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In the Key of Keith: Santa Cruz's own Keith Greeninger plays this Saturday at Kuumbwa.

Santa Cruz Troubadour

Keith Greeninger's charmed musical life

By Jessica Lussenhop

Keith Greeninger is one of those very lucky people for whom music has been a kind of currency, and through the years the conversion rate has always been pretty good. Not only is it how he makes his living, it's how he managed to travel from Alaska down to Nicaragua and everywhere in between, it's how he met his wife, and now, it's how he's going to help out at his kids' school.

"Every parent has different skills and talents, and one thing I can offer up is to put on a concert to help the school," he says of his upcoming performance at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz, the proceeds of which will go to Happy Valley School, where his 8-year-old daughter attends. "We all know things are getting cut back more and more. Especially the arts programs."

Greeninger has reason for concern, as he was not much older than his 13-year-old son when he first picked up a guitar and began songwriting. Though his Aptos High garage band in the late '70s had a very different flavor from the bluesy folk music he now plays, he has very fond memories of playing dances and parties when the members weren't even old enough to drive to gigs. "Sometimes when you're just learning, you just keep turning your amp up in order to connect with people," he says, laughing. "I could see the rock & roll thing was fun, but I was starting to get really into lyrics." Greeninger was bitten hard by the songwriting bug after that, becoming more interested in lyrical storytelling than groupies and high-powered speakers.

That natural ability and a desire to meet new people and travel to new places has propelled him through three solo albums full of songs about Joe Six-Packs, nomads, love, loss, family and war, and won him a trunkful of awards, including the Telluride Troubadour National Song Writing Competition. He owes the experiences that helped him pen his songs to decades of a nomadic lifestyle. "I've always kind of had a certain wanderlust, I guess," he says. "When I go somewhere and I have a great experience in a situation I've never been in, you get addicted to that."

After high school. Greeninger became in many ways like a traveling minstrel, drifting from place to place with his guitar and a set of carpenter's tools, just checking out the lay of the land. He spent a while in Colorado, living in an isolated shack with no electricity, before he moved on to Alaska, and then tooled his way across the country to Vermont. While he says he's not necessarily the most charismatic man in the world, hanging out in a bar with a guitar on his lap certainly helped him make connections along the way. "Music is a pretty good trick. We're hard-wired to respond to music," he says. "I've kept it pretty sacred, but you're more likely to be invited over to dinner."

While he says all of his travels and experiences have influenced his songwriting and his life; the most dramatic was certainly when he ventured into Nicaragua during the Contra war, a U.S.-backed conflict that shouldn't have made Greeninger or his travel companions very popular, even as they helped build shelters. "Kids were being killed; we were killing children. It was crazy, but here they were being nice and feeding us," he said of his Nicaraguan hosts. "They never blamed us for anything. That's something I'll never forget."

The years and the miles have brought Greeninger's songwriting to maturity and given him a relatively rosy opinion of the human race. And though he's now a father and husband with a slightly waned wanderlust, he feels his traveling résumé is pretty robust and his experiences enrich his music today, as he prepares yet another album due out in spring. "As a writer, I think that it's interesting to discover there's only so many scenarios in the world and there's only so many characters," he says. "I try to think about them in my songwriting and to reflect some of that back."

KEITH GREENINGER plays a fundraiser for Happy Valley School on Saturday, Nov. 29, at 5pm at Kuumbwa, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $35 adults/$20 children at

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