Keb’ Mo’ has lived in Nashville for more than a decade, but his latest album, Good to Be, out Friday on Concord Records, owes much of its genesis to the 70-year-old music icon’s childhood home in Compton, Calif.
“In the years gone by, I would go to Compton and see my mom quite often, when she was alive — and I have one sister that still lives in Compton,” he tells Billboard. In 2018, just prior to his mother’s passing, Keb’ Mo’ purchased and renovated his childhood home.
“She had been renting it out for some time,” he explains. “We bought it from her estate and fixed it up. We knocked the wall out between the little living room and the kitchen. We wanted to make it all it could be, to honor my mom and our family, and to make it a place where we can all come together. It also gives me a stake in the neighborhood.”
The album’s title track is a breezy celebration of returning to the stomping grounds of his youth, recognizing both the inevitable changes wrought by time, but also the enduring spirit of his hometown. It is one of two tunes Keb’ Mo’ wrote solo while visiting Compton during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the other, “The Medicine Man,” Keb’ Mo’ welcomes Old Crow Medicine Show for an acoustic jam that manages both a laugh-so-you-don’t-cry humor and a keen cataloging of recent world events, from the 2020 presidential election to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.[embedded content]
“I try to think [with] ‘Medicine Man,’ I was channeling Jeff Foxworthy or something,” he says, quoting the line, “Friends and neighbors are dropping like flies/ You better cover your face, sanitize.”
Good to Be also features Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, Old Crow Medicine Show and Kristin Chenoweth. “I love the title cut, sitting in the room with Vince and that was some of the old-school Nashville cats on that song,” he says. “Gordon Mote, Paul Franklin — and you’ve got Wendy Moten on there, too, with the background vocals.”
Ken’ Mo’ wrote “Quiet Moments,” featuring Chenoweth, in the 1970s. The track sits comfortably alongside a rendition of the Bill Withers classic “Lean on Me” and a host of songs Keb’ Mo’ wrote during the chaotic past few years, giving the album both a breadth of sound and a depth of heart. Once the songs were determined, Keb’ Mo’ returned to Nashville in January of last year, with the aim of making the entire project with longtime friend Gill.
“I kind of got the good fortune of having a friend like Vince, who, when I came to town, connected me to folks like Wynonna and Brad Paisley,” the five-time Grammy winner says, adding, “Vince was supposed to produce the whole album, but with the COVID-19 [pandemic], none of us knew what to do. We had some sessions where you had to separate the singers and we used this thing that sanitized some electronic things. We got tests, we did everything we could. Finally, I said, ‘Why don’t you do these three songs?’”
Gill co-produced “Good Strong Woman,” “Good To Be (Home Again)” and “’62 Chevy,” while Tom Hambridge, known for his work with Buddy Guy and B.B. King, co-produced several other songs on the album.[embedded content]
On “Good Strong Woman,” which Keb’ Mo’ co-wrote with Jason Nix and Jason Gantt, Rucker lends his voice on the admonition to find love with someone who will support you emotionally.
“Darius is a kick, man. I would say he’s a hoot, but that’s too right on it,” Keb’ Mo’ says with a chuckle of the Hootie & the Blowfish frontman. “He is just all heart and sincerity. Darius starts singing, and by his presence he made the whole record lift up. I was very much impressed by his energy, because I operate on the same kind of thing. I don’t operate on vocal or guitar playing prowess. I operate on, ‘Can I make people believe me?’ He just lays it, he just cuts his chest open and bleeds on it, you know?”
Of course, Keb’ Mo’s new album is far from his first collaboration with country artists. In 2001, Keb’ Mo’ was a performer and producer on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” from the tribute album Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute. The album won a Grammy for best country album.
He also played on Trace Adkins’s album The Way I Wanna Go, and co-wrote “Remedy,” which appears on Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll+Hyde album. Keb’ Mo’ co-wrote “I Hope” on The Chicks’ album Taking The Long Way (the song earned a best country song Grammy nomination), and played slide guitar on Wynonna’s album Sing: Chapter 1. He also covered Don Williams’ “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good” for the album Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” on a Cash tribute album. He’s also collaborated with Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks (on Brooks’s Double Live 25th Anniversary album) and Lee Roy Parnell (on the soundtrack for Happy, Texas and on Parnell’s 2001 blues album). Keb’ Mo’s previous albums, such as BLUESAmericana, have featured co-writes with other Nashville songwriters such as Victoria Shaw and Jim Weatherly.[embedded content]
Elsewhere on Good to Be, Keb’ Mo’ works with another previous collaborator — his longtime friend Ernest “Rip” Patton, a legendary civil rights leader and Nashville Freedom Rider, whom Keb’ Mo’ counted as a neighbor while growing up in Compton. “I’m here knowing this giant for years, but I didn’t find out he was a Freedom Rider until I got to Nashville. I never knew because he was always just Rip to me,” Keb’ Mo’ recalls.
Keb’ Mo’ says he had not seen his childhood friend in nearly two decades, until Patton showed up at one of his shows not long after the latter moved to Nashville. Patton previously appeared on Keb’ Mo’s 2014 album BLUESAmericana. On Good to Be, Keb’ Mo’ and Patton recorded a joyous rendition of “Lean on Me,” captured not long before Patton’s passing in late 2021.
In the studio, Patton “sat down and did that in one take,” Keb’ Mo’ says. “A few weeks later I called, he was in the hospital and I went down there. I spent a little time with him, about three days. His time was well spent. He left a mark.”[embedded content]
Since the release of his self-titled album in 1994, this acclaimed musician has left his own mark, and music fans and industry organizations are celebrating his accomplishments and contributions. Last year, Keb’ Mo’ was honored with the Americana Music Association’s lifetime achievement performance award, and will be inducted into the Music City Walk of Fame in April.
He has just launched a slate of tour dates for the first half of 2022, and plans to head back in the studio, but not before the songs are right.
“When I’m finally ready to do the record, I don’t have like 40 songs written. I’m usually about one or two songs short. But every time I’m writing, I try to make sure I’m right, and telling the truth,” he says. “I don’t care how long a song takes to write, as long as everything I have is resonating. So then I don’t have to go through and figure out what’s resonating for an album, because everything resonates.”