Jeff Mosier: Lessons Learned

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Regret.

That feeling of disappointment or sadness about something that one wishes could be different.  It’s a common emotion we have all experienced at one time.  For the eternally upbeat Jeff Mosier, he has been shouldering a load of regret since the original incarnation of his band, Blueground Undergrass, played their final show, dissolving in the midst of anger, hard feelings, and a loss of faith.  Since that day he has thought about the lost opportunities and missed chances, and until just a few short weeks ago it seemed as if they would be gone forever, only to live in Mosier’s suitcase of regret.

But then a random phone call proved to be the spark to reunite the original line-up of Blueground Undergrass (BGUG,) catching Mosier by surprise and giving him a chance at redemption.

Describing the chance for a reunion, Mosier says, “you know how you dream about fixing stuff that went wrong – a job, a relationship, whatever – and you just dream about it working out?  Well, I have dreamed about this working out, of wanting it to work out, but I never really thought it would.”

For Mosier, a man whose life has been marked by an uncommonly influential friendship, and the desire to play music the way he hears it, it was a 20 year journey to get to back to this point.

A rebirth of sorts

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Mosier at Theology School / courtesy Mosier family

Fourteen years to the day before BGUG’s final show with their original line-up, Mosier was just a banjo player in a bluegrass band with his brother, and he was hosting a local radio show in Atlanta called Born in a Barn.  That night he went to a show by folk singer David Olney, and during set break he walked outside and heard something emanating from the club next door that caught his attention.

“It was just the oddest thing.  It sounded like a guy playing a mandolin over a bad church PA, and there was an out of tune band playing with him.  I walk in and there is this guy playing the electric mandolin with his eyes closed and there was a weird group of musicians with him.  One looked like a politician, there was a black guy with no shirt on, a guy sitting crossed leg on a table playing a whole bunch of keys attached with a fishing line.” Mosier recalls.

“I was horrified.  I didn’t know what it was.  I was very conservative.  I was open-minded, but I had never played any sonic music.  I had only played folk and bluegrass music into a microphone," he says.  "The fact that he was playing a mandolin was the only reason I walked in.  I had to know what it was I was so curious.”

The guy playing that mandolin was Bruce Hampton, also known as the Colonel, an eccentric musician who had been around since the late 1960s in a variety of bands and who developed a unique take on life and music that has inspired countless musicians over the years.  Mosier approached Hampton, who recognized Mosier’s voice from his radio show and said, “I love your radio show.  I listen every Tuesday.”  An instant bond was formed and lead to the start of a relationship that would go on to define who Mosier would become not only as a musician, but as a person as well.

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The Col. & the Rev. / courtesy Mosier family

Mosier reflects on that meeting: “Not many people can trace their entire life and career to virtually starting from meeting one person.  It really started then.  I can tell you it felt like the sun came out in my consciousness.  I had met someone who was as insanely curious about everything the way I was.  It was like walking through a door.  I still talk to him just about every day, he’s my best friend.” 

It was not just Hampton’s friendship that would inspire Mosier, but his unique take on life and music.  In conversation with Mosier he takes time to impart the same life lessons and ideology that Hampton shared with him, giving him the air of a humble shaman who wears those lessons learned from Hampton like a badge of honor.  Even the nickname that Hampton bestowed on Mosier, “The Reverend Jeff Mosier from the Hills of Tennessee” reflected this thoughtful, philosophical side of him.   A shortened version of the nickname quickly stuck, and Mosier has been known simply as “The Reverend” ever since.

It was not long before Mosier was sitting in with Hampton and his band, first joining them on stage for a version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” that he remembers saw the “crowd go insane because of the complete weirdness of the mix.”  This weirdness was The Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU).

Mosier remembers his unlikely start with the band by stating, “I was the only one that had a house.  Oteil (Burbridge) was my roommate, and Bruce would stay there as well.  I always joke about it, but I probably only got in the band because I had a house.  My whole career started because I owned property.  I had no reason to be playing with those guys, I was a banjo player and I just couldn’t play rock.”

ARU would go on to create an insanely absurd sound that was combined with what Mosier calls, “an avant-garde vomitous theatrical thing” that saw the band pay as much attention to their music as they did their presentation of it.  This combination would serve as the template for many of the bands that were forming at the time and lumped into the broad “jamband” category.

Around the same time Mosier befriended another Georgia band, Widespread Panic, and began to dig deeper into “rock music” and make the connections between the bluegrass music of his youth and this music his new friends were into.

