Twenty years since releasing his first album, Keb’ Mo’ is searching for a little elbow room.
So the three-time Grammy-winning blues artist said his 12th album, “BLUESAmericana,” was his way of breaking across genre borders.
“I think Americana is a great name for a genre,” said in a phone interview with The Bee. “I think the name is broader than the actual music it describes. It feels like it is everything that doesn’t have a home can be called Americana. Americana to me is, wow – Pharrell, that’s Americana. He’s as much Americana as Lightnin’ Hopkins or country music. It’s all Americana because of our culture. Even its name spans different continents – there’s Central America, South America and North America. It’s a big name. So the name is actually blues to Americana, which is meant to make blues bigger. I’m giving myself some more room to work in. It’s me taking my elbow and pushing out a little. Like, ‘Give me a little room here.’ It’s not just blues all the time.”
“BLUESAmericana” came out last week and the 62-year-old singer-songwriter (who was born Kevin Moore in Los Angeles) already has been out on tour introducing audiences to the new music for more than two months. He stops Tuesday at the Gallo Center for the Arts.
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While Mo’ has been one of the most recognizable names in contemporary blues for the past 20 years, his adventures outside of the genre aren’t anything new. His last release three years ago, “The Reflection,” featured more R&B and soul. His new release includes pop, blues, folk and country influences, along with varying styles of blues.
“I think there’s a lot of room in the blues to do a lot of different things, a lot of different styles and a lot of potential,” Mo’ said. “My experience is that staying in strictly a blues format is really confining for me. It doesn’t feel right to me. I have to do what feels right and take the consequences. People ask, ‘Why not just do straight blues?’ Well, I don’t want to.”
Mo’ has done pretty well doing what he wants to since his self-titled debut, “Keb’ Mo’,” in 1994 went gold. His second release, 1996’s “Just Like You,” won him his first Grammy for contemporary blues album. He won twice again, for 1999’s “Slow Down” and 2005’s “Keep It Simple.”
While he broke onto the scene as a modern bridge to the Delta Blues, covering Robert Johnson songs such as “Come On in My Kitchen” and “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” Mo’s exploratory spirit continues to shine through. Over the years, his hits have spanned “More Than One Way Home,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Whole Enchilada.”
His songs have been recorded by B.B. King, the Dixie Chicks, Joe Cocker and Robert Palmer, among others. And he has collaborated with even more popular artists, from Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Brown to Amy Grant and Buddy Guy. His guitar mastery also led to his own Keb’ Mo’ Signature Bluesmaster series acoustic guitar by Gibson.
Mo’s has ventured onto the screen, as well. He began acting in the early 1990s and portrayed blues legend Johnson in the 1998 documentary “Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson.” On the small screen, he was in “Touched by an Angel,” and on the big screen, he was in John Sayles’ 2007 movie, “Honeydripper.”
The L.A. native moved to country music mecca Nashville four years ago for his wife, whom he calls a “country girl.” He said moving to Music City was a big change. There are more structured resources available in Nashville. But, he said, they sometimes run contrary to his more relaxed California style.
“I realize Nashville can be kind of a musical corporate thing,” he said. “Everything goes in three-hour sessions – writing, recording and writing. I tried that and didn’t dig it. I’m more of a come hang and we’ll write kind of guy.”
He said technology has changed the music industry as a whole greatly in the past two decades. But the changes also have helped to make him a better musician.
“I think I am more skilled at what I do. I think in the beginning, I was more naive, more relaxed and carefree. I really didn’t give a hoot about what anyone thought,” he said. “Now, I give a hoot a little bit about what people think. Now, I have a kid and mortgage. Now, I have to give a little bit of a hoot because my wife will kill me if I don’t. But, basically, nothing has changed. I do what I want.”