MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
On this Fourth of July, we thought we'd enjoy a little bit of a uniquely American art form, the blues, with someone who's carrying it into the 21st century. Grammy-Award winner Keb Mo grew up in Compton, California, where people knew him as Kevin Moore. He played the guitar very early in life, but put it down occasionally to play the French horn, to study architecture. In the end, he couldn't stay away. Now he's sometimes called a modern ambassador for the blues. He says he's really just shining a light on those who've gone before.
Mr. KEB MO (Jazz Musician): I think the weight of history has already been shouldered by Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and all the recording music that was back during the time that was the real thing. You know, it's hard for this time period to make that kind of guy, you know. But I don't think that this day and age can make a Sonny Boy Williamson because of where we are in society right now.
NORRIS: Keb Mo visited our studios this week to talk about his eighth album. It's called Suitcase.
(Soundbite of Suitcase)
Mr. MO: (Singing) I've got a suitcase. I take it everywhere I go. I got a suitcase, baby. I take it everywhere I go. It's just a big old bag of trouble. Trouble's all I know.
Mr. MO: It's about life. It's like you're dragging this bunch of experiences around that are some time, if you let them, they're controlling you now. You know, you're letting your past, you know, that someone at school that hurt you and said something, you can't let it go. It's still governing your choices.
NORRIS: So the song is about all that stuff that we all carry around with us.
Mr. MO: That stuff that we can get rid of, that we don't have to really carry. We carry it around in our houses, we go in our houses, we have things we haven't used for decades. Why don't you throw it? I might need it someday. And we don't really need any of it, so I think it's good to get rid of things, physical and emotional and on whatever level you can.
(Soundbite of Suitcase)
Mr. MO (Singing): I got a suitcase. I take it everywhere I go. Just a big old bag of trouble I don't need no more.
NORRIS: Did you lighten your own load with this song?
Mr. MO: Well, I don't know if it relates to my own load lightening, but hopefully I made myself a little more aware. Every time I sing it, I can think about it too. And when I'm reacting in life I'm thinking, well, what am I reacting to and what's the real problem here? What's really going on? You know, so. And occasionally I'll go in and even seek help from a professional, a licensed professional, or I'll just talk to a friend, you know, about something.
NORRIS: That's why a lot of people reach for the blues.
Mr. MO: Absolutely. And the blues that we had in the ‘60s and the ‘40s and the ‘30s, some of it's the same kind of blues, a lot of it. But then there's a lot of other kind of blues that happen now in the 2000s, so I try to use those old metaphors and that old genre to bring it in and, you know, use it for more modern things. Like my other record was Keep It Simple, you know, talking about cell phones and coffee stores with too many things on the menu and you know.
NORRIS: Too many things that cost too much money.
Mr. MO: Yeah.
NORRIS: Do you recall the first time that you heard the blues?
Mr. MO: I don't remember the first time, but I remember hearing, it was probably my mother's cousin, first cousin, name was Prentiss. He had a great record collection of all these blues. We'd go there after church on Sunday and he would cook and he would put on Lowell Fulsom and B.B. King and they weren't old records then. They were like new records. So he would put on all these records and we'd play them on his Grundig stereo that he was so proud of, that German, you know, stereo, because he had a city job.
NORRIS: I'm watching you when you describe that and it seems like the memories are still so vivid for you.
Mr. MO: Oh, yeah. You're in there with your little secondhand suit on. You know. And your shoes all shined with the holes in the bottom. Cardboard stuffed in them.
NORRIS: What was on the table?
Mr. MO: Oh, there'd be some mashed potatoes, there'd be some, sometimes greens, always some chicken and some, you know, black eyed peas. You know, the basics.
NORRIS: Not too much salt.
Mr. MO: Oh, there was salt.
NORRIS: I'm thinking about that song Suitcase. Don't put too much salt in those black eyed peas. When we listen to your music, what other musical influences do we hear?
Mr. MO: Well, I was listening to popular music. I wasn't all that eclectic, you know, but because I played in a calypso band and we played steel drums, we were playing calypso music, so we were playing Latin-influenced music from the Caribbean. We listened to jazz records. Mongo Santa Maria was my favorite. A couple of us had little cheap conga drums that we had managed to scrounge up that we would just have our, like, little drum sessions out on my front porch. So we would just sit there, me and George Simpkins(ph) and Carlos County(ph) lived down the street, and the Thurman boys, they lived across the street. And we would just sit and bang out drums, you know, figuring it out, you know? Yeah.
(Soundbite of drums)
Mr. MO: See. So in a sense I guess I was having tribal experience, not knowing what it was, really, you know, and then coming to the blues.
NORRIS: Do we hear the influence of Mongo Santa Maria in any of your songs on this current CD?
Mr. MO: Well, the biggest Latin lilt on it is probably The Itch and Eileen.
Mr. MO: Yeah.
(Soundbite of The Itch and Eileen)
Mr. MO: (Singing) Whatever happened to that girl at the end of the bar who was sitting all alone, having herself a real good cry?
NORRIS: Was this song inspired by a particular person?
Mr. MO: No, that song was inspired by back in the day when we all were a bunch of single men playing in bands, you know, sometimes the worst would happen. You'd meet a girl and you'd be talking to her the whole night and then, right on your last set, when you think you've got her hooked, she gets up and leaves.
NORRIS: All that time I put into this!
Mr. MO: You know, I'm serious, like waving. So I kind of wove that disappointment into this song, Eileen.
(Singing) Well, I called her on the phone. There would be nobody home. And I never saw Eileen again.
NORRIS: Yeah, you do sing a lot about women on the CD. I guess -
Mr. MO: This is very much of a love record. It's very much of a relationship record, probably more so than any of them, you know?
NORRIS: And when you sing the blues, I guess, women are a constant source of inspiration?
Mr. MO: Yeah. Of course. Yeah.
NORRIS: Since it's Independence Day, Kevin, would you mind playing America the Beautiful? For some of our listeners this may be familiar. You perform this in the season finale for the West Wing.
Mr. MO: Yeah. People ask me, like, how did that happen? How did you get that on the West Wing because it's kind of so off the map.
NORRIS: How did it happen?
Mr. MO: Well, the only thing I can think of is that Ray Charles wasn't available. I mean, who wasn't influenced by Ray Charles in some kind of way? So I love the song America the Beautiful. I always have. And this one verse that is just so profound and I just held onto it for years, you know? It goes -
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life. America, America, may God thy gold refine. And may all success be nobleness and every gain divine.
That's a perfect way to, you know, to me, if we stand for anything in America, that's perfection. It's like John Lennon's Imagine, you know? A perfect song that says, that just exemplifies peace and harmony in such a great way, you know?
NORRIS: Well, we'd love it if you would just sing us out, if you could? America the Beautiful. Your version.
(Soundbite of America the Beautiful)
Mr. MO: O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain. America, America, God shed His grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife. Whom more than self their country loved and mercy more than life. America, America, may God thy gold refine. And may success be nobleness and every gain divine.
O America, America, God shed His grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. From sea to shining sea.
Eh, a few clams in there, but it's all right.
NORRIS: Keb Mo. His latest CD is called Suitcase. Thanks for coming in to talking to us and Happy Fourth of July.
Mr. MO: Thank you, Michele. Thank you very much.