“I saw half a Grateful Dead show in 1989 or 90, and I just got it,” Mosier says.  “Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements I had known about, but Jerry Garcia I had no idea, then I heard Old and in the Way (Garcia’s bluegrass band with Rowan and Clements) and I got the connection.”  This connection was the catalyst for what would become Mosier’s defining band.

Mosier left ARU a short time later to pursue a litany of other interests.  “I did theatre, I worked in a nursing home, I studied music therapy and the effects of music on Alzheimer’s patients.  I also played some with Leftover Salmon. I still stayed in touch with that world.”

Mosier goes Phishin’,  and Panic opens a door

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Mosier plays for young’uns / courtesy Mosier family

Mosier also took time to serve as the bluegrass “coach” to a band he had met a few years prior who were as insanely curious about things as he.

“At one of ARU’s gigs, this weird group of geeky guys came and stood in the audience and taped us.  I didn’t know about tapers.  They told us they were in town for a band that was playing up the street.  After our gig we went up the street to see this band.  There was about 30 people there spinning around to the most out of tune shit-singing I had every heard.”  Mosier says with a laugh.

“It was loud and they were jumping up and down on trampolines.  These guys on the trampolines befriended us and wanted us to go north with them.  They were called Phish.”

Phish would eventually ask Mosier to come on tour with them and share his knowledge about bluegrass.  He toured with them in the fall of 1994, teaching them all there was about the genre, from its rich history, to the songs, to how to play different instruments.  He also joined them on stage most nights for a number of the traditional bluegrass standards that they had been learning.

Despite all that he was doing Mosier was still thinking about that connection he had discovered almost ten years previous between the bluegrass world he knew so well, and the rock world he had been thrust into just a few years prior.  It all came to a head December 30, 1997 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta at a Widespread Panic show.

Panic drummer Todd Nance had called Mosier and invited him down to the show that night.  Mosier ended up joining the band on stage that evening, during which he met a man who would become one of his greatest music allies.

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Blackmon and Mosier (AJ Adams, background) Memphis 2006 / photo J. Mintz

Fiddler David Blackmon had been a longtime member of the extended Widespread family, playing on their 1988 debut Space Wrangler, and joining them onstage almost 30 times during the ensuing years.  When Mosier and Blackmon first engaged each other on stage they just seemed to click, and when they jammed out on the traditional standard, “Old Joe Clark” during the show they knew they had something special.

Mosier was immediately enamored with Blackmon’s musical ability.  He said that “David is the single most unbelievably and magically well rounded live musician I have ever fucking seen, period.”{mospagebreak}

Blueground Undergrass, 1.0

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BGUG / photo: J. Mintz

Mosier wasted no time and approached Blackmon after the show to share the idea that had been germinating in his head.  Mosier says, “I told him about this idea I had for a band, I said I was done playing into microphones – I wanted to get back into rock.  He asked, ‘What’s the name of it?’  I said, ‘Blueground Undergrass.’  He said, ‘that’s great, I am in.”

Mosier quickly recruited his brother Johnny to play guitar and Mark Van Allen on pedal steel to create the core of BGUG.  Rhythm sections would come and go, but these four would be the heart and soul of the band.  Less than three months after forming, they played their first gig, opening for Bruce Hampton and the Fiji All-Stars.  The sound they created, an improbable mix of the high lonesome sound of traditional bluegrass played with an edge of psychedelia and the adventurous spirit of the Grateful Dead, immediately captivated audiences.

BGUG’s genius was in their unique line-up that borrowed from the best of both musical worlds.  Johnny says, “Jeff came up with the idea for the odd instrumentation we used.  The defining sound of Blueground Undergrass is the banjo, fiddle, pedal steel, and Jeff and my brotherly harmonies.”  Or as Jeff simply says, “it was that crazy shit.”

The Mosier brothers, Van Allen, and Blackmon developed a connection that was something special to not just the band, but to all those who saw it.

“We used to destroy it.  We could have had a horrible rhythm section, but the front line was musically what the brought the energy and the crowd,” Jeff says.  “The kids were fascinated by it.  They had never seen a pedal steel, and they had never seen a banjo played like that.  They heard bluegrass, but right in the middle we would go into something that would trigger their Phish or Widespread sensibilities.”

