Photo: Jeremy Coward
Keb' Mo' On Purchasing His Childhood Home, Honing A Continuum Of Feeling And His Companionable New Album, 'Good To Be'
Since adopting the Keb' Mo' moniker in the 1990s, singer/songwriter Kevin Moore has been less interested in innovation than emotional transference. On his new album, 'Good To Be,' there are fewer filters than ever between his inner state and ours.
Have you ever stepped into your childhood home and absorbed its invisible energy, its spectrum of lingering emotions? Keb' Mo' did more than that: he purchased the place for himself and his family.
"How did all five of us live in this little, bitty house? But we did. We did," the Americana singer/songwriter tells GRAMMY.com of that two-bed, one-bath abode, which stands a stone's throw from the Compton/Woodley Airport in Los Angeles. In recent years, Keb' Mo' — who is also a Nashville resident — purchased the home, renovated it and made it his vacation home and workspace.
There's evidence of his upbringing everywhere, the five-time GRAMMY winner and 12-time nominee says. And his soul-nourishing new album, Good To Be, grew from that bittersweet homecoming.
Released Jan. 21 via Rounder Records, Good To Be explores various permutations of American music. These include silky-smooth soul ("Sunny and Warm"), back-porch country ("Good Strong Woman," featuring fellow GRAMMY winner Darius Rucker) and an Appalachian stomper ("The Medicine Man," featuring Old Crow Medicine Show — also GRAMMY winners.)
These days, Keb' Mo' is less interested than ever in being a boundary-demolisher; he knows what he does, and wants to keep honing that vision.
"What I'm looking to do is to do a better job of what I did before," he says. "It's like, how do I write a more pertinent song? How do I write a more fun song? How do I make the music sound and feel better?" Fortunately, Good To Be sounds and feels as good as (if not better than) just about anything Keb' Mo' has released in his long and idiosyncratic career.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the Americana favorite to describe the moving parts of Good To Be, what makes a classic song and why we don't need to bring the blues back to the mainstream — rather, it happens on its own in trusty cycles.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Compton is an area that tends to garner negative associations, but I'd like to hear about it through your eyes. What might people not understand about it?
Well, it's like any other area. Some areas have a negative connotation; some areas have a positive connotation, depending on who you're talking to and what their perspective is on it.
For me, Compton — that's my home. That's where I grew up. It's got soul. It's got a thing that my neighborhood doesn't have. I live in Tennessee in a very safe, nice neighborhood. My house in Compton was in the hood. I enjoyed being around working-class people and everyday folks — you know what I mean? — which most Americans are.
In the house that I grew up in, there's a kind of comfort there. I've got family and people dropping by to see me. It's good. It just feels good. Like the song.
Tell me about the physicality of the house and the experiences you had there.
It's an 800 square foot house — two bedrooms, one bath. Very small rooms. It's a nice big lot. I hope somebody will put a guest house in the backyard. Maybe the same size as the house. It's right by Compton Airport — half a block south. It's just on a working-class block with nice palm trees.
When I'm living there with my wife and son, we've created a little working space — it's a vacation space. It's the home of a lot of great things. There's a school there; the Compton Cowboys ride through the neighborhoods. I don't know how to describe it to you. It's a little dangerous at the same time. But it's always been kind of dangerous. [Chuckles.]
My mom passed away at 91, and four years ago, we bought the house. It was in bad need of repair and renovation, so we did all of it. We put it back together.
Do you notice any evidence of childhood you in there?
Oh, yes. It's all over the place. Like, how did all five of us live in this little, bitty house? But we did. We did.
What led you to purchase the place? Did you just see it for sale and jump on it?
My mom owned it — she never sold it. She bought another house, and kept it and rented it out. Had I seen it for sale, I probably wouldn't have bought it. I would have just passed it and pointed: "Hey, I used to grow up in that house." But because she had it and kept it all those years, I thought it was a chance to build a legacy there and pass it on.
