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The Gospel According to Reverend Jeff Mosier

By Brian L. Knight

 

Although a student of theology, Reverend Jeff Mosier of the band Blueground Undergrass has never been ordained or listened to confession. The nickname arrived from when Mosier played banjo with the highly eclectic jazz-rock outfit, Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The somewhat eccentric but highly revered Colonel provided everyone in the band with a nickname. For instance, Oteil Burbridge, who is presently playing bass in the Allman Brothers Band, was given the title "Oteil from Egypt" and drummer Jeff Sipe, who is now jamming with Leftover Salmon, was giving the name "Apt. 258". Hampton’s name calling found its roots in his personal and mysterious cult phenomenon known as Zambi. The roots and explanations of this cult will have to wait for another day. Due to Mosier’s educational background in religion/theology, Mosier was given the title "Reverend Jeff Mosier from the Hills of Tennessee", and the simplified version of "The Reverend" has stuck ever since. In an interview with the Vermont Review, Mosier added " Most of the Phish fans and most Widespread Panic people..........most of the kids know me as that. they don’t know my name is Jeff. They just call me the Reverend."

Jeff Mosier is presently touring to with his newest creation, Blueground Undergrass, which he describes as "psychedelic hick-hop." Due to the presence success of bluegrass bands such as Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident and the reputation that Mosier has established with fans of Phish and Widespread Panic, Blueground Undergrass’s debut album, Barnyard Gone Wrong and their subsequent tour has been nothing but positive. How does a banjo playing self proclaimed hick from Dunwoody, Georgia get involved with two jam band behemoths like Widespread Panic and Phish? Like most bluegrass players, Mosier had humble beginnings in which he grew up listening to Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who set the stage for Mosier’s life of bluegrass. " Earl Scruggs, if you play the banjo, is your influence because he invented the kind of playing I do which is 3 finger style." Earl Scruggs has touched every banjo player’s lives to date and he continues to do so. He was is the premier banjo player and his legacy and influence is truly unsurpassable. Since he first picked up the instrument as a youth, Mosier has became more than just a picker, he has become immersed in its history and tradition. As a result, Mosier is a relative expert on the instrument’s history. Mosier explains the roots of the instrument: "Basically, it is an instrument that we developed in this country after discovering it through slavery and taking it from its gourd form." The banjo used to be a gourd hollowed out with cat skin over it and then it had a neck added to the gourd. He adds "It went from that to a four string and was played in all kinds of versions. It became a big white thing and it’s almost like a national Klan instrument. The ironic part is that its is not at all white. It’s really both. It is truly an Afro-American idea." Since its earliest days, the instrument has slowly gained popularity through various musical forms such as ragtime, polka, Irish music, Dixieland and bluegrass. It is now making a tremendous impact in the rock and roll side of music.

Just as Mosier is obsessed with the history of the instrument, he is also interesting in guiding the instrument into the future " I am a big fan of the banjo. I love it for what it is. I aspire to see the banjo rise in popular culture once again and not through the Grand Ol Opry or Dueling Banjos. That’s why in Blueground Undergrass you will hear me play rhythmic ideas that real African. I mute the strings and do a lot of different things on the banjo that aren’t typically bluegrass." This is the same vision that fellow banjo extraordinaire, Bela Fleck, has for the instrument and is why Mosier likes the sounds of Fleck. "He basically made me realize that the banjo is a lot bigger than Hee-Haw."

Mosier’s innovative ways with the banjo can stem back to when he started his traditional bluegrass outfit, Good Medicine, with his brother Johnny in 1978. It was through Good Medicine that Mosier had a platform to make a living out of his hobby. Since the band’s earliest days, Good Medicine has had over 50 players enter its ranks. He explains "Not because we are hard to get along with but because we were the kind of band that would do pick-up gigs." After five years of playing theme parks, people’s back yards, bars, theaters, festivals and playing "Dueling Banjos" a countless number of times, Good Medicine developed a cult following. Simultaneously, Mosier became involved with the crazy sounds of Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit and ultimately became "The Reverend". It was from the combination of Good Medicine and Aquarium Rescue Unit that he developed his idea for creating Blueground Undergrass. " I became split. I was doing rock and roll; I was playing with a drummer for the first time. I was doing jazz and avant-garde. I was doing lots of different styles of music, but also playing bluegrass. So my mind split in half. Blueground, to me, is really taking my bluegrass influences from Bill Monroe and the influence that came from Bruce Hampton." The concept of Blueground Undergrass sat is Mosier’s head for a couple of years until he found the right resources and personnel to make his idea come to fruition. Although Blueground Undergrass has been progressively gathering momentum, Mosier will never abandon the traditional sounds of Good Medicine. Coupled by the fact that four of the members of Good Medicine are also in Blueground Undergrass, Good Medicine will continue on for a while. "In the middle of Blueground Undergrass shows we do a traditional music set where we get around one mike and do an acoustic set like the Grand Ol Opry so the kids will know what this stuff sounds like in its raw form. We are not ashamed of that. We can do traditional hardcore bluegrass."