The first years of the band marked a creative high point for the four as they released two studio albums, 1999’s Barnyard Gone Wrong and 2001’s New Ground, as well as a live album in 1999.  They were taking bluegrass to the masses, and introducing many to the all too often ignored genre, albeit by wrapping it up a cloak of rock ‘n’ roll that would make it that much easier for the uninitiated to digest on first listen.

Unfortunately the first years were also full of turmoil for the band.  Johnny remembers, “When we first started it was very stress full to keep it going.  We didn’t know much about touring.  We had no crew and no management. We were so naïve.”

The band bought a bus to help with their constant touring, but with no crew the band was forced into additional roles.  Johnny recalls having to rebuild the bus engine while broke down on the road and adds, “Jeff and I were the bus drivers, both figuratively and literally, he and I had to keep this thing going.”  The first years were also marked with what Jeff describes as, “lots of turnover and personal tragedy."

A band unravels

In 1999 the band made the difficult decision to fire fiddler Blackmon, because his drinking had turned into something that, when combined with the stress they were already under, became a problem they could no longer handle.  Jeff remembers, “David almost died.  He almost killed himself with alcohol addiction.”

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Mosier brothers back in the day / courtesy Mosier family

Things got so bad at this time that Jeff and Van Allen, who Jeff says, “were like oil and water,” stopped speaking all together.  The stress from the road and breakdown of the relationships within the band eventual wore them all down.  Jeff confesses, “I wasn’t happy anymore.  I just didn’t have anymore ‘zippity do dah.’  It became that job you hate going to on Monday morning.  I was dragging myself to the stage.”

The remaining three would eventually call it quits February 7, 2002 at the appropriately named Bottom Line in New York City.  The band ended 14 years to the day of Jeff meeting his own personal guru Bruce Hampton and six years and a day before an event that most thought would never take place happened.

Looking back with the wisdom that can only be gained with age and the passing of time, Jeff now sees the end of the original incarnation a bit differently.

He says, “I think the biggest mistake I made was to put ambition and fear over craft.  I somehow allowed my patience and desire to see the band grow and my fear that it wouldn’t grow, to overcome the craft of writing songs, of playing live, and really being in the music.  Anyone who does that to their art is at risk for a tragedy.”

Brother Johnny sees the end as something much simpler: “The only stress we really had was from the road, but that was enough.”{mospagebreak}

The rise and fall of Blueground Undergrass 2.0

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Blackmon / photo: J. Mintz

BGUG lay dormant for over two years until the suggestion of the band’s promoter prompted Jeff to reform the band.  The only original member who re-joined was Blackmon.  Looking back Jeff recognizes the shortcomings of that line-up.

“I am glad we did it, but we did it as a five piece and we did it without a pedal steel.  My brother didn’t do it.  It was a more of a tribute to BGUG.”  There were no hard feelings between the brothers about the reformation, but Johnny and Jeff both quickly realized that it was not truly BGUG without the Mosier brothers, Blackmon, and Van Allen’s distinct pedal steel.

The band forged ahead with the help of guitarist Matthew Williams, who had previously played in Captain Soularcat.  Williams’ youth seemed to revitalize Blackmon and Jeff as they again hit the road hard and released an album, 2006’s Faces, but that album highlighted what would lead to the end of the second life of BGUG.  Williams’ songs, which dominate the album, moved away from the bluegrass roots of the band and towards a more Americana sound.

Williams and the rest of the band decided to leave to form a new group, The Granfalloons.  There were no hard feelings, as the end seemed inevitable with the shift of the band’s sound.  “It was sad.  It was awkward at times, but it wasn’t a blow up like before,” Jeff says.  “I love those guys and still support them.”

Ever the optimist, Jeff finds the positive side to the short-lived second chapter of the band.  After being fired from the band’s first incarnation, Blackmon suffered a broken back that confined him to a wheelchair for sometime and led to an addiction to prescription pain medicine.  He would eventually seek help and get himself clean, but for Jeff the real healing came from Blackmon’s second turn with the band.

“If that version of the band served any purpose, it was to get David back on the road and rehabilitated," Jeff says.  "If nothing else was served karamically by that version except for David getting better, than it was great.”

For Jeff though, Williams and the rest of the band’s move towards an Americana sound only served to solidify his feelings and beliefs in the type of music he learned at the knee of Hampton.

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Mosier and Williams / photo: J. Mintz

“I loved the stuff they were doing, but it’s not BGUG, its not ARU, it can’t turn on a dime.  It might not vomit.  It might not wear its pajamas one night,” Jeff says. “It’s gotta have that thing that gets people to close their cell phones and look up and wonder what the hell is going on.”

