Catching up with Keb’ Mo’ before Beaver Creek performance
See him live at the Vilar Sept. 7
Last Word Features
Sometimes, it’s hard to look on the bright side of the road. But that’s where someone like guitar-playing singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo’ comes in.
On “Good To Be,” his 16th studio album, the 70-year-old blues artist is all in on the warm and fuzzies. While it would be easy to think that the man born Kevin Moore went into this project with a preconceived notion of positivity, he insists it was a group of songs that came about organically and as more of a work in progress with the oldest material dating back to the late ’70s, when he was an inexperienced musician making his way to recording his 1980 debut, “Rainmaker.”
“I get asked that question a lot in terms of what the inspiration for a record is,” he said. “The inspiration comes out of the time in which the work is created. I live my life and throughout that, writing sessions come up and whatever is going on at that time tends to seep into the music. Then when I look back at the year or year and a half of writing songs, there’s a natural kind of basicness to it because it’s all in the same time period. I’m not really looking for a theme, but this seems to have a theme of goodness. There are three songs with the word good in it so that’s why I called it “Good To Be.” It just made sense to feature it. So that’s the theme — gratitude.”
As someone who has spent the past three decades working with a myriad of artists ranging from Zac Brown, Bonnie Raitt and The Chicks to B.B. King, Taj Mahal and Willie Nelson, Mo’s latest outing is no exception. For this go-round, producers ranged from good friend Vince Gill to Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy), while the roll call of musical guests include Darius Rucker, Kristen Chenoweth and Old Crow Medicine Show. And while trying to wrangle all these logistics is a challenge during the best of times, COVID-19 threw a few more wrinkles into the mix and forced Mo’ to learn a few new tricks.
“The pandemic proved to be a blessing in disguise because with things getting canceled, it was nice to stay home [in Nashville] and spend time with my family,” he said. “But as it dragged on, people started doing performances on their phones, which was very lo-fi and I was totally frightened of doing things like that. I sensed if this thing were to go long, production values were going to have to get better. We had to get all kinds of lighting and different plug-ins. I had to learn how to make things sound like they were done in the same room even if they weren’t. It was crazy, but you start figuring stuff out, and now a lot of us, myself included, have a new skill set.”
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Most of the album was recorded while Mo’ renovated his recently re-purchased Compton childhood home, where his mother Lauvella Cole lived until her death at the age of 91 in September 2018. There’s plenty of love, nostalgia and memories baked into these songs, whether it’s the nod to his mother amid the gospel vocals, pedal steel and Rucker’s vocals in “Good Strong Woman,” the languid convergence of banjo, fiddle and harmonica Old Crow Medicine Show infuses into “The Medicine Man” or weaving a message of vulnerability into the horn-kissed shuffle “So Easy.” Elsewhere, Moore touches on the ideas of intimacy (the delicate ballad “Quiet Moments”) and social justice (the string-embraced “Marvelous to Me”). And while Mo’ has called the state of Tennessee home for the past 11 years, “Good To Be” brought back plenty of memories of growing up in Compton, a place that had a far different look long before Kevin Moore became Keb’ Mo’.
“We had a music store in Compton called the Compton Music Center, which is where, along with the pawn shops, we got our instruments — guitars, saxophones and trumpets,” he recalled. “There was a family called the Dedmans — Leonardo, Dathan and Dexter Dedman. They were all genius musicians in a musical family and were jazz aficionados. At the time, Compton was middle-class people trying to get their kids through college. A lot of the men had good jobs at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Lockheed. They were machinists and had health plans. My mom was a hairdresser with a shop. There were a lot of businesses because people had jobs in that area. Kids were doing all right.”
Mo’s early musical path led from his playing steel drums in a calypso band to playing with a number of back-up bands including Zulu, which caught the ear of Jefferson Airplane collaborator Papa John Creach as he was walking through Compton on the way to buying some soul food. The band was hired and the young guitarist’s imagination was fired up.
“When we went on tour with him, I got exposed to all kinds of different musical situations — Captain Beefheart, Maria Muldaur, James Cotton, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” Mo’ explained.
And while landing a staff writing job with A&M Records led to the aforementioned 1980 debut outing, its failure to connect prompted a career pivot.
“I had to reinvent myself and that meant starting from scratch because all my gigs had dried up and the ‘Rainmaker’ record had flopped,” he said. “The phone wasn’t ringing. I got a call to be a sub with a group called the Whodunit Band. That was the beginning of my rethinking of who I was. Then I started getting into the blues. I started playing the blues and was all about it. All that stuff on ‘Rainmaker’ had more of an R&B vibe to it. I figured nobody wanted to hear that, so I just embraced the blues. I was with a bunch of guys who were really into it. I got in there and the phone started ringing again and I started getting gigs around town playing in the clubs. At some point, I heard the Delta blues — country blues, and something snapped in me.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Keb’ Mo’ is heading back out on tour. And if he’s learned anything from the pandemic, it’s a new approach to making music that technology has made possible for him.
“My goal going forward is three albums a year,” he said with a laugh. “Because I don’t have to work on them all at the same time. There are 365 days in the year. A record is about 10 or 11 songs on average, so that’s 30 songs. I figure if I’ve got even three months of work days left over from touring and with the tools I have now, I can do these three records simultaneously. And everyone I work with has some ability to record remotely, if not in their own house, but their own neighborhood. We’ve been using this technology all along, but COVID-19 forced us to embrace it. I still like the old way too, but these tools opened up more opportunities for me.”