When Keith Greeninger received a guitar from his grandfather at age 13, it was like a light was flipped on inside his mind.
“The guitar just kind of opened up this ability for me to start writing and creating stories right away,” he says. “I immediately started making up stories about things around me, people in my family, places where I grew up, and I really just started doing it because I love singing. The older I got and the longer I did it, the more a part of my life it became.”
Now with five studio albums as a solo artist and a sixth currently in the works, Greeninger continues to steadily write new songs, taking time to ensure his next collection is a worthy follow-up to his last album, Soul Connection, released in 2014.
“My job first and foremost is to write songs that I feel are as strong as they can be and then to travel around with those songs and bring them out into the light of day and live with them for a while,” he says. “I feel like a song really has to be a deep part of me before I rush out and record it.”
Following the folk tradition, Greeninger continues to draw from personal experience to craft stories and his voice takes influence from New Jersey Boss Bruce Springsteen through its gritty and unapologetic honesty when pondering the wide-ranging intricacies of the human condition.
“What I do find about my writing, even if it’s just for fun or whether there’s some kind of a story or message in it, it always is kind of tied in somehow with the earth and the good people around us. I’m kind of an eternal optimist, I would say,” he says with a laugh. “An earth-loving eternal optimist. I think the negativity gets a lot of power on us if we allow it to. As a writer I like to do what I can to highlight all the good work that people are doing out there because that’s the stuff that sustains us in my opinion.”
He brings up the current political state, saying although the divisiveness that’s been growing throughout the country is eroding connections between people, he feels there’s enough good in the world for it to rise above.
“I tend to believe in the human spirit,” he says. “I tend to have a positive outlook on who we are as people and that kind of runs through my music.”
Greeninger moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s and formed the seminal Americana trio City Folk with Bay Area musicians Kimball Hurd and Roger Feuer. While the group ended following the release of their third album in 1995 and Greeninger began focusing on a solo career, he says he still enjoys the energy other musicians can bring to a project.
“As the writer you write almost the screenplay, so to speak, but if you’re doing it properly, I feel when you invite musicians you invite them to bring their own influences,” he says. “One of my favorite parts of the recording process is to watch a song, a story that you wrote, take some really new directions because of the talents of the other musician and the way the story has inspired them.”
When he’s ready to settle down with the songs he’s traveled with, Greeninger visits his Wind River Studios recording facility located on 61 acres of redwood forest in the mountains of Santa Cruz and brings in others to create with him among giants.
In recording songs for his upcoming album, he worked with Tiran Porter of the Doobie Brothers and studio guitarist Doug Pettibone, two musicians with whom he has long wanted to collaborate, as well as longtime musical partner drummer Jimmy Norris who has appeared on the majority of Greeninger’s solo albums.
Many of his songs are untethered by constraints of time, not following conventional rules of radio and rather letting the story play out as it may for as long as needed to find a fitting conclusion. Harmonica, jazzy piano or guitar can take the spotlight during solos, adding space for the listener to breathe and consider the wisdom he shared in the previous verse.
“Part of my philosophy is the instrumental portions of the song become as important as the lyrics,” Greeninger says, referencing Springsteen and Jackson Browne. “They would sing a little part of the story and then the music would continue the story.”
One song to be included on his new album, which was written with a friend who is a two-time Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War, is titled “Twenty-Two Angels” in reference to statistics released in 2016 by the Department of Veterans Affairs saying an average of 20 to 22 veterans die by suicide each day in the U.S. Greeninger performed at a benefit concert at Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley last month to raise money for veterans, using his music to help others and raise awareness of the serious problem.
What started by chance is now such a large part of his life, and Greeninger says he’s constantly learning more as he continues to play guitar and write songs.
“I still wake up feeling so much gratitude for having music in my life to share with other people and just for myself,” he says. “It’s a good medicine to have.”
Keith Greeninger will perform at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Rd., Friday, Dec. 7. Tickets are $15 in advance or $18 at the door and can be purchased online at www.flagartscouncil.org, in person at the Coconino Center for the Arts or Arizona Music Pro, or by phone at 779-2300. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Visit www.keithgreeninger.com for more information.