Mo' has always been politically active, with involvement in Vote for Change, No Nukes, and other groups, but he's the kinder, gentler sort of activist. Mo', 70, credits an unusual, unexpected source for this soft approach to talking about hot topics: the TV sex therapist Dr. Ruth.
When discussing his approach to writing songs, Mo' often diverts into talking politics and social issues, but to him, it's all bundled together. Songs are just extensions of his warm, progressive heart.
Keb' Mo': Vince is a good friend of mine. It was more like working with a friend than working with a "country star." I like to work around people I have a history with, and people that get what I'm doing, and who are skilled at the same time. Originally, he was going to do the whole record. Then Covid hit, and we kept trying to figure out how we were gonna do it.
We narrowed it down. We said, "Let's do three songs." Three of the songs on the record, which are, "Good To Be," which is the title cut, "'62 Chevy," and "Good Strong Woman." With the others, I did other arrangements. I did a couple myself, connected some with a gentleman named Tom Hambridge, and we did some stuff. I'm pretty happy with the outcome.
Songfacts: Did you listen to much country music growing up in Compton?
Keb' Mo': I grew up in Compton. That was between the ages of 7 years old and 18. After that, I got on the freeway and went to Los Angeles, which is the next town over. I listened to some country. I listened to it a lot while I was delivering flowers on my flower delivery job. I was always a big fan of country lyrics.
Songfacts: I looked up the songs you play most in concert, and the one that ended up number one was the song "Slow Down," which is kind of advising yourself to slow down in life. So, I wonder, have you mastered the art of slowing down?
Keb' Mo': I don't know that I've mastered anything. I think I've gotten very good at staying out of the way in life. Trying to push it the way I want it to go. I think I've gotten pretty good at, "Okay, where is this going? What's it look like?" and kind of trusting the natural flow of life. It always goes somewhere better than I could think of.
Songfacts: One of the new songs, "The Medicine Man," kind of addresses Covid directly. You worked with Old Crow Medicine Show on that one. Tell me how that song came about. Were you locked down when you wrote it?
Songfacts: So, you thought of Ketch when you wrote it?
Keb' Mo': Yes, I thought we could do something with Old Crow Medicine Show with this song. It was gonna be Old Crow Medicine Show featuring Keb' Mo', but I was closer to doing an album, so we decided to go with Keb' Mo' featuring Old Crow Medicine Show. We switched it around.
Songfacts: How often does that happen, where you get an idea in the middle of the night to write a song? Is that common?
Keb' Mo': No, but every once in a while it does. Maybe three times in my life, where something happens in the middle of the night. I'm a pretty good sleeper, and at night I usually sleep.
Songfacts: Good for you. Not everybody can say that.
Keb' Mo': Yeah, I can probably fall asleep right now.
Songfacts: Please don't! There's a collaboration with Darius Rucker, right?
Keb' Mo': Yeah, he comes in and sings a duet on "Good Strong Woman."
Songfacts: That's also one you wrote.
Keb' Mo': Yeah, I wrote that one with Jason Nix and Jason Gantt. I call them the Jasons.
Songfacts: Was that their idea, or was it your idea where you brought it to them and they helped you flesh it out?
Keb' Mo': That was the second of three songs that we wrote. We also wrote "'62 Chevy."
Songfacts: Okay, so you have a history with them.
Keb' Mo': We kind of had a little collaboration streak right there.
Songfacts: Do you like collaborating with other songwriters, or do you prefer to write by yourself? What's the normal process?
Keb' Mo': I write songs by myself, too, but I like collaborating with other writers. For the main reasons that you get more ideas for songs, and songs are more likely to be completed. It's a more productive way of getting songs.
Songfacts: I see what you're saying. It's like accountability. "We're here, let's get this finished."
Keb' Mo': Yes. If I'm gonna sit down by myself, I can get distracted by something. Like the one "Marvelous To Me," John Parker, who I write a lot of songs with, had a piano rendition of the song, and I wrote the lyrics. So, it was half done when I got it. So, you get a little help there. Then it becomes a consensus, as opposed to you sitting by yourself, "Is this any good?" When we were writing "Medicine Man," I sent it to Ketch, and the consensus was, "It's done!" (laughs)
Songfacts: That must have come quickly. Did it?
