Keb’ Mo’: “Music Was Mine To Experience”

For all its ghastliness and heartbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has been good to Keb’ Mo’. When the virus hit the US, it forced the cancelation of a string of his concerts. “I was getting a little burned out on touring,” he confesses.

In the subsequent months, he happily spent a good deal of time at home with his wife and their 14-year-old son. When his creativity needed an outlet, along came an offer from CBS to write and record the theme song and musical cues for a new comedy show, B Positive. And after the pandemic peaked, he told me, “I did some concerts, got a little gig-playing money. It was fine, really.”

Most of all, the pandemic hiatus was an opportunity to write and record Good to Be . . ., his latest studio album, scheduled for release January 21. Full of cozy blues grooves coated in a mellifluous pop-wise sound, it’s a safe yet sophisticated record. Its 13 tracks draw you in and make you smile. Standouts include “Medicine Man,” a country-blues stomper that, despite the 40-beats-per-minute tempo, will quickly put you in a party mood, and the bouncy “So Easy,” in which a Hammond organ, punchy horns, and exuberant vocals combine to sound as Pharrell Williams might if he recorded Philly soul. No obvious new ground is broken, and that’s okay: In a time when nerves are frayed and tempers are short, I’ll take solid and soothing any day.


Speaking by Zoom from his home-based Nashville recording studio, Keb’ Mo’ looks the part, too: trim, energetic, and much younger than his 70 years. What’s his secret, I ask—does he inject himself with the blood of virgins?

“I got good lighting today!” he quipped back. “Honestly, I go to the gym several times a week, and I have a trainer, and I eat good. I cut out sugar about six months ago, and I don’t take pharmaceuticals.”

Half a lifetime of economic struggles stoked his attachment to good health. “I had a whole bunch of low-paying jobs, which meant I couldn’t get sick because I had no health insurance. So I ate my fiber, and I exercised, ’cause I didn’t want to die.”

“I was a messenger, a janitor, a handyman,” he recalled. “I delivered airline tickets. Worked in a flower shop.” He invokes bluesman Paul deLay’s song “14 Dollars in the Bank,” and sings the signature line for me:

14 dollars in the bank,

1500 worth of unpaid bills.

Then he burst into laughter—which he often did during the two hours we talked. “When you’re down to your last 14 dollars, that’s when you gotta get a job. I learned that to get through life, you need a roof and a phone. A roof to keep the weather off you, and a phone to receive calls in case somebody wants to work with you.”

Keb’ Mo’
Since 1994, when Sony released the superb, self-titled delta-blues record that catapulted Keb’ Mo’ into the good graces of a growing audience, his phone has rung often, with offers of concerts, TV appearances, and musical collaborations. Keb’ Mo’ put him on course to release a dozen more well-received studio records, gain an international audience, and win five Grammys.


Photo: Jeremy Cower

It wasn’t his first solo effort; Rainmaker, from 1980, was his real debut, released under his real name: Kevin Moore. It sank like a stone, and Moore acknowledged that it deserved few accolades. Consisting of eight fairly middling tracks of pop confection, it seems to be aiming for a slicked-up Eagles/Donald Fagen sound. He rarely sounds soulful or confident on the album. Only the affecting “Anybody Seen My Girl” stood out; Moore dusted it off and rerecorded it for his sophomore album.

Rainmaker went nowhere because I’d started listening to people around me rather than to myself,” he said. “Also, I had some serious vocal trouble and needed an operation. You can hear how weak my voice was. It took me 10 years to get over the fact that that record failed. It hurt me so bad.”

Those 10 years, though, awakened the bluesman in him. “I was living in Los Angeles, and I got a call from a local friend [jazz guitarist Spencer Bean] who was going to Atlanta for a couple of weeks. He had this steady gig in the house band at Marla’s Memory Lane in L.A., a jazz and blues joint, and asked me to sit in for him while he was gone. So I covered him for the two weeks. Well, he never came back so that got to be my gig, playing night after night with Charlie Tuna.” That’s guitarist Charles “Tuna” Dennis, who became B.B. King’s sideman in the early 2000s.

