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Blues musician Keb' Mo' on his musical journey


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: Blues musician Keb' Mo' has been a star for decades, but you might be surprised to learn how long it took to get there. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato recently had a career-spanning conversation with the 70-year-old singer-songwriter, who just released a new album, called "Good to Be," and begins a U.S. and European tour this coming week.

Keb' Mo': Like tuning up a car, you gotta get everything right.

[sings] Woke up this mornin' / wrong side of the bed / Had a heavenly night /you know, I'm feelin' it in my head / Lord have mercy.

Tom Casciato: Keb' Mo' makes it all look easy.

Keb' Mo' [sings]: And the day ain't even begun

Tom Casciato: He's a master blues guitarist and singer.

Keb' Mo' [sings]: Well, you know, I got a bad, bad feelin' / That the worst is yet to come.

Tom Casciato: He's spent decades in the public eye. And if his biography reads like one long list of accolades, well, five Grammy Award-winning albums will do that for a person.

Keb' Mo' [sings]: Didn't get no breakfast, didn't get no lunch, but I did get two weeks notice…

Tom Casciato: But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that his music goes far beyond the blues …

Keb' Mo' [sings]: There's a deeper conversation going on in every nation …

Tom Casciato: … and the road to recognition was long and winding, with success by no means assured.

Keb' Mo': I had some hungry days. I had some tough times, you know, I and I survived them all.

Tom Casciato: He was born Kevin Moore in Compton, California, in 1951. His first musical experience was as a kid on trumpet.

Keb' Mo': Right away when I first made a sound on that trumpet, I was just like, "Yeah." Um, there was some family turmoil and the trumpet ended, and stuff, school - changin' schools and problems like that.

Tom Casciato: Your parents divorced when you were little?

Keb' Mo': Yeah, they divorced. So there was a lot of uprooting.

Tom Casciato: That uprooting led to some new friends … and new instruments.

Keb' Mo': I learned steel drums and I learned trap drums. I learned congas and bongos and the next year I got my father and I just begged him for a guitar. I want a guitar, you know? So he managed to scrape a little money together and we went down to Sears and Roebuck and he got me a guitar.

Tom Casciato: An acoustic Silvertone model, about 22 bucks plus tax. So that's when he became a full-time guitar player right? Not quite.

Keb' Mo': Then when I got to high school, I met these two guys. They were the two French horn players in the band, the marching band and the orchestra at school. And they say, Why don't you come over with us? And let's talk to Mr. Thomas and see if we can get you in the band?

Tom Casciato: On what instrument?

Keb' Mo': French horn. [Laughs] They gave me the horn, and then I was marching in the band with the French horn.

Tom Casciato: Then came graduation - and another detour: Los Angeles Technical Trade College for two years.

Keb' Mo': I studied architectural drafting. And I - for the first year I put the guitar down. I didn't touch it for a year. And then the next year someone called me, like way always do" "Why don't you come and play?"

And that band evolved into the band that became the band that played with Papa John Creach.

Tom Casciato: Papa John Creach was a fiddler extraordinaire who'd played with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Jefferson Airplane. That's 27-year old Keb' Mo' - still known as Kevin Moore - backing him on guitar. It was an invaluable musical experience.

Keb' Mo': I'm in this band with this guy who's playing blues, rock, and standards pretty cool. So I had to play "Danny Boy," I had to play "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."

Tom Casciato: But also some real [makes rock guitar noise] -

Yup, he was even some playing pretty hard rock. But he was still waiting for his big break, He hoped it would arrive in 1980 with his first solo album, Rainmaker.

Keb' Mo' [singing]: Has anybody seen my girl?

Tom Casciato: Rainmaker came out shortly before Kevin turned 30, and that was significant for him.

Keb' Mo': You know, I do this record and it was a tremendous flop. 30 was kind of like old then, you know? And I thought I thought at 30, you know, because I'm from the 60s generation with, you know, you don't trust anyone over 30. So I figured after 30, you're done. [Laughs] If you don't make it by 30.

Tom Casciato: But Kevin Moore just kept working, and it was always a struggle.

