“I’ve been called everything from a blues savior to a blues torch bearer in my career, and then when I started changing my records and making more modern stuff, people were a little confused by that,” says 46-year-old Chicago native and blues guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Nick Moss.
His brand new release, Roots and Fruits, continues Nick’s evolution from strictly electric post-war Chicago blues to a combination of traditional and contemporary high energy blues/rock that started with Privileged in 2010 continued on Here I Am in 2011, and Time Ain’t Free in 2014.
“We’re just playing music. I’m not just playing a specific genre. I don’t want to be categorized. I don’t want ’em to say, ‘Oh, that’s a blues show.’ I want them to walk out of that show and say, ‘Oh, that was great music.’ That’s all I want them to know. That was great music and then to not even realize that we were mixing things up that much, and I think we do that in a fairly seamless way where unless you’re a really educated musicologist that you can just sit there and enjoy the show.”
In the last decade Moss’s style has become much more eclectic. In 2005 he told me, “I’m trying to find the line where I can still maintain my integrity of not changing the music. I’m not one of those guys who has to change the music and re-invent the wheel. I want to do what I was taught to do and just do it right, but I also want to be able to make it so that a wider cross section of people can appreciate it ’cause I realize that this traditional stuff can be a little redundant for some people and tey lose interest.”
In 2016 his view of music has become much more cosmopolitan. “I just wanted people to realize that blues music is all around us, man, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a 12-bar shuffle or not. I can appreciate the 12-bar shuffle as much as I can appreciate Jimi Hendrix going nuts or as much as I appreciate Bukka White playing. To me it’s all the same. I’m not trying to get all hippy dippy, but (express) the life force that comes out of us, the energy that comes out of us, that organic feeling that is absolutely real.”
The desire to push the envelope on the very definition of blues may have been inspired by the three years he spent playing for Jimmy Rogers who was seminal in helping Muddy Waters evolve from a Delta blues guitarist to the architect for post-war electric Chicago blues both on the bandstands of the Windy City and in the Chess studios.
“It was Muddy that made sure Jimmy was there,” says Moss, “’cause if Leonard Chess had had his way, Muddy would still be doing records where it was just him and Big Crawford or him and Little Walter and Big Crawford ’cause Leonard thought, ‘Well, why mess with a good thing,’ and then Muddy said, ‘Well, no, but I’m playing live. I have a full band. I got Jimmy Rogers on guitar here. I want my full band to record or I’m not gonan do this anymore,’ and he was the one that made sure Jimmy was there with him ’cause that was the sound that he wanted.”
Moss is a two-time Blues Blast Award winner: In 2010 he took the Best Contemporary Blues Recording award for Privileged, and in 2009 Nick Moss and his then band The Flip Tops took best band honors. He is also a 16-time Blues Music Award nominee with 11 solo CDs to his credit. Moss was a strong enough guitar player that legendary drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith upgraded him from bass to lead guitar in Moss’s final two years with the Legendary Blues Band, a group that included Muddy Waters alumni Pinetop Perkins, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, and Jerry Portnoy. Moss has an authoritative, aggressive guitar style, but his attitude is unassuming.
“I’ve never been a guy that had to be standing in the center of the stage. I don’t care if I’m on the side of the stage, and I can turn my amp up loud enough that people can hear me. I’m a guitar player first and foremost, and I’m a songwriter. I like writing songs. I like playing guitar. I like leading the band. Miles Davis used to play with his back to the audience. They asked him why he played with his back to the audience, and he said, ‘Have you ever seen a conductor turn and face the audience?’ That was his mindset.”
With an ability to play many better known contemporary blue guitar heroes under the table, Moss went solo in 2003, but it was one incident in 1987 that changed his life’s direction from being a champion high school football player and wrestler into a jaw-dropping guitarist with an incredible resume. It happened in 1988 when he was about to graduate high school and go to college.
“I had had pretty much a life changing operation on my kidneys. I had lost 80% of my kidneys due to a genetic problem, and I was 18 which is a turning point in anyone’s life. I was supposed to be going to college and to me college was football and wrestling. They said, ‘Well, you’re never gonna play football and wrestle again. There’s no way you can risk taking any more damage to your kidney if you get hit.’
