Keb’ Mo’ thinks music works in circles.
Critics often talk about him in the context of Robert Johnson, the famous blues guitarist who first recorded “Cross Road Blues,” the song Eric Clapton and John Mayer later famously covered as “Crossroads.”
When Mo’, who was born Kevin Moore, was on the come up, or, as he said, beginning to “have the privilege of a public presence,” he was playing the blues, oftentimes acoustic, and Robert Johnson was having a bit of resurgence.
“Being a blues guy doing acoustic music, people started associating me with Robert Johnson,” Mo’ said.
But for the four-time Grammy Award winner who will play solo Friday at the Center for the Arts, the fact that Robert Johnson was having a resurgence at all was the more interesting part of that association.
“Every 20 years or so, Robert Johnson comes back up,” he said. “The ghost rises again — people start looking at that again — because you get far away from the truth. You get far away from the roots and you gotta go back home and check. You gotta check yourself.”
Mo’ said that happens in the blues, as well as genres like country, which most recently was forced to reexamine itself when Lil Nas X, a young black rapper from Atlanta, dropped “Old Town Road.” The rapper came out months later, becoming the only artist to have ever done so while sitting on a No. 1 record.
“Country music got checked,” Mo’ said.
That genre has roots in the work of black musicians like DeFord Bailey, the first musician to be introduced at the Grand Ole Opry. Now country is primarily played by white musicians, so when Lil Nas X landed on the scene, Mo’ said the genre was forced to re-examine its roots.
“It was undeniable,” he said, “It was just the world correcting itself.”
The story of “Old Town Road” is a great one. And Mo’, who’s been playing the blues for years, recognizing that it’s never really been a mainstream genre, is in the business of telling stories.
The blues musician is a world-famous guitar player and a meticulous producer who makes studio musicians record alongside a metronome so they stay tight to the track.
But, for him, all of that is just in service of narrative.
“Whether it’s tight or raw, I’m telling stories at the end of the day,” Mo said.
“I don’t want anything to distract from the story.”
When Mo’ drops in at the Center, he’ll do so solo, bringing along stories from the 15 or so studio albums he’s produced, including his latest, “Oklahoma.”
That album’s cover boasts a patchwork of all things Keb’ Mo’. There are images of eagles and doughnuts, which Mo’ said he likes, as well as the French horn, which he played when he was younger. So it makes sense, in part, that the record was originally called “This Is My Home.”
But the album’s final name gets closer to the truth of the matter, because “Oklahoma” isn’t just a patchwork of stories from the musician’s life.
It’s a patchwork of American stories, grounded by the title track, “Oklahoma,” which explores the state in all its glory and struggle. Mo’ effortlessly interweaves lines about cowboys and rodeos with mentions of the Trail of Tears and Tulsa’s 1921 race riots, which devastated “Black Wall Street,” one of the most affluent black communities in the United States at the time.
“I just thought ‘Oklahoma’ was a great backdrop and a feeling for this album,” Mo’ said. “It was the last song for the record that was recorded and written. So it has a place in my heart, the way it came out and it spoke to me.”
The way “Oklahoma” teases between the good and the bad is also a perfect encapsulation of the rest of the record. While commenting on the state of immigration on “This Is My Home,” and imploring society to make a change on “Put A Woman In Charge,” the album is also celebratory, closing with “Beautiful Music,” a duet performed by Mo’ and his wife, Robbie Brooks Moore.
And, for Mo’, it sounded like an album he was proud of, start to finish.
Years before it was released, Mo’ put out another album, “Suitcase,” which unpacked the baggage he felt everyone carries with them.
He said he’s been doing some unpacking of his own in recent years, and “Oklahoma” was a part of that.
“The suitcase is unresolved issues that you take in and they become trouble in your relationships,” Mo’ said. “I’m starting to lighten my load considerably as time goes by.” ￼