no one knows the name of the song, not even the guys in the band. I can’t wait for you to hear it.

KNAC.COM: You know Ron you’ve set things up so that you’re going to get requests for South X South Dakota II.

KEEL: [laughs] Yeah, that’s ‘probably’ in the works man! [laughs] There’s a lot of great bands and songs that we can explore no doubt. I think we’ll go into the studio to record the new RON KEEL BAND original album and we’ll warm up with some more Southern Rock classics and we’ll cut them. We’ll record both new material and the next South X South Dakota album simultaneously to save on time and resources.

KNAC.COM: I have to ask you about KEEL because that’s how I discovered you. Rock Candy Records remastered The Final Frontier and Keel. What’s your thoughts on those albums sonically?

KEEL: I can’t thank Rock Candy Records enough. They did a fantastic job with the remastering. If you listen to the original pressing and the remaster, it’s like night and day. Now fans can go buy these albums, with deluxe liners, remastered and they don’t have to pay between $70-$80 for out of print copies or bootlegs on eBay.

KNAC.COM: Was there any additional material for either of those two albums that didn’t make the cut? I know Rock Candy Records are great about adding additional tracks when they have access to them.

KEEL: There are two lost treasures from my career, they are “Friday Every Night” and “Back In Action”. They were both produced by MICHAEL WAGENER and were recorded during the 1987 [Keel] sessions. Our thought at the time, since they didn’t make the album was they’d be used for a release overseas or a movie soundtrack, so we kept them in our back pockets so to speak. They were mixed, mastered and ready to go. I don’t have them, Michael doesn’t have them either. I ask him if he’s located them everytime I see him, but he’s not yet come across them. All is not lost! I might have a copy of them in my cassette tapes, but I’ll be honest with you, to sort through all of those cassettes, it could take a lifetime! [laughs]

I have been going through tapes, but it’s been one tape at a time and I transfer them to digital. I have an old demo of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” that was done by STEELER. A lot of people don’t know that the song appeared on the first two KEEL albums, Lay Down The Law and The Right To Rock. A lot of people aren’t aware that STEELER covered that ROLLING STONES song first and was the ONLY cover song that STEELER ever did. I found that and it will be released on the FNA release of collection of STEELER 1981-1982 pre-YNGWIE [MALMSTEEN] demos. The album is titled Come Hell Or Hollywood and it’s due this summer. One of the highlights on that collection is the cover of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” which was transferred directly from the cassette. Another highlight is THE first song ever recorded by STEELER which was titled “American Metal”. This collection goes back to the roots of the band before we even went to Hollywood, if goes back to when we were still based in Nashville. I can’t wait for the fans to hear that, it’s raw and it’s a bunch of kids just learning their craft. I’m not super impressed with the vocals because I still had a lot to learn, but it’s fun to listen back.

KNAC.COM: If you were to cut a STEELER song with the RON KEEL BAND, what song would that be?

KEEL: Well, it would have to be one of the good ones! [laughs] I think “Cold Day In Hell” would be the obvious choice. I think “Backseat Driver” makes sense too. It was about a year ago that we did KEELFEST and I got together with STEELER with MITCH PERRY filling in on guitar and got to perform stuff that I hadn’t performed in years, stuff like “Backseat Driver” and “Hot On Your Heels”. It was so much fun. That experience made me fall in love with that album all over again. I think “Backseat Driver” has stood the test of time and it is just as powerful and viable as it was when it was released in 1983.

KNAC.COM: The 1987 album was the first KEEL album that I bought, then worked my way back. I have a soft spot for that album, I recall watching the “Somebody’s Waiting” video on MTV and was blown away by the song. That was a song that wasn’t penned by you or anyone in the band. What's the story behind how you came across that song?

KEEL: Back then we always had people pitching us songs, even to this day, there’s always someone asking me to check out their song. I was always open to it, I mean even when people suggested covers like “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, “Because The Night” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Outlaw”. I was always about doing the song justice and that’s what I was concerned about. We did three GENE SIMMONS songs on The Right To Rock album. I wasn’t going to complain that I had GENE SIMMONS from KISS contributing songs for my record, I wasn’t complaining! [laughs] So, I got this tape that had “Don’t Say You Love Me” and “Somebody’s Waiting” on it, it was an A&R guy I think. I took the tape and popped it into my cassette deck in my car and after hearing them I just wanted to sing those songs. It was that simple, I wasn’t looking for a single or something like that, they were great songs and I wanted to sing them. I don’t recall who sang on that demo for “Somebody’s Waiting”, it might have been the co-writer RUSS ARCARA but the way he sang it fired me up! I wanted to do that and I wanted to give it a KEEL flavor. I think I achieved that on the 1987 album, but I have to tell you I’m even more proud of the version on Fight Like A Band. I like the vocals much better on the new version. The other co-writer of the songs is JACK PONTI who is huge in the business world as well as the music world. He’s retired from music, but I’m still in touch with him to this day.

KNAC.COM: Any KNAC memories from back in the day? KEEL was a staple on the radio station.

KEEL: Man, KNAC was the vehicle between us and our audience and without KNAC we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did. KNAC was the first ‘outlaw’ station that helped break bands like KEEL. KNAC.COM is now keeping the legacy alive and I have nothing but respect for you and the rest of the staff there. I appreciate the support, thank you for that. There’s only one thing that bugs me about KNAC.COM: You’re not carrying the RON KEEL radio show The Streets Of Rock ‘N’ Roll. I can’t understand why?! Put in a good word for me would you? [laughs]

For everything RON KEEL, KEEL, RON KEEL BAND and THE STREETS OF ROCK N ROLL radio show check out: www.ronkeel.com/

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