Thanks to people/bands Allison Krauss, Bela Fleck, Laurie Lewis, Leftover Salmon, bluegrass has grown has grown in popularity. As an after effect, players like Mosier, Tony Trischka, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger have also seen a change in their fans. Mosier feels that Jerry Garcia and David Grisman are ultimately responsible for the present wave of bluegrass popularity that’s taking the nation. Specifically it was Garcia and Grisman’s 1975 collaboration with Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and John Kahn that turned a lot of people onto the world of bluegrass. Mosier spoke of the 1975’s Old and In the Way: "It’s wonderful because he (Garcia) was a real lover of bluegrass. He was a good banjo player and they did a lot of neat material. They really tried to do it right. A lot of bluegrass people are not into that material because they are such Nazis about bluegrass. I am into it. I like it. I like Peter Rowan’s writing. I liked the fact that it wasn’t three chords- it was five chords. It had interesting lyrics." Like Old and in the Way, Mosier wants to steer away from the simple "hick" qualities that have become stereotypical of the bluegrass idiom. By introducing a more complex song structure and taking the lyrics out of the bar and more into the mainstream, bluegrass has become more appealing. Thanks to one album in 1975, the music of bands such as Blueground Undergrass, Smokin’ Grass, Hypnotic Clambake, Leftover Salmon, and String Cheese Incident are some of the hottest sounds on tour in the 1990s. Many of these bands have been lumped into the catchall phrase for progressive-jazz-fusion-bluegrass-dance music - Jam Bands. Mosier comments on this labeling " I think what we all have in common, on some level, is a bluegrass connection. Though, I would say that we are probably the lightest on jam band side. We don’t aspire to be a jam band, but we do jam."

Blueground Undergrass has just finished a tour with fellow eclectic pickers, Leftover Salmon, where fans were treated to an onslaught of bluegrass jamming. Despite the low pay, the grueling traveling hours and the short stage time, the band had a great time on the road with Leftover Salmon. Blueground and Leftover shared multiple stage moments. " It worked great. We are just different enough where it worked. Mark and mine banjo styles are really different yet we can really play the banjo – traditional wise." For Mosier and Leftover Salmon drummer Jeff Sipe, it was a reunion as the two of the same shared the stage as members of Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit.

While at their Vermont performance at the Higher Ground in Winooski, Mosier hooked up his old friend Mike Gordon of Phish. Blueground spend the night out at Gordon’s house, toured his studio and saw the "Outsructional Video" which is Gordon’s new film about Colonel Bruce Hampton. Mosier contributed to the video by doing a voice over. "It was just great too see him since I hadn’t seen him since I toured with them. He’s just great. They are great. I love Phish. I always tell people that the band is everything they are cracked up to be as people and as musicians." Gordon returned the voice over favor by sitting in and playing bass with both Leftover Salmon and Blueground Undergrass at the Higher Ground. When talking about Phish’s early days playing in the South and opening for the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Mosier said: "It was really neat because I saw them go from that to having there own ice cream. Seemed like overnight."

Mosier’s real involvement with Phish came in 1994 and 1995 when he toured with the band and provided the members of Phish with Bluegrass instruction. During this tour, Mosier would join the band on stage for tunes like "Blue and Lonesome", "Two Dollar Bill", "Pig in A Pen", "Nellie Cane", "Butter Them Biscuits" and "Fixin’ To Die". Besides joining them on stage, Mosier coached the Phish guys on what instruments to buy and the held classes during the day. "That of course helped me a lot because a lot of the kids, the Phishheads, know me as Reverend Mosier, ‘the bluegrass coach for Phish’. They don’t even know what I do here(in Georgia). It was thrilling. I had never played in front of 12,000-14,000 people before. I was shocked when I got out there. It was like being at a Braves game. " When asked if Phish were good learners, Mosier replied "They did well. It real hard form of music. It is real hard to learn. You can’t cheat at Bluegrass and they really wanted to learn it right. They wanted to learn about the history. I taught them a lot about that. They videotaped all my classes. It was thrilling."

