Keb’ Mo’ came to the blues in a roundabout way. He began his musical career in the late 1960s, first playing steel drums and bass in a calypso band and then moving on to a variety of rhythm-and-blues and rock outfits. But it wasn’t until he began playing full-fledged blues that he felt freedom to stretch out musically.
“There’s an authenticity that I found playing the blues,” he says. “It’s not about playing the right notes. It’s about playing what sounds good.”
He released his first album, Rainmaker, in 1980, under his full name, Kevin Moore. He wouldn’t follow that up with another album for almost 15 years. During that time, he played in several other blues groups, as he perfected his guitar-playing and recorded with a number of blues legends, including Albert Collins and Big Joe Turner.
When Moore released his second record, 1994’s Keb’ Mo’, he came to be regarded as a standard-bearer of the blues tradition. He’s since won three Grammy Awards and played a key role in the 2003 Martin Scorcese documentary The Blues.
In a phone interview, Moore conveys an existentialism reflective of the blues tradition. It’s hard for him to describe precisely what it is he does. Music, he says, is all about expressing feelings.
“You get out there, you tune your guitar, and you play that show and sing that song and look them in the eye,” he says. “It’s not rocket science. You tell the truth.
“Every show is different and every show is the same,” he adds. “It really is. It’s a different time, a different place. It’s really hard to explain. It’s just like having this conversation. It’s all good.”
His approach to writing music is similarly nonchalant.
“I start with a little musical riff, and then I have a little conversation, a story being told,” he says. “You say one line and what comes next.”
Moore recently moved from Los Angeles to Nashville. He’s able to find inspiration for his craft in the country music capital. The Reflection, the 2011 album that earned Moore his third Grammy, includes “My Baby’s Tellin’ Lies Again,” which he wrote with Vince Gill. Gill plays mandolin and shares vocals on the track, in a falsetto that contrasts nicely to Moore’s deep, soothing voice. The recording is crisp, but still feels casual and loose.
For Moore, there’s no great divide between country and blues, which have a long history of borrowing from each other.
“The genre is made by the marketplace,” he says. “It sounds different, but to us it’s all just music. Playing together is relatively easy. We’re all musicians.”
The Reflection also includes a cover of the Eagles’ “One of These Nights” and a duet with R&B singer India.Arie titled “Crush on You.”
Moore says he learns things working with musicians from different backgrounds and traditions, but he’s not quite sure what it is.
“It’s more the experience, taking in the experience,” he says. “I don’t look at it as a lesson. It just goes in you, it gets in you.
“I look for different ways to communicate better,” he adds. “I want to have a better quality song so I can be more myself, just get better at what I do, and be better Keb’ Mo’.”
Moore played Knoxville just this spring, as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour, a celebration of Jimi Hendrix’s life featuring guitar giants Buddy Guy, Dweezil Zappa, Billy Cox, Robby Krieger, Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and David Hidalgo.
Though Mo’ admires Hendrix, he says, “I don’t feel a debt to him.”
“He’s a great guitarist, a great writer, and he wasn’t really around that long,” he says. “And he did a lot of beautiful work that changed the scope of rock music. But he’s a little hardcore for me. I’m more of a softie.”
Moore has a hard time naming his specific influences, because he draws inspiration from all over.
“I hear little bits and pieces of things—I like that bit right there. What is that?”
What does Mo’ make of his own contributions to the blues?
“I’m kind of blind on that. I don’t know where I’ve taken it,” he says. “That’s a hard one to really nail down. I can’t see it clearly. I can only know what I’ve done and what I’d like to do next.”