Over the course of a career now pushing into its fifth decade, Keb' Mo' — born Kevin Moore in Los Angeles, Calif. — has become a sort of blues ambassador, a testament to his incredible skills as an interpreter of the various blues subgenres. He's proud of his accomplishments (with good reason). What some folks may not know is that Mo' regularly visits all corners and eras of American music, from Dixieland to contemporary R&B and funk; his new album, "BLUESAmericana," which comes out in April, drives that home once more. The veteran musician is already out on tour, playing music from his deep catalog and stopping twice in our state, first at Norwalk Concert Hall in Norwalk on Friday, March 21, and again at Garde Arts in New London on Saturday, March 29.
CTNow caught up with Mo' by phone from a tour stop in Burlington, Vt., where he was hanging out between shows. [This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
CTNow: "BLUESAmericana," which comes out in April, will be your first new album in three years, but you're already out on tour. Does that happen often?
Keb' Mo': It was kind of an accident. I have an EP out that I'm selling at the gigs, but I took too long making the record. I admit it… But I believe any job worth doing is worth doing well.
CTNow: Tell me what it's like to work on a song with someone like Jim Weatherly ("Do It Right") or John Lewis Parker ("The Old Me Better").
KM: Jim Weatherly is someone I'd never worked with. I saw him at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, playing in a songwriting round. I was there to see my friend Mac Davis. Afterward, I talked to him, and maybe two days later, I'm sitting in a restaurant having breakfast after having my teeth cleaned, and I see this guy at the next table who looked familiar. It was Jim Weatherly… I talked to him and introduced myself, and we got together and wrote a song.
CTNow: On the spot?
KM: No, two days later, we went to his house… He said, "I want to do it right." So I said, "Let's write that: 'Do It Right.'" With John Lewis Parker, we've been writing for years. The first time I wrote with him was in the '70s, when we were playing together in a band with [blues violinist] Papa John Creach… In Nashville, it's all about collaborating, writing songs together. It's a way to socialize: "Let's get together and write a song." It's a social event. You socialize, get to know each other. Everybody knows each other so well in Nashville… That's the way people create income and also get to know each other. I'm actually just discovering that, while answering this question: writing is a social thing.
CTNow: Are there every any disputes or casual teasing about who came up with what part of a song?
KM: Nobody ever talks about that [laughs]. People talk about that when they're at some party and they're real close… Sometimes people actually keep track of how many words you came up with, and then they split the percentages like that. They're real anal. I'm always, like, whomever is in the room, we split it. If you're in the room, you're part of the energy that created it. In my writing, I'm the common denominator. I have to go sing the songs, so I'm very in-your-face about what gets written. I'm pretty sure on most songs [in my catalog] I'm a major contributor. Most of the time, I like writing with other folks, but I've got to sing it every night, so I have to approve every line, because I don't want to sing a line that I don't like. I have to be honest. God forbid you sing a line that you don't really dig, and then every night you have to sing that line. God forbid it becomes a hit: oy vey.
CTNow: The title of the new album, "BLUESAmericana," is a fitting description of the music you've played over the years. It's a genre that's unique to what you do. What are the different components?
KM: I presented an award to Gregg Allman, a lifetime achievement award, and I almost didn't know that Americana existed. To me, it was "less-than-country." It was country that wasn't so geared to country people, you know? Country for city folks. But the music is very folk, very roots. I guess they kind of embrace what I do, and blues doesn't really know what to do with me. So, I'm a Blues-Americana artist.
CTNow: You've never restricted yourself to any particular form or style, whether that's 12-bar blues or something else.
KM: No, I haven't, but that's where I come from. People think I'm genre-jumping, but all I'm doing is doing what I've always done, you know? I've always played different things. Everybody starts off playing covers. If you're in a cover band, you're playing all these different types of genres. You're playing Stevie Wonder, you're playing the blues, you're playing Cyndi Lauper, you're playing Bonnie Raitt, all kinds of stuff… You're not restricted to what you're going to do, so why should I be restricted as a recording artist? But that's what I do… I like all that stuff too. I like cheap chords, I like expensive chords, and I love the blues. The blues, for me, is the thing that put me together. I'm proud to be a part of the blues genre, because blues took me out of my Hollywood-esque persona that I wore for the first 20 years of my career, just looking to make some money, trying to write a hit, trying to get with the right crowd. I gave all that up and said, "I'll just go play the blues. I'll probably never make it, but I'll be happy." Robert Johnson, Taj Mahal: they taught me how to be real. They taught me how to be authentic, because you can't play the blues and not be authentic.
KEB' MO' performs on Friday, March 21, at 8 p.m. at the Norwalk Concert Hall in Norwalk ($45-$65) and again on Saturday, March 29, at 8 p.m. at Garde Arts Center in New London ($35-$41).