It was 9:14 p.m. when I got a text message from Jeff Mosier. He was sending me his email address because he wanted me to send him pictures of my broken banjo. I made a half-hearted effort to learn to play a few years back before the tuning knob on the G string gave out, and I mentioned it to him in passing during a long conversation about life, the therapeutic power of music, and the simple joy of plucking a few strings.
He wanted me to send him pictures because he wanted to fix my banjo for me the next time he was in town.
This is the kind of guy Jeff Mosier is, and the kind of music-makes-friends-out-of-strangers philosophy The Mosier Brothers carry into every set.
For example, on his most recent trip to Palmetto Bluff, Jeff wound up bonding with, of all people, fashion designer Billy Reid over their shared love of music.
“Billy was on the bus with us on the way down to Music To Your Mouth, and he got on the guitar and started playing. He was competent enough on it,” said Mosier. “I picked up the banjo, and we just started playing.”
He continued, “I’m just fascinated by the craft of music as therapeutic modality and a way for culture to bring itself up and civilize itself. Ultimately it helps us deal with the heaviness of having a neocortex that can do the math on its own demise.”
As mentioned, this was a long conversation that went down a lot of fascinating roads.
The long trip the brothers have taken to become zen bluegrass masters begins with a childhood in Tennessee and a family lineage that blended banjo, guitar, and harmony into the sweet science that is bluegrass music.
“We blame our grandmother for downloading the virus into our brains. She played bluegrass into her 70s,” said Mosier. The virus spread as the two boys gained local notoriety for their music. “The church really helped us with our first gigs. We were the only guys who could play bluegrass in the church.”
The dual bonds of brotherhood and bluegrass led the Mosier brothers to form Good Medicine in 1975. A traditional bluegrass band playing traditional bluegrass music, Good Medicine sustained the brothers for 23 years and led to launching their own bluegrass radio show on Atlanta’s WRFG, “Born in a Barn,” which ran for 14 years. It was a traditional bluegrass existence. Then along came Col. Bruce Hampton.
If you don’t immediately know the name, don’t worry. He might be an obscure footnote in the grand scheme of mainstream music, but suffice it to say that Hampton pioneered a lot of very weird music at a time when weird music was just being recognized. Tours with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers helped propel him to a curious type of fame where musicians can drop his name and know they’re in good company if the reference is received.
Coming off the breakup of eclectic blues rock footnotes from the Hampton Grease Band, Col. Bruce had formed a new outfit called the Aquarium Rescue Unit and had recruited Jeff to be the band’s resident picker. As you can probably guess from the bands’ names, these were not traditional bluegrass bands. The effect on the Mosier brothers’ music was immediate.
“I became more of an experimental rock banjo player,” Mosier said.
In 1998, the brothers left Good Medicine behind, and indeed the traditional bluegrass scene itself, to form Blueground Undergrass, a sort of freeform experimental take on the old trappings of bluegrass, borrowing more heavily from the influences of the Grateful Dead than from Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.
“That band was created on the heels of my touring with Phish and The Allman Brothers Band,” said Mosier. “That was the beginning of the jam band era, although we didn’t use that word at that time.”
While the band strove to create its own sound rather than cover the old jam band guard, it’s worth noting that their cover of the Dead’s “Black Muddy River” will bring a tear to your eye.
Blueground Undergrass toured for 12 years, sharing the stage with acts like Phish and Widespread Panic and redefining how a bluegrass band could look, sound, and play. It’s a unique take on the genre, taking the driving sound of bluegrass — what Mosier calls the “boom-chick-boom-chick that brought the backbone of rock ’n’ roll” — and filtering it through the cloudy waters of what defines a jam band.
Ultimately, though, the brothers decided that the same two guys who had come into this strange world of music, playing bluegrass for their church, should be the two guys who carried their music forward.
“In 2010, Johnny and I wanted to get back to just me and him and whoever we wanted to hire and not have to deal with band democracy,” said Mosier. “We were old enough that we just said, ‘Let’s do our own thing.’”
The result was The Mosier Brothers, a band that doesn’t stray as far from the old bluegrass sound as Blueground Undergrass, but still takes the sound in fresh new directions.
And, it lets two brothers do what brothers do best: give each other a hard time.
“He keeps me reined in; I’ve pulled him out,” said Mosier. “I do the talking when we’re on stage, and he’ll just jump in here and there, drop bombs, and they’re perfect. Right in the middle of my sentences. And it’s funny.”
Four years different in age and the contrasting pull of the zodiac — Jeff is a Capricorn; Johnny is an Aquarius — give the brothers a peppery dynamic on stage that is matched by their mastery of the art form of bluegrass. It’s a little more back-in-the-bluegrass-fold than their previous outings, but it’s brought the brothers to a place where they’re comfortable.
“I love playing to a house of about 50 people,” said Mosier. “They’re smart; they actually listen. … People cry; people listen like never before. … Maybe it’s a sign that I’m 55. And I love starting at 8 p.m. so people can come out and hear something and still get 7-8 hours of sleep.”
Plus, it gives him plenty of time to send late-night texts to near-strangers offering to fix their banjos.