It’s almost impossible to properly explain how well Keb’ Mo’s career is currently going. If he were inclined to rest on his laurels, the accompanying crown would quite possibly be too heavy to jauntily perch upon his head like the many varied and cool hats he has worn over the years.
It’s also hard to believe that he has been around as long as he has. His nose to the grindstone work schedule and ethic seem herculean as he shape-shifts between Blues, Roots, Country, touring, producing, Grammy nods, songwriting for the best music minds in the business–The list really does go on.
On a day when his publicist had scheduled a seeming unending succession of 15 minute interviews, Blues Blast was able to talk with him close to an hour between 2 phone conversations. It could have gone longer, but Mr. Mo’ is a busy man. Here then, is our conversation:
Blues Blast: How do you separate the creative end of your music from the promotional end? Do you have to put on a different face? Do interviews become redundant and drudgery?
Keb Mo: Well It’s all part of the same thing. I make a record and I go on the road to perform it. I try to inform the public that it’s out as subtlety as I can. You have to get the word out. Hopefully in that record there is a message that is worthy of the awareness.
BB: This is a quote from Taj Mahal -“My perspective is that artists like myself have a huge audience that’s under serviced. I’m talking about Keb Mo, Guy Davis, Cory Harris, Sparky Rucker, Jerry Rix and Otis Taylor, among others.” What are your thoughts about that?
KM: Under serviced. That’s interesting, hearing it from his perspective. Taj is a very astute, relevant and aware guy. He’s witnessed and seen a lot, even before I got on the scene. Peoples interest in the roots of the Blues has waned, you know? When you say Blues, people go, “Aww, that’s that old sad stuff.” There’s a stigma about what it is and what it means. Even when Blues was in its heyday, it wasn’t as popular as Pop music.
A few artists were able to get on the charts. Jimmy Reed was probably the only one to hit the top ten. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush were all on the outskirts. Yet that was the music that everyone listened to. That’s the music that built Rock & Roll and Soul music, built the whole thing, you know?
So when the British came over, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had found the Blues and said, “What’s this?” They found the stuff that we were ignoring over here. That started a raise in the level of awareness. The Blues had always been relegated to “race music.” It was the stuff that Black folks would listen to in clubs and juke joints.
I remember Johnny Otis playing Monterey. I was just standing around and I heard him say, “It’s the Black audience that makes Blues work. It’s what the Black audience thinks about the Blues that matters most.” And Johnny Otis was of Greek ancestry not Black.
Now though, that old audience has died off. The people that would go and see Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Johnny Clyde Copeland and Muddy Waters have passed. Although we still have B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal with us (and Taj Mahal is really underrated when it comes to Blues royalty. As popular as he is, he is still very underrated), my point is that not only are the Blues legends going, their audience is going as well. People don’t really say that much about that.
The last time I saw that audience in full array was at a Bobby Blue Bland concert. I had the privilege of being on the show. That’s a hard audience too. You don’t just walk up there and play anything. You’ve got to know something about the Blues. That’s the audience I grew up with in South Central Los Angeles. That’s the audience I had to get in front of in order to learn how to do what little I know what to do.
BB: Getting back to that Taj Mahal quote, it seems that the reason he mentioned you, Guy Davis, Cory Harris, Otis Taylor, Sparky Rucker and Jerry Rix is that he recognizes that you guys are cut from the same cloth and are also furthering that royal Blues legacy that you just mentioned.
KM: That’s the legacy of the plantations down south, along with the Underground Railroad, Gospel music and Jazz. That’s the beginning of African-American culture in America. Because we came here with no culture. Our culture was stolen from us. So, the Blues in America, the field hollers, the old Gospel and the Underground Railroad is the beginning of African-American culture.
I’m always encouraged when I meet young Black folks who are steeped in the traditions of the Blues. There aren’t many of them. But they pop up from time to time. Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops comes to mind. There’s also a young guy who lives in my neighborhood. He’s from Athens, Georgia. His name is Robert Eskew. He’s smart, educated and runs a very successful insurance business. But, when he digs down in his stuff and pulls out his guitar, man can he rip some Charley Patton! When I encounter young men like that, I’m encouraged because usually in our community, other people keep track of our history more than we do. Even though we are constantly making history.
It’s not that often that I get to speak to someone such as yourself. I usually have to explain this to people who don’t know the history and what this music means. I don’t claim that I know fully, but I know that it’s important. I do the Blues, I do the whole thing, but if you listen to me you know that I incorporate other things into the music, as all of the Blues guys have. Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and others have infused other elements into the Blues to make it more agreeable to the American palate as well as the emerging, educated African-American palate
I have a lot of friends in Country music who really embrace the old Country and Bluegrass music. I’m not so sure about the “new” Country. I’m talking about guys from the ’90s back. If you can’t rip some Slim Whitman or Bill Munroe, you don’t get respect. But in the African-American community, you can not know a damn thing about what B.B.King does and it’s okay. I’m not sure Beyonce knows who Charley Patton is. Maybe she does and that’s alright. She’s a diva, a bad ass force to be reckoned with. Now, where all that came from was the line from Ma Rainey to Tina Turner. That’s what I see in Beyonce, Tina Turner. They all are forces, powerful forces.
BB: Back in 2007, we saw your contemporary, Otis Taylor on the Main Stage at the Chicago, Blues Festival. Then a couple of years later, at the Russian River Blues Festival, we saw him relegated to playing the Wine Stage which is the mini-stage usually reserved for up and coming artists, while they break down and prepare the Main Stage for the headline acts. We asked Otis about this seeming dichotomy, he replied very humbly, “It doesn’t matter, as long as I am playing the music and spreading the message.” What is your take on that?