For Jeff there was only thing that could lead the audience down that path, and that was the original front four of BGUG.  However, chances of a reunion of the four seemed to be an impossibility at this point, and Jeff was left in a state of musical limbo.{mospagebreak}

A family Reunion

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BGUG / photo: J. Mintz

Earlier this year Johnny had recently become available to play again, and he, Jeff and Blackmon decided they would reunite and play as a threesome or with a rotating rhythm section.  They set out with no clear plan, but with a strong desire to play live music again.  At the same time drummer Vic Stafford, who had previously played in an earlier version of BGUG, had left his current band and was looking for a gig.

“Vic was the catalyst,” Johnny says.  “He had quit his band and called me at the same time that me, Jeff and David were getting back together.  I asked him, ‘would he want to play with BGUG again?”

At the same time that Stafford was joining his old bandmates, bassist Kyle Spark who had also previously played in BGUG, was moving from Boston back to Asheville, North Carolina and was looking for a band to play with. Stafford quickly recruited him back into the BGUG fold, and what was a trio a few days prior was now a full fledged band, almost a full BGUG reunion. The one notable exception was the man who Johnny describes as “the sound of BGUG.”

The last piece falls into place

After the demise of BGUG the first time, Mark Van Allen kept busy with his usually hectic studio work, and played with a number of bands.  As a few of his projects were winding down this year, he too was on the lookout for something new, when a random phone call from Stafford sparked his interest and eventual return to BGUG.  Word of Van Allen’s interest reached Jeff, who finally gave him a call ( In the words of Jeff, “It was great.”) and the two long time musical companions who had not spoken in six years, since their last show at the Bottom Line, reconnected.

A few short days later the band met at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta to discuss their future.  For Johnny the meeting was more than just about making plans.

“Everyone is older now.  We have all had the software upgrade," Johnny says.  "We were finally able to heal some relationships and that is more important than getting the band back together.”  Of course like everyone else in the band he is similarly ecstatic about the reunion.

For Jeff, he hopes that they are not only able to heal the relationships with each other, but with their fans as well.  “It’s sad when bands break up.  You see this art that made so many happy and all of a sudden, it’s gone.  We took that away from a lot of people.  We weren’t big like Widespread, but we did have a loyal following and we hurt a lot of people.  All I can say is that I hope that this will help ease whatever pain we caused.”

That initial meeting led to a few rehearsals and eventually their first show back as a complete band.  Coming six years and a day to their final show at The Bottom Line, the original four reconvened in front of a live audience February, 8 2008 at Gottrocks in Greenville, South Carolina.  The band seemed to find their old connection on stage.

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Blackmon / photo: J. Mintz

Jeff puts it in perspectivie, stating “I haven’t smiled that much on stage since the last time I smiled that much on stage, which was the last time I played with those guys.  It was like riding a bike, there was no weirdness.  I was thrilled.  It was BGUG…it was the original recipe.”

The band is approaching the reunion with a wizened eye, making sure that they, as Johnny says, “Enjoy ourselves this time.”  They have lined up a few scattered dates, but their real coming out party will be at the Suwannee Spring Fest March 27-30.  Beyond that they have booked a few other festivals and shows close to home.  Johnny says they are going to “let the rope pull them this time” so they do not get too far ahead of themselves or start touring outside of their means and re-ignite the problems that led to their downfall the first time around.

Jeff, while optimistic as always, is realistic about what the future may hold for them.  “In three months I might be pulling my hair out again, but I don’t think so.  I believe you can change as a person.”

Besides the musical side of it, the reunion serves an even more important role to him, personally: it gives him a chance to un-shoulder the regret he has lived with for so long, a shot at redemption.  He says, “This basically gives me a chance to live everything I believe, as opposed to just saying it."

As he speaks you can almost hear him echoing the lessons learned from Bruce Hampton 20 years earlier.

“I believe the basis of civility is forgiveness.  If bands would give to themselves, if they would pull out their egos and lay them to the side, they could achieve so much more.  There is a lot of great music held back because of that," Jeff says.

"In our case it has been held back for six fucking years because of our egos…Bruce always said you have to be a person first and a musician second.”

All "historical" photos and ARU photo courtesy of Jeff Mosier and family

All live Blueground Undergrass photos by Josh Mintz 

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