Just as Mosier served as a coach for Phish, the effect was reciprocal. "They taught me a lot. They taught me a lot about how to run a rock band. I asked them a lot of questions. I had Blueground Undergrass in my head but I wasn’t at a point in my career to do rock. Theater was being good to me. I paid a lot of attention to how they are and how they operate. They are real collaborators. If they find somebody who is good at something, they hire them to do it. They don’t try to do everything themselves. They don’t pretend to know it all. And they do what they do best which is play together well as a foursome. The rest of it is done by people are like minded." It was the all out participation of the Phish management that guided Mosier in creating and running Blueground Undergrass. It is much more than working together and smart management that Mosier appreciates about Phish. Mosier also appreciates one of the primary vehicles that have kept the band going for so long – the fans. " I have always been fan orientated, but that is one thing that I have always known about Phish is that they make their fans active part of their career." One of the best times that Mosier had with Phish and the fans occurred outside the tour bus. Some fans yelled them to "pick one" and an impromptu jam session quickly unfolded. "I don’t know how many people were out there but it looked like sermon on the mountain. It just took my breath away with the interest these kids had in bluegrass. It got totally quiet. You could have heard a cricket…………belch. They listened to everything I did. Afterwards, I got on the bus, I sat down and started weeping." Up to that point, Mosier was completely fed up with the direction that bluegrass was heading in especially in terms of his own career. The enthusiasm of the Phish fans gave Mosier a breath of fresh air. " There was a lot of magic in the shows………but that moment made me realize how deep and wonderful these kids really are. To do this day, I get emotional because I feel lucky playing for these kids. They are most educated. Most respectful, most reverent fans that may have ever lived." Mosier affectionately refers to them as "working class hippies" and they permeate from Phish to Blueground to Galactic shows. "They are amazing. Thy not only love the history but they push you do their own thing." Suprisingly, Mosier’s favorite tunes by Phish is not the bluegrass staples like "Rocky Top" or "My Old Home Place"; but rather "Run Like An Antelope" and "If I Could"(a song that is collaboration with bluegrass musician Allison Krauss).

Mosier not only has strong ties to the jam behemoths of the north, but also with their brethren to the south – Widespread Panic. Widespread Panic and Colonel Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit were rising through the southern music scene at around the same time and Mosier used to sit in with Widespread all the time. The camaraderie has continued with Mosier playing with Widespread Panic during their most recent New Year’s shows at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Due to the stints with both Phish and Widespread Panic, Mosier unofficially serves as the bridge or lynchpin between the two touring bands. "The Grateful Dead created an indigenous form of American folk music. They are people spawning all over the country playing their version of the Grateful Dead. Although we do not sound like the Dead, we are affected by the Dead. Widespread Panic is a southern rock and blues laced version of the Grateful Dead and Phish is a northern jazz laced version of the Grateful Dead. There is a nice kind of Civil war going on. It is not about racism. It is a genre split that has always been there but it took Jerry dying and the Grateful dead to coming down for it to become apparent." Mosier finds it funny, that despite this common bond to the Grateful Dead, that Phisheads and Widespread fans don’t like each other. There seems to be battle of pride between the two factions. Mosier concludes, "They both come to see us."

Ultimately, Mosier’s time spent with Phish and Widespread Panic provided himself with a newly discovered pride in being a banjo player. "I spent 22 years feeling judged by the public because I play the banjo. It is weird being a banjo player." The fan appreciation that came from the Phish and Widespread concerts allowed for Mosier to receive a veritable shot in the arm. Since then, Mosier has joined the Allman Brothers on stage with ex-Aquarium Rescue Unit member Oteil Burbridge. For the Georgia native Mosier, playing with the Southern rock gods was a life moment. As a result of this interesting rise from playing traditional Bluegrass with Good Medicine to stints with Aquarium Rescue Unit, Phish and Widespread Panic to the formation of Blueground Undergrass, he has seen the popularity of Bluegrass rise from relative obscurity to a legitimate music form. When Mosier is not playing with Blueground Undergrass or Good Medicine, he is raising his kids and forever mastering his knowledge of the banjo. To hear the musical extension of Reverend Jeff Mosier, search out the bootlegs of his jams with the Allmans, Phish or Widespread Panic, but for a much crisper and more original take, try Barnyard Gone Wrong (www.bluegroundundergrass.com) to hear some of the psychedelic hick-hop that Mosier loves to play all so well.