KM: It’s good to get it from the side stage. It’s good to get it from the main stage. It doesn’t matter. People are checkin’ it out. I too, have been in those situations.
BB: In a conversation with Bobby Womack before he passed, he stated that he’d written a whole album of Blues tunes for the late Bobby Bland before he passed. Mr. Womack gave the lyrics and music to Mr. Bland and waited for him to put the vocals on it. He waited and Mr. Bland wasn’t getting back to him at all. He finally called and Bobby Bland said, he didn’t think he could hit the highs like he used to and seemed, frankly, not to be interested. He in fact, never finished the vocals. Mr. Womack’s interpretation was that Mr. Bland had been burned so many times in his career, coupled with the fact that he didn’t read well, and wasn’t trying to trust the contractual agreement that the project required. What is your response to that?
KM: Bobby “Blue” Bland had a remarkable career. He made one of the classic Blues albums of all time, Two Steps From The Blues. It was actually a Pop record, meaning the record label spent some money on it. They put some time and effort into it.
Today, it’s a crazy world. Now the Blues is diversified. You’ve got Italians, Irishmen and Englishmen singing the Blues. They have gotten pretty good. Color doesn’t matter. You might want to a see, say, a bagpipe band. There is something though, about being connected to the heritage of the Blues. When a Black man is singing the Blues who is connected to the culture of the Blues, when you connect in that way, the possibility is always there for something special to happen.
Not that when other people sing it, it doesn’t happen. I know a lot of White guys that can sing the shit out of some Blues. It still connects. The old, hard, Black audience, which we don’t have anymore-when they heard that, it didn’t matter what color you were.
BB: You mentioned bagpipes a moment ago. Do you remember the Black bagpipe player Rufus Harley.
KM: I met him. I got to play with him at the Playboy Jazz Festival as a member of the Bill Cosby All-Star Band. There were several incarnations of that band. The year I played, Cedar Walton played as well as Rufus Harley.
BB: Your bio talks about a low point in your career when it seemed that everything you had built seemed to dissipate. Do you mind elaborating on that?
KM: During my formative years, I guess the first twenty years of my career, I was writing songs. At the time I didn’t think I was still in my formative years even though they were professional years. I had written a lot of songs. But when I came to really know the Blues, so to speak, the light went on that things had to be real. I found that I couldn’t just be writing stuff ‘cuz it had a cute hook, ‘cuz it had a ring to it. You can have a hook, but you gotta have something you can sink your teeth into, something that you can really stand on when you’re singin’ it.
If it has validity in your life it has a better chance of resonating with other people. I wasn’t hittin’ that. I was playin’ a lot of music but I didn’t really have an identity in those first twenty years. Initially, all I wanted to be was a songwriter and a sideman. What I have goin’ now, it’s like, wow, how’d that happen? Basically, it was all based on me just wanting to be a songwriter and sideman.
That was the gift. Because I just wanted to be that, I studied about recording, practiced songwriting a lot, got very much into the technical things, how to arrange things, running a band, being a bandleader, into all those things. So when I finally got serious about communicating and got into the Blues and started to really find myself, all those skills came in handy and pushed me forward to excel in my career these days.
BB: Tell us about working with Solomon Burke.
KM: Yeah man! Steve Jordan was producing a Solomon Burke record. He called me up and asked me if I wanted to come down and play some guitar. In that situation I always bring a song or two in case there is a need. I brought a song called, We Don’t Need It, which Solomon Burke had sang on the record . (After a couple of years, I recorded it myself.)
So getting to know Solomon and working with him was pretty cool. I did a couple of shows with him as well. He was a brilliant performer who didn’t really like the studio all that much. He liked to perform for the people. He was a minister as well and had more than eighty grandchildren when he died.
BB: The last time we saw you perform was at the Concord Pavilion and your co-headliner was Bonnie Raitt. It was a great show. No disrespect intended, but it seem to me there was some sexual tension on stage between the two of you.
KM: (Hearty laugh.) No sexual tension. No sexual tension. Naw. It’s like, I’m a huge fan of Bonnie Raitt and she’s a sexy woman now, don’t get me wrong. We just love workin’ together. Now, she’s a Bluesman. I’ma tell ya. Bonnie Raitt is a Bluesman. She’ll sit down with a National guitar and knock your socks off. She’s bad ass.
When you’re working with Bonnie, playin’ and singin’ is just fun. She likes to taunt her collaborators. It’s like, “Come on, let’s go.” She’s so much fun. I did have a little crush on her, back in the day! So you got me! When I met her and her husband at the time, Michael, I remember him declaring, “The redhead is mine!” He let you know right off the bat. It was like, we got that understanding, “Let’s go!”
BB: You also worked with Amy Grant. Was it a Christian inflected record?
KM: It was a single I produced on her Best Of album called, Come Be With Me. By the way, I just finished producing a record, due to be out next year by Sweet Pea Atkinson from Was Not Was.
BB: Tell us of your association with Papa John Creach.
KM: I worked with Papa John the first four years of my professional touring life. I played with him in the band. During that time we did shows with the Jefferson Starship. I also got to work with Big Joe Turner when I was with Papa John Creach. Harmonica Fats too.
BB: Wrapping it up. How long have you been living in Nashville and how do you like it?
KM: Been here eight years and it’s good. I’ve got a lot of musician friends here. We like to hang out here and have good times…
At this point Keb’ Mo’ indicated he had to go and make preparations for that night’s show. What he coyly held back from us was that he was presenting Taj Mahal with a Lifetime Achievement Award the following night at the Americana Music Awards in Nashville.
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2014 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Tee Watts is music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, CA and road manager for Sugar Pie DeSanto.