Cover photo © Jim Hartzell
“To me the biggest lesson I ever learned from playin’ with Jimmy Rogers was learning that Chicago ensemble sound that those guys created. There’s a magic to it that people don’t understand. There are a lot of bands out there that I hear that have a bunch of really great musicians in ‘em. And they play really fine music. But a lot of times it’s so boring to me because I hear the guitar player playing the guitar part, the bass player playing the bass part, the drummer playing the drum part, the keyboard player’s paying the keyboard part, but, they’re not playing the fucking song. They’re playing their parts which I guess is creating a song, but they’re not PLAYING the song. To me there’s a big difference.”
“When you listen to the old school guys, when you listen to the stuff from the 50’s and early 60’s that those guys created there’s a dance that’s happenin’. And sometimes it sounds like they’re all playing at the same time over the top of each other. But they’re doin’ it in such a beautiful and perfect way that they’re actually like weaving in and out of each other’s parts. It’s like a lost art. And really all it is is being in tune with the fact that you have these other musicians on the stage and you should be complimenting each other. You shouldn’t be in competition or obstruction of the guy next to you, you should be complimenting each other.”
Nick Moss is the great complimentor. One of the most talented and original Bluesmen of his generation, Nick is an inspired guitarist and powerhouse singer. But he is also one of the most magnanimous and generous band leaders of modern Blues. The Nick Moss Band is a collective in which Nick and his compatriots listen, compliment each other and take up the mantle of selfless ensemble playing. They PLAY the songs, not the parts. The Nick Moss Band’s pair of Kid Anderson produced Alligator Records releases featuring harp ace Dennis Gruenling High Cost of Low Living (2018) and Lucky Guy! (2019) are fully realized artistic statements; proof positive with multiple BMA and Blues Blast Awards. Traditional in their approach, collaborative in sound, these are, however, Nick Moss features. After a fruitful exploration of Jam Band laced Blues Rock with the dearly missed but never forgotten singer Michael Leadbetter, Nick has emerged into a more fully realized artist. He has a deeper more emotive guitar style and a gravity to his singing.
Nick Moss has a well documented back story. A high school athlete, his dreams of a sports scholarship were dashed when an inherited genetic disorder took away most of his kidney function. Nick pivoted to his 2nd love music all the while following in his brother Joe’s footsteps.
“My brother Joe has always been my first influence.” Nick remembers, “I watched my brother become a great sportsman as a kid and then I followed his steps into sports. Then I watched my brother pick up a guitar and become a great guitar player and then I followed him into music. He’s always been my number 1 inspiration as a kid.”
Joe and Nick came by their love of music honestly from the cradle of their family. “My mom had the best record collection growin’ up.” Nick also adds, “my dad was a huge music fan.” When other kids were goofing off on Saturday mornings watching cartoons. The Mosses were enjoying music together and keeping up their house.
“I grew up with 2 blue collar parents that worked and my brother and I were left to fend for ourselves. But, not in a bad way, they taught us how to take care of ourselves and we did. There were Saturday mornings when most kids watched cartoons and shit, that was the day that we did all the chores because we had pretty much destroyed the house all week while mom and dad were at work. So the only rule was beside cleaning up, you could listen to the radio or you could listen to records, but no television until your chores are done. So we would kinda play DJ every other week. One week Joe would pick the music, the next week I’d get to pick. It kinda gave us a really good appreciation for music, mostly my mom and dad’s record collection. But my mom had everything from Soul, to Blues, to Rock n’ roll, to Gospel, to Folk music, she loved everything.”
It was his mom’s influence that gave Nick his first taste of that Blues intoxicant that we all know so well.
“I remember a very poignant moment when I was probably 5 or 6 years old. My mom played this B.B. King record that was Indianola Mississippi Seeds. I remember my mom in the kitchen and she’s blastin’ that record one day. I’m runnin’ through the house with one of my buddies. We have these big tower speakers next to the console. I remember stopping dead in my tracks at one moment where B.B. hit this note on the guitar and then sang this falsetto line right after it. I just remember staring at the speaker and I could just feel this electric buzz in my body. It was like I didn’t hear it, I felt it. I literally felt like I got hit with a bolt of lightning. I had this electric buzz go eeeeee. And I remember looking at the speaker and asking my mom, ‘what’s that?’ And she said ‘what’s what?’ And I pointed at the speaker and she said ‘that’s B.B. King.’ And I said ‘what’s a B.B. King?”
