McCoy: Music is Key in Fraser local’s life |

McCoy: Music is Key in Fraser local’s life

Gary Key.
Courtesy Photo |

When I asked the “Walking Jukebox” about his nickname, longtime musician Gary Key said: “I’ve been called a lot worse.”

He thought I coined the moniker when I worked full-time for the Sky-Hi Daily News; and I very-well could have. I first encountered him as a musician more than 15 years ago. Even back then, he was the gatekeeper to an immense repertoire.

No matter its origin, Key admits “It seems to have stuck.” He says it’s the only nickname he’s ever had.It’s fascinating to hear him perform. I remember him playing at Granby Ranch for some function (he donates time regularly to local charity gigs) and two ladies walked up to make their request. Having not ever played the song, and to their giggling delight, Key winged “Rockin’ Robin”.

By the age of 6, Key (born in Marianna, Ark.) was in awe of “Big Mike”, a performer who would play a local pub in Tarpon Springs, Fla. He would watch people go up to “Big Mike” and request songs. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Key said.

Key’s dad had taught him to sing at age four, and bought him his first guitar (a Tiesco Del Rey from Sears) at age six. Forty-plus years later, Key continues to fill a room and delight. “Once it’s in your blood there’s no turning back,” he said.

Try to stump him. I do, every time I hear him play (and I try to every chance I get). He estimates he knows more than a thousand songs. “If it catches my ear,” he said, “I’ll learn it.” Playing everything from Americana to classic rock and country, favorites include Neil Young, Jimmy Buffett, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Crosby, Stills and Nash; Willy Nelson, Black Sabbath, and Alison Krauss. Key gets a lot of requests for James Taylor, another favorite.

He fondly remembers local Carl Banta asking him to play the Oscar Meyer Weiner song. He loves it when someone comes up and starts with “You probably can’t do this, but … .”

He plays right-handed, even though his left is dominant. (He can shoot a pistol, and do most anything else, he adds, with both.) He owns about 13 guitars, a bass and a slide; and his “go-to guitar” is a six-string Taylor, “and she is my baby.”

Although most musicians name their instruments, Key says his haven’t been named. “They know me,” he said. “Even if I called them, they wouldn’t come to me anyway.”

He has pages and pages of original songs, about things that “pop” into his head. “That’s what songwriting’s all about,” he said. The hardest part, he added, “is getting 10 verses down to three.”

Key has fans and friends worldwide, singing solo, or with regular buddies Sam Osborne, John Hendrix, Eric “Oly” Olson, and Terry Tompkins. Albums include “Latitude Attitude” and “Livin’ the Latitude Life” and collaborations: “Key to Success,” the Gary Key Band, and Hendrix, Osborne and Key “Live I” and “II”.

He and Osborne are finalizing 12-14 songs for a new album “Latitude 18” set for release soon. The “Latitude” albums pay tribute to where Key used to live, in St. Thomas (and where he and Osborne have played a lot together).

After four U.S. Virgin Island hurricanes in four weeks, Key made Fraser his home in 1995. When it’s time to share his talent outside Grand County, he hits the road. He travels regularly back home to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and performs in many other places along the way.

“Without an audience, we are nothing,” Key said. “Everything has always been about the music. Music’s a pretty cool thing. I’m just lucky I do what I get to do. It’s not about me. They (audience members) like what’s familiar to them. I’m just a conduit.”

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