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Keb' Mo' makes a break from the norm with BluesAmericana

Killing the Blues

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There are many artists for whom "onstage" and "offstage" are very different animals. Alice Cooper is a laid-back golfer when he's not performing, and there's little chance that Unknown Hinson is a low-budget hillbilly vampire once the show is over. But for Kevin Moore, who's been playing an easy-going hybrid of blues, folk, and country under the stage name Keb' Mo' for 21 years, there's not much difference at all.

"My performing persona is pretty much me," Moore says. "I don't go into Keb' Mo' mode or anything like that. It's all me."

Moore started out as a sideman, playing on four albums by former Jefferson Airplane/Starship violinist Papa John Creach, even landing a song on Starship's hit album Red Octopus. But it's his 14 albums as Keb' Mo', a nickname given to him by drummer Quentin Dennard, that garnered him eight Grammy Award nominations and three wins. He's performed or collaborated with a remarkably varied group of musicians, from Eric Clapton to the Dixie Chicks. And that's him singing the opening theme to CBS' hit sitcom Mike & Molly. Moore might be filed under "blues" in most music stores, but his music casts a much larger net.

"The blues, like a lot of forms of music, is a broad picture," Moore says. "I'd compare it to rock music in that respect. You have all different kinds of rock and you have all different kinds of blues. The blues is not just one thing. Maybe some blues is depressing, but the blues I listen to, the blues I love is funny and healing and inclusive. It gives you the feeling that these problems you're having, whatever they are, are not just your own — other people have them. It sheds light on those problems and tells stories about them. I don't really have a summation of whether it's blues or it's not blues. It's what I do. It's just what I do. I just let people decide when they come to the show."

Moore slyly references his reluctance to be pigeonholed with the title of his most recent album, 2014's BluesAmericana. "It's just kind of a statement that this is more than blues music," he says. "That might be how it started out, but once you've been put in a specific genre, it's pretty hard to get out."

In the past, Moore has described his role onstage as part guitarist, songwriter, blues singer, and stand-up comedian, but that humble description belies how seriously he takes his performances. "You stand before an audience with the intention to give a performance that is uplifting and relaxing and exciting, something that makes people feel when they go home that they had a good time," he says. "I'm not trying to do some sort of life-changing thing. There are a lot of people out there doing life-changing things, but my endeavor is to be true to that bigger picture of healing and awareness of the world around us."

As for the accolades he's received, Moore says that the repeated Grammy nominations never get old, no matter how many times he is nominated or what category he's in. While the majority of his albums have been nominated in the Best Contemporary Blues category, his 2010 album Big Wide Grin was up for Best Children's Album, and BluesAmericana was nominated, perhaps to his relief, in the Best Americana Album category.

"It's huge every time," Moore says. "It's a big deal. In fact, when I won the first one, I don't think I realized how huge it was or how many hoops your music has to jump through to get to the Grammys. Just the nomination part is grand. It's beyond belief. I appreciate all the wins and nominations the longer I have them."

Typically, it seems like false modesty when a musician goes into the "It's an honor just to be nominated" routine, but Moore says that when BluesAmericana received its nomination, he was excited just to be alongside fellow nominees John Hiatt, Nickel Creek, Sturgill Simpson, and eventual winner Rosanne Cash. "Even though it didn't win, I was so honored to be in that group," he says. "Other years when I got nominated and didn't win, I was a little disappointed, but this year I wasn't at all — both because of the other nominees and because I appreciated the process better."

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