Keb' Mo': Playin clubs and theater plays playing. Some sessions, you know, recording sessions. One time into the TV thing for a show called - that lasted four episodes, it was called "Joe and Valerie" and I scored the TV play. I got it. I got the TV thing for it. And that paid me $2,500 dollars and that, that lasted me a couple of months.

Tom Casciato: One year became another … and then another still. And then became a decade.

Keb' Mo': And then 40 came and then I hadn't quit yet. And there was a moment when I said, I must be a musician.

Tom Casciato: So when Grammys and attention came, you were a grownup.

Keb' Mo': Yeah, I was a grown-ass man.

Tom Casciato: He was 42 when he released his first album under his new stage moniker, Keb' Mo', and so began that dazzling array of accolades. And it wasn't just Grammy Awards. In 2006 he entranced the crowd with "America the Beautiful" at the inauguration of the fictional president in the finale of the hit show "The West Wing."

Keb' Mo' [singing]: Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…

Tom Casciato: A decade later he'd be invited to sing the same tune at the actual White House.

President Barack Obama: It is my pleasure to welcome Keb' Mo'.

Tom Casciato: But perhaps the greatest honor of all is the extent to which other musicians want to perform with him.

You can find him singing a lonesome Hank Williams duet with James Taylor. Here he is joining Darius Rucker on a country rock tune from his new album.

Keb' Mo' [singing]: You're gonna need a good strong woman that's got your back, fill you back up when you're outta gas.

Tom Casciato: In fact calling the roll of Keb' Mo's musical collaborators is nothing short of remarkable. I started to think about who all you have played with and if you if you'll forgive me,

Keb' Mo': Oh, here we go. There's a list now,

Tom Casciato: Do you mind if I read some of this list?

Keb' Mo': Not at all. Go ahead.

Tom Casciato: Amy Grant, Bela Fleck, Bettye LaVette, Billy Gibbons, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Bono. Cassandra Wilson, Darlene Love, Dave Holland, Dr. John -

Keb' Mo': Darlene Love. When did that happen?

Tom Casciato: Darlene Love? You were on stage with her and Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, and you.

Keb' Mo': OK.

Tom Casciato: Does that sound familiar?

Keb' Mo': Yeah, okay.

Tom Casciato: Dr. John, Garth Brooks, Greg Allman, india.arie, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Vaughn, Joe Bonamassa, Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr., Sam Moore, Kingfish Ingram, Kristin Chenoweth, Mavis Staples, Melissa Manchester, Old Crow Medicine Show. There's a picture of you onstage with Philip Glass.

Keb' Mo': Yeah, at Carnegie Hall.

Tom Casciato: Angelique Kidjo, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Robert Randolph, Rosanne Cash, Sarah Dash, Shemekia Copeland, Solomon Burke, Susan Tedeschi, Taj Mahal, Terence Blanchard, The Muppets, Trombone Shorty. And Vince Gill.

Keb' Mo': Oh wow.

Tom Casciato: I found a pic- I was going to say you've played with everybody but Donald Duck, and then I found a picture of you with Donald Duck.

Keb' Mo': [Laughs]

Tom Casciato: It's like everybody wants to play with Keb' Mo, it seems.

Keb' Mo': Keb' Mo' is just a lucky guy. I just, I just - You know, I never had a big plan in life, so to speak, but I always put one foot in front of the other and go. And I just trust the moment, you know. I have ambitions. I think ambitions and plans are two different kind of things. You know, I had ambitions of playing music, you know, and just being able to play my whole life.

Keb' Mo (singing): Back in the hood, who would have known, that it would feel so good.

Keb' Mo': I affectionately call my life like, It's like the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy goes, "How do I find this yellow brick road?" Follow the yellow brick road. Where is it? You're standing on it!

Tom Casciato: And you were standing on it.

Keb' Mo': I was standing on the Yellow Brick Road the whole time, my whole life.

Keb' Mo' [sings]: I been gone too long… It's good to be here / It's good to be anywhere / It's good to be back / Good to be home again / It's good to be you / It's good to be me

Good to be young / Good to be old/ Good to be home again.

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