“My brother decided one night while I was in recuperation that he was going to sneak me out of the hospital and take me down to a blues club and see Little Charlie and the Nightcats. It was their first time through Chicago playing for their very first Alligator record. I knew that Rick (Estrin) had played there before, and I’m pretty sure Charlie had played Chicago once or twice before, but I think it was their first time as Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and there was nobody in the club. It was the Wise Fools Pub, and if there was more than 15 people in there, I don’t remember there being that many, but I just remember going in there.
“I literally had tubes coming out of me. They had done the surgery, but they needed the surgery to hold before they could reactivate my kidneys. I literally had tubes coming out of me going to bags that were filtering my urine. And my brother put those bags in a shopping bag and put my dad’s full length camel’s hair coat on me and said, ‘Here, just wear this and carry that bag with you.’ Seriously!
“And we went to see these guys. As a matter of fact, when they were setting up before the show, we were sitting at this table, and Rick Estrin, being like the clothes hound, always dressing sharp, the first thing he did was walk up to this kid sitting at this table and made me stand up because I’m wearing this camel’s hair jacket. And he said, ‘Man, is that real camel’s hair?’
“He touched the jacket and wanted to see the Italian silk lining. So he opened the jacket, and there were tubes coming out of my jacket, and he goes, ‘Jesus, what happened to you?’
“So I had to explain to him what happened. ‘Come on, Charlie, you gotta see this! This kid just got let out of the hospital, man.’ I think he even made some joke like, ‘Don’t die at my show tonight or something.’ So anyways, those guys got back up, and they played their first set. I could only stay for one set anyways. I had to be back. My brother had to get me out of there.”
“I wasn’t even of age to be in the bars. I was 18. There was nothing legal happening there. My brother said, ‘Hey, man, there’s this great band playing. You’ve been laid up for almost three months.’ We went so far as to make sure that it would be ok, asked the doctors. My brother basically said, ‘Hey, look! I just want to get him out and get some air.’ The doctors and nurses, my mom and my dad were like, ‘You know what? He’s feeling better. He’s been walking around on his own for a while. Why not let him out, get him some air, blah, blah, blah.’
“During the first set I watched these guys, never having seen them play, never having even heard them. My brother heard them. He heard them on the radio WXRT in Chicago and decided, ‘I gotta go see these guys, and I’m gonna take my brother with me.’
“So we’re there, and I’m watching these guys play, and I was just blown away. I’d never seen anything like that, first of all. I’d seen Magic Slim play. I’d seen Otis Rush play, and I’d seen these guys in Chicago, and I fell in love with blues, and I knew about B. B. King. Actually, I know it sounds weird, but it is what it is. It was my education, just four white guys on stage playing a style of music that I didn’t even know there was even any other white people that liked it as much as I did. I was an 18-year-old kid.
“So, I was kinda at a turning point and music has always been a savior in my life, had always been there for me. No matter how big or small a problem, I can always remember falling back on music that comforted me and made me feel good about myself or made me feel good about anything.”
If Little Charlie and the Nightcats were his introduction to the blues, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith gave Nick his education. One day he said to Willie, “Man, aren’t you sick of playing these f***ing clubs driving around in a Goddamn van? Aren’t you sick of this s***, Willie?”
“Naw, man, you know. I ain’t never sick of playin.’”
“Well, I get that. I understand that. You’re f***in’ Willie Smith, man, and played with Muddy Waters. Doesn’t it get to ya, man?”
“Of course, it’ll get to anyone, but what am I gonna do, stay home and play on a couch? Man, I’ll be fine ’cause I got a big machete. I’ll hack my way there. I can see the light. One of these days I’ll break right through them vines.”
Moss always took that to heart.
“And sure as s***, before he died, Willie got his f***ing Grammy. Him and Pinetop got that damn Grammy, and I was so happy for him.
