The Range, Breadth and Development of Keb’ Mo’

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Blues guitarist Keb’ Mo’ said he initially planned to get a job with the Roland company, instead of pursuing performance as a career.

(Photo: Jeremy Cowart)

Downstairs in the beautiful home that Keb’ Mo’ and Robbie Brooks Moore, his wife, maintain in the hills southwest of Nashville, there sits a candy counter of classic keyboards: Hammond B-3 organ, Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos and a Nord Lead controller.

One might be forgiven for assuming that the acclaimed bluesman is a vintage instrument aficionado. After all, the music Keb’ Mo’ (born Kevin Moore) has championed, the foundation of his own creative explorations, is arguably the most fundamental of all American popular genres.

However, one would be wrong. “I like technology,” Moore insists, relaxed in the worn black leather couch in his recording facility, which he calls Stu-Stu-Studio. “I’m not so into, ‘It’s gotta be vintage.’ I like really clean, pristine records. I don’t like clutter. I mean, I’m already playing the blues, which is older than dirt. People today are used to listening to fantastically recorded pop records. So, I don’t want to go back. Some people do. For me, if something’s old and it sounds good, I’ll use it. But if it’s just old ...”

Moore leaves the sentence unfinished and flashes a knowing smile. It takes little imagination to understand what he’s getting at.

On Oklahoma (Concord), his new album of original compositions, it’s technology that helps every detail shine precisely where and when Moore wants it to: the bare-bones beat of “Ridin’ On A Train”; the spaces illuminating each fingerpicked note and quarter-note kick on “This Is My Home”; the airy breathlessness of “Beautiful Music.”

None of this diminishes the grit where grit is essential, whether it’s the slither of “I Remember You” or the raucous righteousness of “Don’t Throw It Away.” Simple as blues and its offshoots might seem, Moore adds progressive elements, especially in recording equipment and method, unobtrusively yet to powerful effect. That, if anything, is the essence of his artistry.

“I was always a detail-oriented guy,” says Moore, who is set to release his first holiday-themed album, Moonlight, Mistletoe & You (Concord), later this year. “A lot of times people have said to me, ‘Don’t overthink what you’re doing. You’ll kill the vibe.’ Well, I know that I overthink the shit out of everything I do. I mean, one of my favorite records is ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Gees. The horn arrangements, the guitar parts, the bass parts ... it’s a masterpiece. It’s the pinnacle of pop music. With a hit like that, you’ve got to be able to listen to every part of it and figure out how they did it right. It’s like a great classical piece, a Beethoven piece:

Those guys were constantly fixing the chart until it worked. When you have a great symphonic piece, there’s not a hair out of place.

“I’ve always been that way,” he continues. “Of course, that evolved a lot when I got into Pro Tools [audio production software]. But even back in the day, I was always like, ‘Hey, man, do that note, but leave this note out.’ I’d ask the guitar player to mute the bass string in the chord. Or I’d say, ‘Could you not double the bass on the piano? Can you just play with your right hand, instead of both hands? Because you’re clouding my bottom.’”

He laughs and adds, “I pissed a lot of people off. When I was living in L.A., in those days, people didn’t turn gigs down. But that would happen to me. I was like, ‘Hey, you can get mad all you want. I’ll call somebody else next time.’ Because I didn’t have anything else I could do. This was it. And if I had to move people’s physical and emotional boundaries, for me, that wasn’t work. That was all I had. If I wound up on the street with a cardboard box and my guitar, well, I’d learn to live with that.”

The most interesting twist in this backstory might be that, for Moore, making country blues his home was not a decision he pursued. “I always tell people, music has been chasing me my whole life,” he says. “I wanted to go out for a career. I was married. I had a kid. I went to electronics school and learned how to build circuit boards. My plan was to get a job with the Roland company in electronics and music. That was a perfect combination.”

But it wasn’t to be, despite the risks he knew he was taking by committing to music. “I was a recording-session guy. I’d played with orchestras and marching bands. I’d been out on the road. I’d been a staff songwriter at A&M Records. All that time I was dodging the blues because, man, I was from L.A. People would say, ‘You’re gonna starve to death doing that stuff.’ Well, in the end, I decided I didn’t give a fuck. And it worked out.”

In some ways, the chase began when he was a young man—then going by his birth name—in high school. One day, Taj Mahal visited the school to perform at an assembly. Mahal remembers that the youngster didn’t immediately connect with his folk-meets-blues aesthetic: “Keb’ was, like, 16. He was so deeply into B.B. King as blues, T-Bone Walker as blues, Freddie King as blues—that traditional electric blues vibe—that he didn’t get it. But something kept sticking in his craw. Little by little, I kept coming back into his life one way or another.”

Moore kept his feelings about that day filed away, among his impressions of all the genres he was checking out. Then, a couple years later, that seed sprouted. “This friend of mine, who I actually haven’t seen for years now, came up to me and said, ‘Man, I bought this four-track tape. I don’t really like it. You can have it.’ It was by Taj Mahal. I put that thing in my four-track and wore it out over the next two years.”

Shortly after that, Moore was scuffling for a foothold in the music world. When not, in his words, “doing stupid stuff you do in your twenties,” he managed to finagle a contract with the label Chocolate City (a subsidiary of Casablanca Records). When the labels shuttered unexpectedly, Moore found himself at, as has often been said in his line of work, a crossroads.

“Now, I’m 31 years old,” he recalls. “Ain’t nothing happening. I work during the day and at night I’m playing the blues ... learning how to play the blues. I was just playing electric then; I didn’t pick up an acoustic guitar until the late ’80s. I’d start working the club scene with the Whodunit Band, one or two nights a week. I had Monk Higgins as my mentor. Everybody in L.A. would come out to hear us, from Big Joe Turner to Billy Preston. Merry Clayton would come in.”

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