Story by ANDREA AGARDY
Photography by GABE RENE PHOTOGRAPHY
James Keith Asbury spent a lot of time as a kid at his family’s business, where he first stepped onto a stage and launched a lifelong love of music. Now, performing under the stage name James Keith with his band Nautical Nation, the vocalist and guitarist shares his original songs with the world while staying connected to his Hill Country roots.
AN INTRODUCTION TO PERFORMING
His father, Keith Asbury, owns the Roddy Tree Ranch and Lazy Days Canteen in Ingram, where he performs with the River Rats, the bar’s house band. When his son was a teenager, the elder Asbury invited him onstage to experience the spotlight for himself. “I grew up listening to my dad play every Friday and Saturday during the summers, and eventually, I joined the band,” Keith says. “I played with his band from when I was 13 until I was 19 or 20. I feel very privileged to be able to grow up like that, kind of groomed to be a front man since I was a little kid.”
The aspiring singer found another role model in his dad’s CD collection. “My biggest idol is Malford Milligan. He was in this band called Storyville. He’s an awesome singer, and he’s a huge presence onstage,” Keith says. “I was going through my dad’s CDs when I was 12 or 13, and I found this CD by Storyville called ‘Bluest Eyes.’ I probably listened to that CD about a thousand times just because I loved his vocal presence on that album.”
TESTING THE WATERS ON HIS OWN
Keith launched Nautical Nation in 2014. The band’s lineup has changed over the years, leaving Keith as the only original member. He is currently playing alongside bassist Robb Walker, drummer Rich Carducci and guitarist Brock Bushong.
The band’s name is a nod to Keith’s determination not to let his music be pigeonholed. “The name Nautical Nation started because our music is so eclectic,” he says. “It’s kind of like an ocean — it can be calm and tranquil and soothing, and then it can get crazy — there can be a tempest or a storm. The array is very wide. I’ll do a reggae song that has a Spanish thing to it. Or we’ll do bossa nova, or we’ll do heavy rock or country. It’s hard to pin down, but I’d say we pretty much play every genre with a hint of rock.”
HITTING THE ROAD
Since forming the band, Keith has taken Nautical Nation on the road for several tours. “We’re based in Kerrville, but we’re on the road about nine months of the year,” he says. The band has played for crowds at venues and festivals across Texas and the Southwest, as well as on the West Coast and in the U.K.
Nautical Nation’s first outing in 2014 bore all the hallmarks of a young band trying to make a name for itself. “It was four guys in a van going cross-country,” Keith recalls. “It was a lot of fun. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we had some great experiences and met some really cool people.”
Although the band now has a “nice little home” away from home in a tour bus, the cushier travel arrangements haven’t made the players soft. Fans buying a ticket to a Nautical Nation show can expect to get their money’s worth. Keith and his bandmates aren’t the type to go through the motions in order to pick up a paycheck.
“Expect to see us drown onstage for a couple hours sweating for everybody. My bass player said if he doesn’t have to switch T-shirts halfway through the set, then it’s not a good one,” Keith says with a laugh. “They’re paying $20, $25 for us, so we want to give them everything and leave it all on the stage. If we can connect with the audience, then we’ve done our job.”
BUILDING THE FAMILY BUSINESS
When he’s not touring, Keith still has a hand in the family business and is helping his dad with a huge project that will bring a new performance space to the Hill Country music scene.
“This year we’re breaking ground on a new amphitheater out here. We’re going to turn the Lazy Days Canteen into a music hall, and we’re building a 1,200-seat-capacity amphitheater on the ranch, as well,” Keith says. If all goes according to plan, the amphitheater will be up and running in time for the 2021 festival season.
“We’ve found this rock formation with this huge rock that sticks out over this pond behind the stage of the canteen, and we’ve made it into almost like a catwalk, which is pretty cool,” he says. “That’s what we’re really pumped about, so we’re going to do festivals and all sorts of stuff next year. We’re going to do some really big shows.”