“I learned so much stuff. Willie was one of the smartest guys I ever met. If you didn’t know him, and you sat and talked to him for five minutes, you might think this is a highly uneducated man, but if you spent more than five minutes with him you’d probably come away with a bunch of information that you never would have thought about, and he would have explained it to you in such a simple way to make you go wow. Why didn’t I ever think about that in that way? And what an easier way to think about things and do things.
“‘Willie said, ‘Man, you walk through enough pig s***, pluck enough feathers on a farm, and you come up with some good stuff.”’
“Yeah, since I’ve become a father, one thing that always goes back to this conversation I had with Willie the very first week I was with the man, and my daughter means the world to me, and (vocalist) Michael (Ledbetter), him and his lady, they had a baby last year. So he has a one-year-old little girl now, and I watched him kinda go through a similar thing as his girlfriend was pregnant as I went through, and I’ve watched him become an awesome father.
“He was there through the whole thing from beginning to end, and he’s great with his daughter. And I’m proud of him as a young man. I’m proud of him as my friend, and I just remember, God, it was 20-some years ago having this conversation with Willie in the hotel room, and he says, ‘How many kids you got?’”
“How many kids I got? I ain’t got no kids.”
“What you mean, you ain’t got no kids. How old are you?’
“You ain’t got no kids?”
“No, man. I’m 21. I don’t want no damn kids.”
“Oh, s***, man. I had me a couple by then.”
“How many kids you got, Willie?”
“I got 13!”
“Yeah, man. I couldn’t keep that weapon holstered.”
“Well, Jesus Christ, man. How do you do that? How do you have 13 kids and be a musician? How the hell do you do that?”
Willie looked at Moss and gave him this look like, ‘”What kind of question is that? You figure out a way and you do it.”
To Moss it was the most impossible undertaking that anybody could ever do with just one child, but with 13 kids? “I knew that he was a father. I’d been to his house and saw the kids and saw his wife and knew that he was there. It was this statement that literally seized up my mind like someone sticking sand in the gears or something, and there was like smoke coming out of my ears, and it was like ‘What? What? How does that work?’ And then this one line he laid on me. ‘You figure out a way and you do it.’
“It goes back to stuff that my dad would say, ‘Nothing is as hard as you make it to be.’ People make things out to be a lot harder than they are. Well, yeah, man, it’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be difficult. You’re gonna lose some sleep and stuff, but if you wanna make it happen, you can make it happen. You just figure out a f***in’ way and you do it.
“And that was the one thing I took away, man. It was like when my daughter was born, I had all these people going, ‘Well, now you’re gonna be a dad. How you gonna go on the road? How you gonna be a musician? How you gonna feed your family?’ Like, don’t worry about it. I’ll worry about it. I’ll do it. I’ll take care of it.
“And I don’t know, man. My daughter’s gonna be 12 years old next month, and she doesn’t seem to be lacking in anything, and she’s certainly not lacking in love, and we have a great relationship. My wife and I have a great relationship, and I’m sitting in my kitchen right now looking out the back door of my yard. My dog’s running in the back yard. I figured out a way, and I did it.”
Moss counts the rock band Fleetwood Mac as one of his influences, but not the Fleetwood Mac that made their multi-million-dollar Rumours album, but rather the earlier version with Peter Green as lead guitarist. “They did that Live at The Boston Tea Party in 1969, and to me that was like the album where you can hear where their very traditional blues was meeting their more experimental psychedelic kind of phase, and hammier side, and they got songs that are like 20 minutes long on that record, jams that are going on forever. I don’t know, man. It’s a great record for me.
“There’s a certain aggressiveness to blues playing that I’m drawn to. I’ve always been drawn to the guys that are more aggressive stylists. I never got a chance to see Freddie King live, but you watch the videos that are available and you listen to the records, and Buddy Guy, you’re surprised there wasn’t like a pile of sawdust at his feet by the end of the night because the guitar had been shredded.
“People don’t give blues the credit that it’s due. It pisses me off that you have to be 89 years old to get a Grammy for music, but it pisses me off even more that the radio stations don’t give it its due and don’t give it its proper spotlight. If there’ a blues show, it’s generally a one-hour show on once a week.”
Visit Nick’s website at: www.nickmossband.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.