Five-time Grammy-winging songwriter, Keb Mo (born Kevin Moore), remembers being 12- or 13-years-old on the porch. He’d sit there with friends. One person had a drum, someone else had a can. Amongst a small group of kids, they’d have whatever they could find and bring to this rudimentary drum circle. But the instrument didn’t matter – not at first, anyway. What mattered was the group and the combination of sounds to make something new. Today, for Mo, that same musical philosophy holds. For him, it’s less about any one particular thing and more about the relationship between the elements. And the results are stellar – or, constellational. Evidenced by his latest award-winning effort, 2019’s Oklahoma.
“Back then,” Mo says, “it was really about the ensemble, being part of something.”
Though it took years for Mo to consider himself a musician, per sé, he played and collaborated often. Friends and other musicians kept calling him to join their gigs. Mo, who first played trumpet (he loved the big noise it made!) but later quit to play steel drums, eventually got a cheap guitar from Sears, which cut up his fingers. But while he was noodling around with instruments and enjoying the small opportunities he found, he still hadn’t come to his true determinations.
“People kept calling me,” he says, “and I’d go play but I never thought I was any good. I thought maybe all the other guys were busy. Next thing I knew, I was in my mid-30s. Then I got ambitious. I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been doing this for a long time now. Okay, it’s time to shit or get off the pot.’”
Mo decided he would lean into his love of noise, sound, collaboration and songs. He started to listen more, pick up on the nuances of great writing. He’d discovered that, most of all, he loved country blues music. Diving into this genre, he found his new writing touch. Five years later, he had a record deal with Sony Music and he was on his way to fame.
“One guy told me something really profound,” Mo says, “while I was hanging around in those years just playing guitar for the hell of it. He was doing well as an arranger and I asked him, ‘How did you make it? How did you get to where you can do all these sessions?’ And he said, ‘Just become the best. Everyone wants the best.’ So, I became the best Kevin I could possibly be. Because I’d been long behind on everything else!”
Before finding his ambitions, Mo didn’t know what direction his life would take. He thought maybe he would be a draftsman or an architect (“Had I known it was going to be music, I’d have worked way harder!” he laughs). But one thing he did know was that desk jobs weren’t for him. He’s a bit claustrophobic, he says. So, just as those early days playing music got him out of regular classrooms, music kept him from the stuffy 9-5 requirements many assume.
Mo, who has nearly 20 LPs under his belt to date, including 2017’s Grammy-winning collaboration, TajMo, with musician Taj Mahal, released Oklahoma in June of 2019. The record, which won the 2020 Grammy for best Americana Album, is diverse and eclectic in sound and writing, and features a number of standout guest appearances, including, perhaps most notably, expert slide guitarist, Robert Randolph, who appears on the album’s title track.
“The song is on the album because of him,” Mo says. “His slide, that moan – oh my gosh. It’s a prayer for the prosperity of our nation. To me, it’s like a little opera.”
The record, Oklahoma, explores many crucial topics in American history, both good and tragic. Topics include immigration, the fraught cowboys and Indians narrative, race riots, Black Wall Street, Middle America and many others. As a songwriter, Mo doesn’t like to linger, though. Like Emily Dickenson, he tells the truth, but he tells it slant, with his own perspective and timing, as well as his own sense of collage and connection.
“Songwriting is where I like to take a moment in time and glue it together to other moments in time,” Mo says.
All this work has led the artist to a great deal of success and to new opportunities to work with artists of all sorts. From those porch drum circles to working in the studio with Robert Randolph and Taj Mahal to the Grammy’s several times over, that’s what dedication offered Mo. And with each step along the way, the noise that he first fell in love with has stayed with him and carried him through his life.
“What I like about music is that it rides alongside history,” Mo says. “It’s like a sidecar to what’s going on in the world. It’s the sound of the times we’re in.”
If you have yet to pick up Oklahoma use this smartlink to your favorite source.