I still have family in the area, so they come by and visit. We have gatherings. It's pretty cool! Beautiful backyard, landscaped and everything. We put a big deck on the back of the house that adds more living space to it.
Can you talk about your connection with Darius Rucker? It's inspiring how he made one mark with Hootie and the Blowfish, then a completely different one in the Grand Ole Opry sphere.
I commented when we were listening to the record, "What if Darius Rucker sang on the second verse?" Somebody happened to be in the room that took it upon themselves to go find Darius. [Laughs.] She found him and he said "Yeah, I'd love to sing on this!" So he came over and sang on it. We were quite blessed to have him on the record.
When you think of all the styles on the album — from country to soul to blues — do you delineate them or consider them to be basically one thing?
They're all different variations of a musical language based in America. Country, blues, rock, soul, rock 'n' roll, classical — I just see it as a variation on a kind of folk music. Dance music, bar music, juke-joint music... drinking music! [Laughs.]
As a string band, Old Crow Medicine Show represents one of those permutations. What do you appreciate about them?
I was talking to [Old Crow member] Ketch Secor. I'd been talking to him for a few years about doing something. While I was out in Compton, I was listening to this "The Medicine Man" song, and I sent it to him to maybe work on it with me. He said, "I don't know, man! Sounds finished to me! Let's do it!" So, we did it and it worked out great. We had a lot of fun with it.
At a Country Music Hall of Fame gig I did on Dec. 9, we were talking about it to the audience. He came by and sat in with me and said, "How're you doing with this song?" and I said "I'm doing really great!" There's a line about how "[The] president lost/ But he don't wanna go." I think his audience is a little more conservative than mine. He didn't want them to hear that!
You've made records since the '90s. What did you want to say with Good To Be that you hadn't with past ones?
I don't know if the phrase "want to say something" resonates with me, because my aim is to portray a feeling. It's not necessarily to articulate anything — I'm looking to do something. I just say what I want to say and hopefully people will hear it in the most positive way. Also, [I hope they'll] be inspired and somewhat enlightened by it, or just feel good.
When you ask the question of what I want to do differently: I'm never looking to do anything different than I hadn't done on a record before. What I'm looking to do is to do a better job of what I did before.
So, you're honing one thing — it's one continuum.
Yeah. It's like, how do I write a more pertinent song? How do I write a more fun song? How do I make the music sound and feel better? How do I sing better? How do I play better? How do I do everything better than I did last time? How do I talk about different things than I talked about last time?
At the same time, the ultimate goal is to put some music out that adds a little spice to your life. There's so much music out there; there's so much noise. There's a lot of music out there making a lot of noise, especially in the pop world. Most people listen to popular music, so for me, I'm in a side genre — blues, Americana. But there's still a lot of people listening; not as much as in the pop world, but still a lot.
I just want to be in the game, you know? In my older years, I really love the fact that I'm still around playing. I don't feel like I'm slowing down at all. I feel good, like I did when I was younger or middle-aged. I'll always do my best work, and I feel like my best work is still out in front of me.
Tell me about your internal growth over the past quarter-century.
Well, 24 years ago, that was the late '90s. I got signed to Sony. Keb' Mo' [was born] in 1994, with the first record. Before that point, there was Kevin Moore, and then there was Keb' Mo'. Keb' Mo' is a more actualized version of Kevin Moore.
They're the same person, but Keb' Mo' has a mission — to be important in a way that people feel good and feel something from the music. There's something happening that involves spreading joy. Before that, Kevin Moore just liked playing music. So, Keb' Mo' just pops along and does what he does.
He's just a better version of myself. I'm not necessarily a person who's going to break down boundaries, or break the walls and make a mark, so to speak. I think just being myself is my mark. There's only one me. I don't have to try to make a mark. I am the mark.
Is there a way to articulate the feeling you want to transmit to listeners? Obviously, music is abstract and subjective by nature.
The words that you use are important, but the way it feels is even more important — the way it makes your body and soul feel. What's one of your favorite songs?
