Keb' Mo' Expands What The Blues Can Be on 'Oklahoma'
“My name is Junior, from Memphis, Tennessee. My daddy was a hustler, and a stranger to me.” Those are the first lines that greet you on Oklahoma, the new album from blues legend Keb' Mo', out June 14, and one of the few places you'll hear a standard blues line. Never one to hew to genre labels, Keb' Mo' finds strange ground for his blues guitar on Oklahoma, tackling everything from environmentalism to social justice to immigration with his uniquely affable drawl and a few notable guests.
The history of blues music and women is a fraught one. Women in the blues are usually cheaters, gold diggers, or in the most extreme cases, murder victims. But that's not Keb' Mo's way. On the album's first single, and standout track, “Put a Woman in Charge”, Mo' advocates for exactly that. In the song he notes that men have run the world throughout its history, building walls and turning great inventions into implements of war. Says Mo' of the song, “It's about putting some nurturing feminine energy into how our country operates.” Joining Keb' Mo' for the upbeat track with an almost Earth Wind and Fire-esque beat is outspoken Americana star Rosanne Cash. The track was originally meant to be just a one-off single but Mo' loved how it turned out so much he decided it warranted album inclusion.
Another track that will likely far outlive the album as a whole is “This Is My Home.” In today's political climate, there is not shortage of protest songs about immigration, but Keb' Mo' delivers one of the most powerful precisely because it isn't a protest song, but a love story. It tells the tale of Lupe and Mohammed, two immigrants from different parts of the world who find kinship in the discrimination they endure and fall in love. Both endure their trials with good humor, continuing to insist “this is where I belong. This is my home.” It has a humanizing effect on the pair, reminding the listener that these two people, whose kin have been labeled “bad hombres” by people trying to score political points, are just like us. They want to work, play, and raise their children in peace, a definition of the American Dream at risk of being forgotten.
Environmental activism isn't really a stock blues topic either, usually relegated to folkies like Pete Seeger. But again Keb' Mo' surprises with the gently ambling “Don't Throw It Away.” In it, Keb' Mo' relates the invention and convenience of plastic, admitting that we “can't get enough of it” but that the convenience has a price because “a fish can't swim and a bird can't sing if they're stuck in the holes of a six pack ring.
The album's title track, which features some haunting lap steel work from Robert Randolph, is a dual tale of resilience and regret, inspired by a visit to the state in 2013 where Mo' saw first-hand Oklahoma's resilience in the aftermath of a devastating tornado. But that alone wasn't enough make a song and Keb' Mo' almost scrapped it before sitting down with fellow songwriter Dara Tucker, who helped tap into Oklahoma's Native American history to add some man-made tragedy to the song, but also to prove that, despite being on opposite sides of a number of conflicts throughout history, Oklahoma's white and Native residents both share a stony core that sees them through.
Keb' Mo' tapped producer Colin Linden to help out on Oklahoma and it shows. Linden brings a country undertone that holds the whole thing together.
If you want to catch Keb' Mo' live, you'll have plenty of chances on his solo tour, including a release night show in Beverly, MA on June 14 and a show June 9 in Franklin, TN. You can see his full slate of tour dates here.