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Mo' Better Blues

Art imitates life in the music of Keb' Mo'

On the title track off Keb' Mo''s latest record, Slow Down (Okeh/550), the singer tells of growing old. He talks about how when he was younger he hadn't a care, drinking all night long and chasing women. But the voice in the song also remembers how his mother would warn him of what could happen if he took either his drinking or his gallivanting too far. The song ends this way: "Little bit older / But I feel like a young buck / I'm riding down the highway / In a brand new minivan / Wife and kids screaming / Oh, God, I'm a family man / I'm out of my mind / Losing control / I could leave tomorrow / But there ain't nowhere to go."

Believe it or not, this is a true story. A real-life experience retold through song. Mo', née Kevin Moore, wants all his songs to be thought of as "true stories." Art imitating life and all that. And while this is not unusual for most artists, for someone thought of as the next Robert Johnson this can end up being more bad than good: It's good because this type of songwriting is sincere, open, emotional, everything the blues is supposed to be. It's bad because it's written by someone who hasn't officially had "the blues." Unlike Howlin' Wolf, Mo' never had to drive a three-mule team by himself. (Now that's something to write a blues song about.)

"I like to talk about hindsight," says Mo' from his cell phone on the road to Vancouver. "I look for a story. I try to get a musical idea. I get a subject, the song. I know what it will be about first. Then I lay out the chord structure, then melody over that, then fit in the words.

"I like to think about it. I want it to be true. That way I really feel it. That's what it's about. I can't help how people take it."

It's something music lovers have been wrangling with forever, and the question itself has become cliché. How can one write "authentic" blues without having ever experienced them? Well, for Mo', it all depends on what your definition of "the blues" is.

When he burst onto the music scene in 1994, after actually playing the part of Johnson in the docudrama Can't You Hear the Wind Howl?, Mo' was heralded as a return to the great blues of days of yore, when downhearted men would ramble from town to town singing nondanceable tunes about their cheatin' "wimmins." Mo' indeed allowed that side of him to be exploited. He was often pictured holding his guitar the way Johnson once did, neck-to-neck. And he also played the requisite songs. He belted out ramshackle blues in a way that could move a ghost to moanin'. His voice was that haunting.

But playing the role of the Delta bluesman, on stage or in front of a camera, brought with it baggage. Blues purists — those who think, among other things, only poor, old black men can sing the genre authentically — wanted their Keb' Mo', who was luckily already black, to also be poor and act his age, encroaching on his mid-forties at the time (a baby in blues years, but otherwise mature enough). They also wanted him to provide for them the hurtin' songs of regionalism, as if only people from the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma or Texas can be depressed. Part of fitting into this package even meant Mo' had to write songs with certain motifs: There had to be travelin', whiskey "drankin'" and mistreatin' mamas. Minivans?

"I don't care what blues purists say," says Mo'. "There are other people who want me to be who I am. I love pure blues, but how can you be a blues purist? Those times are gone. Blues, a lot of what it's about now is about rappers. To me, that's pure blues now.

"Whatever influences seep in, they go through your life experiences. You take what really hits you. I'll tell you I never got anywhere listening to other people's music. And I'll never get anywhere listening to blues purists."

It's obvious Mo' is tired of discussing the issue. Newspapers, magazines and Web sites have been doing it for him since 1996, when Mo' turned his back on the down-home blues sound of his debut, Keb' Mo', which had brought him instant success, and got more "experimental." His debut featured three tunes in which Mo' performed solo acoustic on his National guitar, a shiny-bodied six-string that's as integral to blues history as brown derbies. His recent record has none.

And even though most of Mo''s later songs are representative of what one would call "contemporary" blues, similar themes still pervade his work. The motifs they travel through may be different, but the ideas they convey are still the same. Just because a minivan isn't as sexy as, say, a broken-down Cadillac, doesn't mean the idea of entrapment is any less valid. Desolation and dispossession crop up even in Mo''s up-tempo numbers. He's just writing about what he knows best. The reality of his reality.

Slow Down won a Grammy this year for Best Contemporary Blues Album, but it's not the first time Mo' has won this popularity contest. In 1997 the single "Just Like You" won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording, and his self-titled debut won Country/Blues Acoustic Blues Album of the Year in 1995 from the Blues Foundation. This same institution also named Mo' Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year in 1997 and 1998. So while it may seem, by virtue of stingy categorizations, that Mo' is purely a pop artist sharing the blues idiom, there's much to suggest he's the blues personified. With all those Grammys on his shelf, what self-respecting bluesman would want to hang out with him? Talk about lonelyŠ

True artists keep shaping and reshaping their sounds. One could just imagine what would have happened to the Beatles had they decided to write only lovey-dovey, three-minute, sing-along pop songs. And even a folk/blues pioneer of the early half of this century such as Leadbelly challenged his form. Since Leadbelly craved superstardom, he got a chance to tour the South often. When he did, he picked up on various regional influences, which changed his sound. For the better. He was still Leadbelly, that ole Jimmy-crack-corn-and-I-don't-care crooner, but he was now a man who had been exposed to backwoods folk and bluegrass. He was no longer just Leadbelly, the artist. He was Leadbelly, the artist-slash-art-appreciator. The man's music was still authentic. If anything, he was a better Leadbelly. As music historian and critic A.L. Lloyd once wrote, authenticity is just a matter of style, anyway.

The point is, Mo' is going to keep tinkering with his sound. Whether it's a matter of taste or more money to throw around the studio, Mo' says, no matter what, he will keep on polishing and/or transforming the way he recounts his true stories. So don't be surprised ten years from now when Mo' starts rapping. He'll only be expressing the reality around him. Whatever that may be.

Keb' Mo' opens for Lyle Lovett Saturday, July 17, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive. Call (713)629-3700 for tickets.

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