“That was the first shit that really hit me in a way that it was palpable. It wasn’t that I was just hearing it, it did something to me. To this day I still chase that buzz, that feeling, it’s kind of like a drug that I’m chasing. When I play every night I’m still trying to get that buzz I got the first time I heard it.”
Nick leaned on the buzz to help sooth the pain of not being able to continue his sports career. While still in the hospital Joe broke Nick out and brought him to the Wise Fools Pub to see Little Charlie and the Nightcats. Nick tells the hilarious story in his 2016 Blues Blast interview here: https://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-nick-moss/. On that fateful night he got to meet the then young up and coming Rick Estrin and Charlie Baty and started a lifelong friendship.
“Every time I’m with Rick, and especially now that Charlie’s gone,” Nick waxes, “it’s like it’s still that same night. We reminisce that same fuckin’ night over and over when we’re together like it just happened. The guys that inspired me to play actually became my very good friends and I got to tour and play with these guys over the years.”
Once he jumped into the music life, Nick proved himself in late 80’s and early 90’s with the last generation of great Bluesmen such as Jimmy Dawkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and most notably the legendary Jimmy Rogers. Your interviewer is deeply influenced by Jimmy Rogers and I feel he is an underrated master in the broader Blues fandom. I told Nick as much.
“I’m in agreement with you. I really believe he’s one of the names that doesn’t get mentioned enough as being one of the architects of the Chicago sound. And the reason I say that is because he was basically Muddy’s right hand man. Before Muddy went electric, you know, Muddy had a very country sound. When he went electric and got signed to Chess he told those guys I’ve got a friend that plays guitar that works for a cabinet factory, drives truck, I’d like to bring him in. And they didn’t want to bring him in at first. Muddy was pretty adamant about bringing Jimmy in. That 2nd guitar and the rhythm that he played is the reason Muddy had that sound. Jimmy’s rhythm on all that stuff is some of the most stellar beautiful rhythm guitar you’ll ever hear. It’s so understated and perfect and such a beautiful compliment to Muddy’s guitar lines and Walter’s harmonica and Spann’s piano and all that stuff.”
Nick didn’t go to college for sports but he did go to Blues college. Undergrad in the Legendary Blues Band under the tutelage of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Graduate work was with Jimmy Rogers. “It was a big band,” Nick marvels, “ it was my first time playing in a band that big.” The band was Jimmy and Moss on guitars, Ted Harvey on drums, Bob Stroger on bass, Madison Slim on harmonica and Piano Willie O’Shawny. Nick had a birth by fire. He also was dropped into the deep end of ensemble Chicago Blues on Blues’ biggest stage.
“My very first night playing with them, honestly, was what was called the Handy Awards then before the BMAs. My very first show I did with Jimmy Rogers was at the Orpheum Theater at the Handy Awards. I was scared shitless (chuckles). I gotta go out and in the front row is Sammy Carr, Luther Tucker’s sittin’ out there, I mean all these heavy weights. I mean John Hammond, John Hammond Sr. he was still alive. They’re all sittin’ out there in the fuckin’ front row, man.”
“I’d been playing in bands trying to play traditional Blues with young guys at home. When we had 2 guitars we’d look at each other and be you play the top, you play the bottom. That means one guy plays the bass notes and the guy on the top plays all the fills and chords, right. Right before we get called out on stage, fuckin’ sweatin’, and I tap Jimmy on the shoulder and he looks at me. And I go ‘hey, what do you want me to play the top or the bottom?’
“And he gave me this look like I was the stupidest mother fucker he had ever come across. And he went (with a cool voice) ‘Man, play what I’m not playin.’ And then they called us out on stage and he walked out and I was like, what the hell does that mean?”
