By Frank Etheridge
Larry Mitchell is a traveling man.
Reached by phone in mid-December, Mitchell was on the road in Virginia. In this week, sandwiched between his 53rd birthday and Christmas, Grammy-winning guitar wizard Mitchell had played a gig with jazzman Stanley Jordan in New Jersey, composed a score for a theatre production directed by Jim Henson’s daughter, Heather, outside of Washington, D.C., before teaching music to special-needs children in Virginia. Perhaps best known for his soaring leads and nasty riffs that propel ‘80s-rock hit songs “The Stroke” and “Lonely Is the Night” by Billy Squire, the New York City native (born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens) would move to San Diego and spend a decade in Santa Fe, New Mexico before settling in Opelika in 2012, to be with his mom.
“Most of my family moved from the South to New York,” Mitchell explains of a common Jim Crow-era migration. “My grandmother’s generation started moving back to the South in the early ‘90s and now my generation is, too. It’s been cool and interesting living in the South. Columbus has been revitalized—I love seeing all the people packed on the closed-off streets for concerts. Downtown Opelika has come alive since I’ve been here. Watching a music community come together and happen, it’s awesome.”
Considering his unassuming demeanor and fact that he hails from far outside the Chattahoochee Valley, it’s likely that most in the audience lucky enough to catch Mitchell play in area music venues aren’t aware of his impeccable musical resume.
“I was Mr. Rock and Roll in my New York City days,” Mitchell says, laughing as he describes the cover of his 1990 self-titled debut album, featuring him in signature black cowboy hat, zebra-print suit and double-neck six-string electric guitar. He followed his early success as a player by becoming an producer and engineer, for which he’s won 26 awards—including a Grammy in 2008 for his work on an album by Native American flautist Robert Mirabal (recording under the name Johnny Whitehorse), with Mitchell’s playing on drums, guitar and didgeridoo (!) accenting Mirabal’s flute to fantastic effect.
“I’m an all-in-one producer,” says Mitchell, who maintains a home studio in Opelika with an array of digital and analog tools. “Playing or programming drums, writing bass lines, electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards—whatever it takes to make the record work.”
Even with all the acclaim for his studio work, Mitchell maintains a busy touring schedule as a performer. “I love gigging,” he says. “I had a ball at the show with Stanley Jordan—it was absolutely great. When I’m home, I get up and play sometimes at Eighth and Rail in Opelika, or head to Columbus to the Loft for Tim O’Brien’s jam—I’ll go in there and having a blast playing.”
“It’s not only extremely fun but it’s a huge compliment to have a world-class musician come play with us,” O’Brien tells The Local. “There’s no rehearsals, so you never know what’s going to happen. We improvise a lot and Larry adds his personality to the music with these instrumental soundscapes he creates.”
“I’m just doing what I love to do,” Mitchell says. “I’m not sure what a successful career in music is, but I get to play. I get to play as a sideman; I get to play as a leader. I get to write and produce music with cool artists. I teach a little bit. It’s all fun.”
Mitchell has built upon his early “Mr. Rock and Roll” stature with a succession of eight all-instrumental albums on both electric and acoustic—the tone on which he expertly expands with a magnet-based amplification that allows for typically electrified effects such as reverb and delay. A mature depth in his craft is found on his 2016 release, Traveler, highlighted the tender, hauntingly melodic tune, “Unforgotten.” That song title came after a Columbus friend visited his Opelika studio with a rare PRS (Paul Reed Smith) guitar that belonged to her late father, who owned a music store. Playing solos over music already composed in his mind, Mitchell finished to find his friend emotional over the experience. “My dad, he’s not forgotten,” Mitchell recalls his friend saying at that point.”
Having moved to Alabama to help his mom immediately after his stepfather’s death, Mitchell is all too aware of the cycle of life. But his view is shaped by his life in music. “As we get older, we start to lose friends and family,” he says. “It’s just a part of life, unfortunately. I have a number of songs inspired by remembering friends and family. Working with Native American musicians, traveling around the country to their different festivals, I’ve learned how the different tribes handle the passing of a loved one. It’s more of a celebration of their life, as opposed to a super sad funeral.”
This winter, Mitchell will head to Nashville to play “an insane party,” teach guitar in Palm Springs, California at workshops organized by the incredible Steve Vai, work with austic kids in Cleveland, tour the Northeast and teach university-level master classes on guitar and production in Maryland.
And after all that?
“I’ll head home for a little bit and then do it all over again,” he says.