For decades now, Keb’ Mo’ — who goes by Kevin Moore offstage and introduces himself simply as Kevin during phone interviews — has been carrying on the country blues tradition in his own expansive, socially-conscious way.
He was, for example, tapped to embody the archetypal Delta bluesman Robert Johnson on-screen even as he laced his own albums with a singer-songwriter’s confessional warmth and urgent optimism. And the flexibility of his sensibilities and musicianship has brought a steady stream of invitations to collaborate and appear in all sorts of neighboring musical contexts.
In 2014 alone, Moore contributed to a Jackson Browne tribute album, presented his sometime performing partner Taj Mahal an Americana lifetime achievement award and, most recently, saw his Bluesamericana nominated in categories other than contemporary blues album, where he’s typically been recognized. He was up for talking about all of that, along with his playfully autobiographical seasonal tune, “Shopping on Christmas Eve.”
CMT Edge: In the past, you’ve won three Grammys in the contemporary blues album category. You’re nominated in three different categories this year — American roots performance, Americana album and best engineered album, non-classical. What did you make of the fact that your music landed elsewhere this time?
Keb’ Mo’: I was completely shocked. My wife, she runs the record label, Kind of Blue. She and her assistant run the record part of the business. I didn’t know what they were doing, nominating me for stuff, you know. I just said, “Do what you want to do,” because she’s my wife, and I can’t … (laughs)
I was so shocked at this, especially at the ‘best engineered’ category, which is not me at all. It’s the engineers. That, to me, was huge. And I’ve never been nominated for performance, and I’ve never been nominated for album in another category.
As you mentioned, the performance category isn’t based on songwriting. It’s about what’s captured on the track. In a mainstream pop category, that would apply to a single. What do you think it amounts to in the context of roots music?
I don’t know what it amounts to. I know that I’m very happy about the California Feetwarmers [on the nominated “The Old Me Better”]. … They were this eclectic band, and I just fell in love with them. I put ‘em on the record. On this album, on this song, it felt like it was meant to be. We were meant to be on this together. I couldn’t be happier. I’m happy for the other people, you know? Them and the engineers — I want them to win. I want them to be lifted up by this.
The New Orleans-style jazz and second-line groove they contributed was a perfect complement to your very wry song.
Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more.
I noticed you’ve been asked to explain the album title Bluesamericana all year long. Was that part of the plan, that it would generate conversation and you could talk about the place of blues in the roots music pantheon?
Well, I kinda knew that’s what the album felt like. And I knew that my albums have never been totally blues. I felt like it was more Americana. I guess I wanted to crash the party, so to speak. Because I do have a relationship with Americana. I presented Gregg Allman three years ago with his lifetime achievement award in Americana. And again for Taj Mahal last year. I’ve been invited to perform [at the Americana Awards].
Over the years, I’ve seen artists including Shemekia Copeland, Ruthie Foster, Janiva Magness and Tab Benoit sometimes bring their takes on blues to the Americana scene, whether it’s considered crossover or connecting the dots between rooted American music.
The fact of the matter is, it all comes from the same roots. There’s a big tree called American music — North American — the American story in music. It came from Europe and Africa. You can feel in Cuban music, like, African and Spanish music became Cuban and all of that. It’s a melting pot. So, yeah, I think I was a little deliberate in calling it Bluesamericana. I wanted to describe the connection.
You’ve covered really varied territory in your collaborations with artists in blues, jazz, country, folk, pop and world music — from Cassandra Wilson to Dave Bromberg, Solomon Burke, Willie Nelson, B.J. Thomas, Dixie Chicks, tributes to Hank Williams and Jackson Browne. That’s an abbreviated list, but it speaks to your ecumenical approach to music making. Do you feel like that happened by accident, or was it by design?
I think my experience was in all those genres, all those things. … I would listen to all of it. I took it all in. I took the whole musical experience in. I’m old. I’m 63 years old. So I’m from the time when the radio played everything. One station would play everything. They played Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, you know? So it’s very easy playing music, playing with an orchestra, attempting to play jazz. I’m not very good at jazz, but my senior year of high school, that’s all I listened to: John Coltrane.
People have often noted the optimism that infuses your songwriting, including on Bluesamericana. How did you first come to see idealism, uplift and those kinds of qualities belonging with the lowdown catharsis of the blues?
For me, at some point in my life, I made a decision to lean heavily toward things — subject matter — that are uplifting; the attitude is uplifting. I took on the job. That’s my job in life. And I happen to be a musician, but that’s my job in life, in everything I do, to be the change, be what you want the world to be. That’s what it comes out of. That’s it.
You wrote the first Christmas song that I can ever recall about procrastination, “Shopping on Christmas Eve.” What kinds of responses have you gotten to that song so far?
People can relate to it. I don’t know that it’s been heard widely enough for there to be a total comment in it. But the people that have commented to me have said, “That’s my own experience.” For years, I’d shop on Christmas Eve. Since I was a kid, I shopped on Christmas Eve. I think it was a guy thing, too. Shopping on Christmas Eve means, “Playtime is over.” You’ve gotta get in there, buy your gifts and get it done.