You're a lover of great music. You're a classic guy. You like music in the highest sense of the word. When I listen to music alone, I like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard... I'm across the board with things I really like. I play them because of the way they make me feel. Jeff Beck playing "Over the Rainbow" — I just love that.
These musicians coming to wide popularity are important in that what they do influences society. The blues were never a big [money-maker], but it's like the Earth. It makes everything grow, the blues.
You asked which song is really resonating with me lately, and I thought of one: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
You clearly have very eclectic tastes. I remember when I realized that I was listening to music by the decade. If I'm still playing them after 10 years, that's a big mark.
So, you think of someone who made [the biggest] mark: the Beatles. No band, no musician probably made a bigger mark in pop culture than the Beatles. They set the standard. They raised the bar. And we're forever grateful for the Beatles, because they changed everything and continue to change everything.
The Beatles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Hank Williams, George Jones, Donny Hathaway — the list goes on and on and on. Paul Simon. Music that really matters. My hope is that I can make music that matters. And the blues isn't held in high regard in a lot of cultures, but
If I've got one song that matters, that can mean something to somebody and can last or stick around for a long time, I think that's pretty cool. That's a life well-lived.
So much music steeped in the blues has weird longevity. How do we bring the blues closer to the center of the conversation?
I don't think you really have to.
I had this conversation on a [recent] panel. The blues has made its mark. Every time, it's a cycle, and it always comes around. It just keeps resurging and reminding people that this music is important and has affected everything. So, it's already been there. It's already been recorded in the history of all our great musical institutions. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian... you name it.
You mentioned Hank Williams. I recorded "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" on a Hank Williams tribute record called Timeless. I love music that's centered, and I try to take whatever [ability] I have and tell a story to move that narrative forward.
The thing that trips me out about that particular song is that he's citing images that suggest the action, or support the central thesis.
"Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/ He sounds too blue to fly." The whippoorwill is a little bird, and he's putting himself with nature — putting himself in there.
And there's a fantastical haze to it. Nobody's seen a robin weep.
[Laughs.] Yeah, but he got away with it! He's not talking about words; he's talking about
a feeling. Imagine a robin weeping! Why would a robin weep? We weep. Why would a robin be sad?
Well, he answered the question: "When leaves begin to die."
What have you been listening to lately?
I don't listen to much at all.
There's some things I listen to. On a plane, I listen to... This might surprise you, but my favorite album right now of new stuff that I listen to is Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. Really cool. Upbeat, funky. Super cool.
But when I'm really listening, getting in the mode, getting in the zone? I listen to folklore, Taylor Swift.
You're a Swiftie!
Yeah, I'm a Swiftie.
When I had just moved to Nashville, she was coming around. They were talking about her around town. I was totally intrigued by her, because I saw a badass. I would watch her and I could see the fire in her eyes that none of those other folks had.
She made three of the greatest country records. And then Red? Freakin' genius! And then people started taking her seriously and she said, "Watch this, b<em></em><em></em>es!" and left everybody in the dust. I'm like, "OK! I saw it!" And she continues to keep moving and being creative and being a brave artist and a serious businesswoman.
What's been percolating in your imagination that might inform the next batch of tunes?
Ah, I have no idea. I'm in a period right now where I don't know what to do next. The way I find out what I'm going to do next is I just start doing.
I don't like plans so much. I plan to keep recording. I plan to keep creating. But right now, it's like I'm in a desert where I just want to go out and play this new record for people. I'll do that for a while, and maybe six months down the road, I'll start working on some new songs.
But I want to experience what people think about this one. I want to live life and hang out and take life in if I can. The way I keep [active] is by taking life in and creating.
Recording Academy Memphis Chapter hosts a reception celebrating the 2018 Blues Music Awards; Photo: Greg Campbell/WireImage.com
Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal, Samantha Fish, Mavis Staples: 2018 Blues Music Awards
Annual celebration in Memphis, Tenn., brings together blues performers, industry representatives and fans to celebrate the best in blues recordings and performances
Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo' are riding a steady wave of blues momentum. The dynamic duo emerged as the big winners at the 2018 Blues Music Awards on May 10, taking home Album of the Year honors for their acclaimed TajMo project. This recognition follows their shared GRAMMY win for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 60th GRAMMY Awards.