“As soon as we got on stage, as soon as I plugged in and we hit the first fuckin’ note of the song it all of a sudden made sense to me. I was playin’ with these guys who knew how to do that, play what I’m not playing. If I’m playing this, you play that. If I’m playing that, you play this. So I could hear it and I was like oh, I see. I’m supposed to color what’s not there, I’m supposed to compliment what this guy did. When Jimmy was at the microphone singin’ sometimes he’d be playing the bottom strings, sometimes he’d be playing notes and fills. He never just stuck to one thing. So when he starts playing notes and fills I’d go to the bottom, start playing the bottom notes. When he’d go to the bottom, I’d switch up and go to the top notes – chords and fills.
“And I just remember him looking over his shoulder and smilin’, flashin’ that gold tooth at me. I’m like okay good I got it now. Right off the bat I learned a valuable lesson right there.”
Nick spent 4 years in Jimmy Rogers band, toured all over the US and Europe and developed himself into a Bluesman. After he left Rogers he launched his own solo career and Rogers passed away less than a year later in 1997. But, Jimmy’s final lesson to Nick was a hard pill to swallow, one that stuck with him to this day.
“Jimmy was one of the nicest guys I was ever with.” Nick remembers fondly, “but you didn’t cross him and you did things the right way, the way you’re supposed to. I learned that valuable lesson too, the wrong way. At the end, when I ended up leaving his band, he let me go because I made a fuckin’ stupid mistake.” Nick recounts the story with regret and admiration in his voice.
“We were overseas and the promoter let it slip how much money he was paying for the band. Some of the members at that time in that band, some of the older guys, were grumbling about (in a silly dejected voice) ‘oh man, we’re only making this and he’s making this.’ Jimmy always used to give me extra money cause I carried his bags, I carried his guitar, I set his amp up, I tuned his guitar. At the end of that tour Jimmy gave me a couple hundred bucks extra.
“The guys were grumbling about not making money and were gonna say something. I was just trying to like not rock the boat and I said ‘you know what man, if it means that much to you here I got some extra money I’ll give you guys extra money I think you guys should just leave it alone.’ And one of the guys said ‘well where you’d get that extra money from?’
“I said ‘well Jimmy gave it to me. I help with his guitar and I help do this and help do that.’ They were like ‘well we’ve been with him 20 years longer than you and he’s given’ you extra money?”
“Course they said something to Jimmy. Then Jimmy pulled me aside a week later and said ‘hey man I gotta let you go.’ I said for what, what do you mean? He had this look of disappointment on his face and he said: ‘Man, you never tell another man how much money you make. What you make is what you make, what another man makes is what he makes. What you agree to is what you agree to get paid. They all agreed to get paid, nobody told me no I won’t do it for that. They all agreed to that payment. And you agreed to yours and that’s what you got paid. But you never tell another man.’
“I learned a valuable lesson right there and then. Yeah I was wrong, man. That was 4 years and I was like Goddamn that ended quick (chuckles). Not how I was thinking it would end.”
Nick took the lessons he learned forward into his stellar institution of band. 25 years later Nick Moss is the master Bluesman his idols and mentors were. He cultivates young players and is a leader amongst his peers. Working with the incomparable Dennis Gruenling and the mad wizard Kid Anderson, Nick has created a way forward for the modern traditionalist. 30 years almost to the day of his fateful first meeting with Charlie Baty and Rick Estrin at Wise Fools Pub, Nick signed with Bruce Iglauer and Alligator Records, a long time dream come true.
The future it bright for Nick Moss, the band has emerged from the Covid lock down with international festival gigs and renewed energy. And at the heart is Nick paying tribute to the Chicago masters and keeping the unique magic of the Blues ensemble alive, done right and done for modern times.
“The traditional Blues is really where my heart is, it always has been. I like playin’ modern stuff, I like playin’ Rock n’ Roll, I like playin’ Jam kinda stuff too. I’m like every other guitar player, I want to get my rocks off sometimes.
“But, still my heart is in the old school stuff. I just love the classic sound of piano, harmonica, guitar, upright bass and drums just done right.”
Check out all thing Nick Moss at: https://www.nickmossband.com/