Cheerful blues sounds like an oxymoron, but that's just the niche that Keb' Mo' has carved out for himself. After a long musical journey from Los Angeles to the Mississippi Delta, with a brief detour into Martha Stewart's world -- he wrote her TV theme song -- the blues man is finally gaining recognition for his unique brand of uplifting contemporary acoustic blues. Two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Blues Album came his way, in 1996 (for Just Like You) and 1998 (for Slow Down), and he's just been named winner of the 2002 W.C. Handy Blues Award as Acoustic Artist of the Year, a title he has held now for four straight years.
"We're really excited to get him because he was here at the Panida about eight years ago, before he got really big," says Dyno Wahl, director of the Festival at Sandpoint. "There a DJ in town who plays his music and mounted a grassroots show of support to get him here."
Born Kevin Moore in the South Central L.A. neighborhood of Compton back in 1951, he first picked up a guitar at age 12, thanks to an uncle. He dabbled with the upright bass, steel drums and brass instruments in school, but something about the guitar just clicked. His mother worked as a hairdresser to support Kevin and his three sisters through the lean years, but they always got to church on Sunday, giving him a solid foundation in church and gospel music.
In the early '70s, he joined Papa John Creach, violinist with Jefferson Starship, and played guitar on three of Creach's albums. Next, he signed on with A & amp;M Records, not as a performer but as a staff writer, honing his songwriting skills and producing demos. An early solo effort, Rainmaker, came out in 1980 through a small division of Casablanca Records, but Moore had not yet found his niche.
After three years with a group called the Rose Brothers, Moore began performing at Marla's Memory Lane, a club in L.A. There, he met up with the Whodunit Band, a group of top-notch blues players that included Monk Higgins, producer of Bobby "Blue" Bland. Moore's time with the Whodunit Band nurtured his connection with the blues and inspired him to take some time away from performing and immerse himself in the roots of the music. He traveled to Mississippi and spent time learning from old-time Delta bluesmen. When he got back to L.A., he continued playing in clubs, but now he was Keb' Mo', the songwriter and guitarist whose words come from the heart and whose heart is in the blues.
"The blues is my history, my culture," he has said. "It's always been around me. I always wanted primarily not just to be a blues guy, but a songwriter. But the blues gave me depth."
Since 1994 and his first major label release, Mo's star has been rising, but he maintains his connection with the blues even as he grows as an artist and performer. "I'm just lucky to have found a niche that's just me," he says. "It's nothing I have to contrive. This is just what I do."
Mo's songs range from gospel-inflected testimony to hard-drivin' R & amp;B cuts a la Robert Cray to true old-time Delta blues, with just the man and his steel guitar. But it's the lyrics that set Mo' apart from other blues artists, whether contemporary or traditional. He has a true songwriter's sensibilities along with an unshakable optimism and deep spirituality.
In one online interview, he addressed the apparent irony of a happy man singing the blues. "As far as being a blues artist, I know it's kind of a conflict," he said. "You're supposed to be whining and screaming and moaning about something -- I do a little whining in there -- but always with the sense that it's an opportunity to heal."