At the Blues Awards, TajMo also captured Contemporary Blues Album honors. In addition to their joint wins, Mahal won Acoustic Artist and B.B. Entertainer of the Year while Keb' Mo' took Contemporary Blues Male Artist.
"It's a great honor," says Mo'. "I don't know what to say. I'm just really surprised."
Designed as a showcase of the year's best in blues recordings and performances, the annual Memphis, Tenn.-based celebration doled out 26 awards. Like the GRAMMY Awards' American Roots Field, which includes awards for contemporary and traditional blues, the Blues Music Awards recognize the artists who have helped bridge blues' storied lineage and those who are pushing the genre into an exciting future.
Surely an apt title for the awards, "The Blues Ain't Going Nowhere" by Rick Estrin & The Nightcats picked up Song of the Year honors. The band also earned Band of the Year and Estrin, a master harmonica player, took home Traditional Blues Male Artist.
Blues/soul band Southern Avenue — comprising five young musicians, fronted by Tierinii Jackson — picked up Best Emerging Artist Album for their eponymous 2017 debut album. Released on the legendary Stax label, the LP has been likened to a breath of fresh air for the genre with its own unique blend of gospel-tinged R&B vocals, roots/blues-based guitar work and soul-inspired songwriting.
A star surely on the rise, Samantha Fish earned Contemporary Blues Female Artist honors. In 2017 the Kansas City, Mo., native released Belle Of The West, an LP produced by Luther Dickinson that authentically incorporates blues, Americana and country elements.
A trio of formidable blues women were also recognized. GRAMMY nominee Beth Hart, who can wail and sing as quiet as a feather, was honored with Instrumentalist — Vocals. The legendary Mavis Staples took home Soul Blues Female Artist and Ruthie Foster won the Koko Taylor (Traditional Blues Female Artist) award.
Host Steven Van Zandt lent an enthusiastic voice to the event, showing his respect and support for the genre that started it all.
"Whether it's soul music or rock music, it's all kind of based in the blues," said Van Zandt. He went on to talk about how the music serves to get more young people involved. "It's putting a lot of instruments in kids hands, and the more of that we can do the better."
On the day prior to the awards, the Blues Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place, honoring performers, music industry professionals and recordings of stature.
"The Blues Hall of Fame is the pinnacle honor for anyone who's worked in or performed in the blues industry," says Barbara Newman, president and CEO of The Blues Foundation. "It is an honor of a lifetime of achievement in blues."
Performers inducted into the blues hall this year included the Aces, Georgia Tom Dorsey, Sam Lay, Mamie Smith, and Roebuck "Pops" Staples. Among the recordings recognized were B.B. King's 1967 album, Blues Is King, Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man," Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete," and the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame-inducted "Green Onions" by Booker T. & The MG's.
In all, the action in Memphis proved the blues are more than just the foundation of the music we love — they are alive and kickin'!
What Is The MusiCares MAP Fund?
It's no secret that addiction and substance abuse have plagued the music industry for decades. Through the MusiCares MAP Fund, The Recording Academy is able to provide members of the music community access to addiction recovery treatment regardless of their financial situation. But none of this would be possible without support from music fans and the music community. In our latest installment of Ask The GRAMMYs, we detail our upcoming rocking benefit for the MusiCares MAP Fund, and how you can get involved.
I was shopping for concert tickets online and saw tickets for the MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert with Ozzy and Slash, and more performers. It looks pretty cool, but I've never heard of it. Is it connected to the GRAMMYs? What's it all about?
Hi, Nathan. We're impressed with your rock awareness, and what you see is correct. On May 12 at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, MusiCares (a health and human services organization established by The Recording Academy more than 20 years ago) will host the 10th anniversary MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert.