Keb' Mo': Yeah, it was, like, within hours. Practically instantly. Ketch is a doer. He's the kind of guy... he doesn't let any grass grow under his feet. If he sees something he thinks he wants to do, he just does it. And that's what's very great about him.
Songfacts: Those are the kinds of people you want to be around, right?
Keb' Mo': I surround myself with productive people. People that are more productive than I am, even.
Songfacts: But you're pretty productive. When you look at the songs you've written, are there any that you're particularly proud of?
Keb' Mo': Cowrites or single writes?
Songfacts: Anything that you've been involved in writing.
Keb' Mo': I think I'm most proud of a song called "Henry." And "Change." That's a singular write, "Change." And "Marvelous To Me."
Songfacts: Why do those three come immediately to mind?
Keb' Mo': They're all social issues of a sort, with optimistic themes because that's my favorite way to write. "Henry" is about the history of the blues. It has very simple sentences that say a lot. It talks about the drudgery of slavery. What happened, and then the release of letting it go and moving on.
Songfacts: You have a way of saying serious social statements in a way that goes down smooth. You have a gentle tone, and you can say things and communicate in ways that others can't. Do you feel like that's part of your gifting?
Keb' Mo': I think I found the source of where I got that from: Dr. Ruth.
Songfacts: Dr. Ruth?
Keb' Mo': She was the first one to get on public media and talk about sex. She talked about it in a way that was like your grandmother. She talked about everything. She had that beautiful bedside manner and people wanted to hear about it, but they didn't want to hear about it in a nasty way. They wanted to hear about it in a loving way. So, I think people want to hear about these issues, but they don't want it shoved down their throats.
Keb' Mo': N.W.A. produced a masterpiece. I think Straight Outta Compton is a freakin' masterpiece, and they did it with anger, but there was humor, too. You can do that. It's possible to have a discussion about sensitive subjects and not just piss everybody off. Instead, you can encourage people to talk about it and not blame anyone.
Songfacts: I think there's a place for both approaches. Maybe this is a simplistic example. You have Malcolm X on the one side, very forceful, and Martin Luther King, more peaceful, a little bit gentler. A lot of times saying many of the same things but in very different ways.
Keb' Mo': You have that. You have the Black Panthers, you have Malcolm X, you have Martin Luther King and any number of ministers from the Civil Rights Movement and those things. And then later on comes Maya Angelou.
Songfacts: A poet.
Keb' Mo': Yeah. Someone with such eloquence talks about all those things. Her cohorts, people like Oprah Winfrey and people like that who bring it about with a gentle touch. Unapologetically.
Songfacts: The first time I saw you perform, Garth Brooks was doing a TV special at The Forum. I remember him introducing you saying, "This man has so much love." Are you conscious of that - what you do is a way of expressing love?
Keb' Mo': Yes. Absolutely. My aim is to express things with love and, first of all, take responsibility myself and to encourage others to take their own responsibility. A little thing like greenhouse gases.
You can't go at the oil companies. We are just as much a part of it as they are. Now we know. We're a part of the problem. We're accessories to the crime. But I'm not going to start pointing fingers. Instead, I'm going to put a light on the issue, then stand back and take a look. That's my aim.
Songfacts: When you start playing the blame game, it takes you away from, What is the problem, and how do we solve it?
Keb' Mo': One of my favorite comedians, Dave Chappelle, has a great line. He was talking about – I'll leave the bad words out – helping people that are underprivileged. "Yeah, but I still want my lunch."
Songfacts: You can draw the parallel between comedians and musicians. They can make you laugh, instead of straight out saying it, whereas with music, you can say things, but folks are also tapping their feet, also humming along. You're bringing pleasure and a little pain at the same time, right? So, music is a similar vehicle.
Keb' Mo': Yeah, and during the course of any body of work, or any set of songs. Whether it's one song or 10 or a home show, you only get x amount of opportunities to say something of real importance. You get one or two. When you get those opportunities, you make people laugh, you make people comfortable, and then once they're comfortable enough, you make your points.