The gig at Marla’s was “the gift that kept on giving,” he said. “Soon, I had Texas and Chicago in my ear, all these styles, ’cause we were backing everybody: Pee Wee Crayton, Albert Collins, Merry Clayton, Billy Preston, Big Joe Turner. I couldn’t believe it. I got to actually play with all of them.”

All through the ’80s, as the blues seriously beckoned, Moore broadened his horizons, studying music at Hollywood’s Guitar Institute of Technology, learning about harmony, sitting in with jazzmen. “I wasn’t much of a guitar player, and not much of a singer either, so I’d take my money from my flower shop job and get some vocal lessons and guitar lessons,” he recalled.

He also analyzed classical music, including works by Bach. “I started seeing the correlation between these classical pieces and what I was doing in jazz and blues. Aeolian and Mixolydian modes, harmonic minor, melodic minor, all of that. So I got this real mix of information that not many people had. And that all played into what happened next.”

He means recording his breakout album, which won the W.C. Handy Award for the year’s best country/acoustic blues album. Moore says he was shocked by the success that followed, but he felt he was ready.


“When I got signed to Sony and made the Keb’ Mo’ record, I was 41 years old, and I had studied enough. I’d played the clubs, I had got enough formal education, I knew the street, I knew about being broke. All of that gave me all the energy I needed, and all the information to succeed. Nothing went unused.”

The album, which established him as a major country-blues artist, is a triumph. There’s a clear connection to the delta-blues tradition, but he doesn’t copy anyone, and he expands the scope of the genre. In his hands, the blues seemed refreshed, even surprising—no mean feat in a genre that, for all the beauty it spawned, is known for three-chord laments and a guitar-case–ful of musical and lyrical clichés.

Purists need not apply
A central contradiction in Moore’s work is that although he’s a bluesman, it was never his thing to dwell on pain and gloom. There’s a persistent sunniness about his music that belies song titles like “The Worst Is Yet to Come” and “Somebody Hurt You.” When Moore sings “Perpetual Blues Machine,” about a deceitful lover, he sounds peppy and ebullient—less Howlin’ Wolf than Stevie Wonder (whose “Isn’t She Lovely” he covered on his aptly named album Big Wide Grin from 2001).

Mo’s fealty to unadulterated country blues lasted all of one album, which upset purists. On 1996’s Just Like You, pop influences drifted into the work, and by the time he made The Door in 2000 (footnote 1), it was clear that he had full-on embraced a lovingly stirred amalgam of Americana styles in which the blues was but one of several ingredients.

Keb’ Mo’ is one of the few artists whose music can be called adult-contemporary without insult—demonstrating that the label need not be a proxy for unimaginative, middle-of-the-road pap. Moore is, to me, masterful and still the real deal—but if you require your blues steeped in rawness and pain, I can see that it makes some dogmatists crazy that he’s covered both Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen” and the Eagles’ “One of These Nights”; both Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” I read him a quote from All Music Guide: “Authenticity was not a concept that troubled Keb’ Mo’. He was more concerned with offering a nice, smooth, bluesy pop that was perfect for the House of Blues, not for a seedy roadhouse.” Is that a fair thing to say?

He manages a smile: “I’ll take that.” But then it’s clear that he’s stung and wants to sting back.

“Let me guess—that was a white guy!”

A little bewildered by the foray into race, I confessed I didn’t know (footnote 2).

“I could give a flying fuck about what critics say,” he blasted. “Critic dudes don’t know shit, only how to critique stuff. That’s just people making noise to make a little money. I don’t listen to them. If I listened to those people, I’d be boring myself to tears trying to please them.”

Footnote 1: Keb’ Mo’ performed songs from The Door at the Saturday evening headline concert at Stereophile‘s Home Entertainment 2001 Show at the New York Hilton.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: The answer, for what it’s worth, is yes. See allmusic.com/album/slow-down-mw0000600608.

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