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Exclusive Artist Interview: Keb’ Mo’

By Michael Eck

If any artist wanted to rest on his laurels, that could be Keb’ Mo.’

At 67, the California-bred bluesman has 14 albums, four Grammy Awards, 11 Blues Foundation Awards, six BMI Awards and numerous music related TV and film appearances.

He’s been there and he’s done that.

But resting, quite frankly, is just not in the cards for Keb,’ who last year recorded a duo album with old pal and fellow traveler Taj Mahal, followed by a national tour. The disc—appropriately dubbed Tajmo—also grabbed a 2018 Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Thankfully, Keb,’ at this point in his life and career, is still searching. He is actively on the path.

In fact, he’s preparing to record a truly solo album at the dawn of 2019, playing a number of instruments from his stunning collection.

There is, of course, the famous Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster guitar. And he owns a number of National Resophonic single cone models and plenty of electric six-strings, too. And banjo, don’t forget he plays banjo.

Will they make it on the new record? They well might, but something else entirely is holding his attention right now.

That would be a stock 2018 Yellowstone F-20F Octave Mandolin.

The darn thing barely leaves his hands. In conversation, he uses it to punctuate sentences—a quick snap of a chord here, a trill there.

“I'm going on a journey with this instrument. You know what I'm saying? At some point, it's going to be a mainstay in my show, like the banjo. I didn't take the banjo out for along time at first, but it’s part of what I do now. It usually takes about a year for me to get an instrument into the line up, and this one is something else.”

Keb’ came across the F-20F while visiting another old pal, Tom Bedell, at the Two Old Hippies campus in Bend, Oregon. He’d sat with one at the TOH shop in Nashville a while prior, and had a strong memory of it.

Tom took Keb’ on a tour of the Weber workshop, and while he marveled at the dedication of Ryan Fish and his team of craftsmen, that octave really caught his eye.

“I saw it and I just fell in love with the sound of it. I started jonesing for one.”

He ordered one to quell that urge, a feeling we’re all familiar with. When it was later hand delivered by the team, backstage at a Tajmo gig, Keb’ couldn’t help from laughing with glee, showing off his new box to Mahal and knocking out his first few notes.

“In Bend, I watched them being made. I watched the whole process. I'm kind of a newbie to the mandolin. Even though I've had them for a long time, I'm still pretty much a novice at the matter. I was just really drawn to the octave because of the tone of it, and because of creatively where I think I can take it in the future.”

Keb’ has, despite his protestations, played standard mandolin a little himself in the past, and he’s featured the instrument occasionally on his records (Colin Linden, for example, riffs an eight string on Tajmo’s “That’s Who I Am”).

And Keb,’ who knows the blues, is well aware of the mandolin lineage in the form, including unsung greats like Coley Jones, Johnny Young, Howard Armstrong and Yank Rachell.

But Keb’ is, if nothing else, his own man. He won’t be following their lead on his new toy.

“When I like an instrument,” he says, “I like to take a fresh approach to it from my own standpoint.”

So, he’s letting his Yellowstone burn itself into his hands, playing it constantly to see what it can tell him. He’s finding new sounds from its fifths tuning everyday. And he’s marveling at the way it intersects sonically with the guitar.

“It’s a great way to make a sound,” he says. “It’s its own thing.”

Despite his clear excitement, Keb’—who also loves his Bedell nylon string guitar—is in no hurry to get onstage with his octave yet. He likes to take his time with an instrument, melding his soul into the strings before strutting his stuff.

“I take the time to understand every word of a song,” he explains. “If it’s not one of mine, I research everything about it, anything I can find out about the writer, what they were thinking about when they wrote it, and so on. I tear a song apart before I sing it, especially in public. I'll tear it apart so that when I do sing it, I can really know it and do it justice.”

“Same with an instrument. With an instrument, you have to really live with it.”

He already sounds pretty awesome with it over the phone, but he laughs and says, “give me six months … ”

While Keb’ is still in the planning stages of the solo disc, he’s feeling pretty positive that his new friend will have a strong influence, on everything from the writing to the arranging.

“I'm still putting tunes together and working on the concept, but this instrument itself, the beauty of this Weber octave mandolin, is just ... I just love it, you know?”

With their unique combination of sweetness, growl, sustain and projection, octave mandolins—available in both the Yellowstone and Bitterroot series—are the perfect instrument to explore new avenues of sound and expression.

We can’t wait to hear what Keb’ Mo’ does with his!

We’ll give him that six months and check in again.