Another of my songs is called "Oklahoma." That's a song about history. It's a song with a whole bunch of things in there. It's said very lightly, but when I get to the bridge, I drop the bomb. Like the Gap Band does, and they're from Oklahoma City. They're from Tulsa, Oklahoma. They had the song "You Dropped A Bomb On Me." I sing, "And over on Greenwood, Archer, and Pine." That's the code word for... remember that big bombing in 1921 of the Black Wall Street that everybody forgot about? If you do your homework, you catch it, but to those listening, it's just a little confusing. "Greenwood, Archer, what does that mean?"
Songfacts: I'm sure you've met people who've said, "I didn't know. I had to look it up," right?
Keb' Mo': Yeah.
Songfacts: You plant that little seed, and then they'll do the rest, if they're curious.
Keb' Mo': The lyric goes, "Greenwood, Archer, and Pine/There lives an elevated mind." Imagine what that neighborhood must have been like in 1921. This neighborhood was awesome in business. Maybe not because they were such great businessmen, but they were left out of the white world, where they were not allowed to go and do their business, so they had their own neighborhood. Every dollar went around the neighborhood 30 times, so the neighborhood became really rich. There must have been jealousy there and you know what happened.
Songfacts: What happens when you perform that song in Oklahoma?
Keb' Mo': I only performed it once in Oklahoma. I don't get to go to Oklahoma very much. Vince Gill is from Oklahoma. Garth Brooks is from Oklahoma. A lot of fantastic people. Like Compton, California, a lot of great people come out of Oklahoma. If you check the list, the list is amazing! So, I'm not going to mess up my nod to the state of Oklahoma by doing a big nasty bash.
Songfacts: I don't think you have a real nasty bone in your body. At least you don't show it if it's there.
Keb' Mo': Well, I'm kind of a thug.
Songfacts: No, you are not! I don't believe that for a minute.
Keb' Mo': I may not be a thug, but I have a thug's drive. It's not like I'm a mean guy. I just do it with love.
Songfacts: There's a Bible verse that says to speak the truth in love. Most of us are pretty good at speaking the truth, but speaking the truth in love, that's the challenge because love requires us to be gentle and kind. A lot of us speak the truth hastily, in anger, in response, in defense. We're not speaking the truth the way it should be spoken, most of the time, I'm afraid.
Keb' Mo': Yeah, and we live in a blame society. What's the president's rating right now? You go into office with a high rating, then six months in, it goes lower. But it always goes lower.
Songfacts: Then the media acts surprised with, "Oh, look what's happening!" Like this hasn't happened to every other president.
Keb' Mo': People start holding you accountable for everything that's gone wrong with the country.
Songfacts: Well, that's what it's like when you're at the top. I always think about sports: You fire the coach. Even though the players may not have been doing their job, and not been playing hard, the buck stops there. And that's how we look at things.
Keb' Mo': Who do we blame?
Songfacts: It's just wasted effort. Let's see if we can resolve some of these issues.
Keb' Mo': As a participant, myself, I think we all have to get better at sharing the blame.
Songfacts: You can complain about so-and-so, but what are you going to do to make it better?
Keb' Mo': I think something happened in the last month that slipped past everyone. I haven't spoken about this with anyone in an interview or anything. The Kyle Rittenhouse story and the kid in school that shot three or four kids. With the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, no one held the parents accountable. When I looked at that kid, this kid's 17 years old. What's he doing with an AR-15? What's he doing with his mom dropping him off there to help? What kind of mother? Wait a minute. She should be in jail.
Songfacts: As a parent, I think, "Would I do that with my child? Would I put my child in harm's way with a weapon?"
Keb' Mo': As a juvenile, yeah he should be left off. We shouldn't hold him as a murderer at 17. He was clearly coached into that.
Songfacts: Yeah, I don't think kids grow up that way. There's gotta be someone else that's teaching him to think like that.
Keb' Mo': Then that other kid, the kid from the Oakland County shooting. Clearly, his parents had bought him a gun as a gift. Who are these parents? Now, I'm playing the blame game here, a little bit, but it's a shared responsibility. The kid's supposed to know better. The parents are supposed to know better. At the same time, these parents are being fed all kinds of information about the culture and the people they're being influenced by. So, do you blame them (the influencers)? Yeah, maybe a little bit.
January 6, 2022
More at kebmo.com
Photos: Jeremy Cowart
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