Ozzy Osbourne will be presented with the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award by GRAMMY winner Joe Walsh for his dedication and support of the MusiCares MAP Fund and for his commitment to helping others with the addiction recovery process. The evening will also honor owner and CEO of the Village studios Jeff Greenberg with MusiCares' From the Heart Award for his unconditional friendship and dedication to the mission and goals of the organization. Greenberg will receive his award from comedian and "The Late Late Show" host Craig Ferguson. Featured performers will include GRAMMY winners Metallica, Keb' Mo' and Osbourne with special guest Slash, among others.
All proceeds from the concert will benefit the MusiCares MAP Fund, which provides members of the music community access to addiction recovery treatment regardless of their financial situation.
Last we heard, general admission tickets have sold out. But don't worry, GRAMMY.com will be onsite to provide you with up-to-the-minute updates via our official MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert live-blog. Keep checking GRAMMY.com for more information.
(Have a specific GRAMMY Awards process question? Need the 411 on The Recording Academy's advocacy-related work in Washington, D. C.? Are you curious about MusiCares or the GRAMMY Foundation? Ask The GRAMMYs is your opportunity. Send your burning GRAMMY-related question via email to email@example.com.)
Keb' Mo' Keeps It Simple
GRAMMY-winning musician discusses his biggest career moments and future plans
GRAMMY-winning musician Keb' Mo' recently visited The Recording Academy's Nashville Chapter and participated in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview. Keb' Mo' discussed his biggest career moments, the message he wants to communicate through his songs and future plans, among other topics.
"I've done a lot for me. I've done all the records that I want to do," said Keb' Mo'. "Now I want to do one for people who have been supporting me. It's a selfless but satisfying experience that I'm looking to have on [my] next record."
Born Kevin Moore in Los Angeles, Keb' Mo's music spans multiple genres, including R&B, jazz, pop, and folk. He released his self-titled debut in 1994, followed by 1996's Just Like You, which earned him his first GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 1998 Keb' Mo' garnered a second GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Blues Album for Slow Down. He took home his third GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Blues Album for 2004's Keep It Simple, which topped Billboard's Blues Albums chart. In addition to writing or co-writing all 12 songs and playing various instruments, Keb' Mo' also produced Keep It Simple. In 2005 he was nominated for a Best Country Song GRAMMY for "I Hope," which he co-wrote with GRAMMY-winning trio Dixie Chicks.
Keb' Mo's most recent album, 2011's The Reflection, received a nomination for Best Blues Album at the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards and cracked the top 100 on the Billboard 200. The album features collaborations with GRAMMY winners India.Arie and Vince Gill and saxophonist Dave Koz, as well as the tracks "The Whole Enchilada," "We Don't Need It" and a cover of the Eagles' "One Of These Nights." Keb' Mo' is currently on a U.S. tour, with select dates scheduled through June.
MusiCares MAP Fund Benefit Concert Adds Performers
GRAMMY winners Keb' Mo' and Metallica to perform at MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert honoring Ozzy Osbourne and Jeff Greenberg
GRAMMY winners Keb' Mo' and Metallica will perform at the 10th anniversary MusiCares MAP Fund benefit concert honoring GRAMMY-winning Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne and owner and CEO of the Village studios Jeff Greenberg at Club Nokia in Los Angeles on May 12. Continuing to celebrate the memory of the late DJ AM, the evening's DJ will be Mix Master Mike. There will also be a performance by Osbourne and his touring band with special guest Slash.
Osbourne will be presented with the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award by GRAMMY winner Joe Walsh for his dedication and support of the MusiCares MAP Fund, and for his commitment to helping others with the addiction recovery process. Greenberg will be presented with MusiCares' From the Heart Award by comedian and "The Late Late Show" host Craig Ferguson for his unconditional friendship and dedication to the mission and goals of the organization.
All proceeds from the concert will benefit the MusiCares MAP Fund, which provides members of the music community access to addiction recovery treatment regardless of their financial situation.