The Reverend Leads a Revival: An interview with Jeff Mosier and Bob Stagner
For some folks musical success is fleeting and precious. The proverbial fifteen minutes of fame often translates into fifteen weeks on the Billboard charts or maybe fifteen months of good radio play and record sales. In these cases, success is a goal in and of itself, more often than not driven by performers who view fame as a specific end to which they can justify any means at their disposal, not a by-product of a musical pilgrimage. True musicians and artists, however, find that success is of a more personal nature and more intrinsic to the journey, not the goal. The “Reverend” Jeff Mosier has been fortunate to enjoy personal success in many of his endeavors, both within the musical realm and beyond. His contributions have been both as a leader and supporter of others. Ever the philosopher, Mosier has drawn inspiration from the great players before as well as beside him. In turn, he has found many outlets to express his joy for entertainment, both as a musician, an actor, and a playwright. He has been given the opportunity to teach and influence others, and now with his latest project Blueground Undergrass, he as taken the reins again to drive a new vehicle in the robust improvisational bluegrass scene.
Mosier’s roots can be traced back into the hills of eastern Tennessee, so it should come as no surprise that his main instrument of choice is the banjo. Blueground Undergrass’ sound is self-described as “psychedelic hick-hop bluegrass” which can be quite a mouthful. It’s hard to imagine how someone can fit all of these influences into one band, but every night BGUG takes the stage, the sounds of steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar and bass all mesh neatly around Mosier’s fluid banjo picking. Many things have changed in Jeff’s life since he first put together his first band with his brother Johnny some 23 years ago. He has made many sacrifices to put all of his energy into the partnership with Mark Van Allen, Mark Byum, Edward Hunter, and the newest member of BGUG, Bob Stagner. In the one short year since their inception, BGUG has already seen two members depart for other pursuits, yet the band’s popularity continues to grow.
I had the opportunity to chat with Jeff and Bob shortly before they played an opening spot for the Allman Brothers Band in Atlanta, on September 4th. Bob hails from Chattanooga, Tennessee and has been an active participant in the improvisational world music scene for quite some time through his association with the Shaking Ray Levi Society. His influences range from Mickey Hart to Olatunji and beyond. His wide-open style has really helped BGUG broaden the scope of their sound. Excerpts from the interview follow.
C: Are you an ordained reverend?
J: I’m not an ordained reverend, but my degree is in theology. I went to school and I have a four-year degree in theology and counseling. When Bruce Hampton found that out, he named me “The Reverend Mosier from the hills of Tennessee.” That’s my true Zambi name. When I did the Phish thing and had the bluegrass coach job, they put me in the Phishing Manual and a few other books as “The Reverend,” so a lot of kids don’t even know I’m Jeff Mosier. I just sort of went with it even though I’m not really happy to be associated with a lot of reverends. I am happy because it came from Bruce! Bruce is my biggest influence.
B: You’re a new kind of reverend. (laughs)
C: Did you grow up in a particularly religious family?
J: I did, I really did. My parents were wonderful and unlike a lot of people they really lived the Christian life and made a huge difference in my life. I don’t use my career to do Christian music but I would say that what I do is certainly not incongruent with the message. I don’t say it much in interviews, but I believe that Christ along with a lot of other leaders, but mostly Christ, represents the ultimate healthy human being. It’s just unfortunate that most of his followers don’t do anything he says!
B: You are playing spiritual music.
J: Well, I am. There’s a difference between religious and spiritual or Christian and spiritual. I think that mine’s not about trying to convince anybody to be like me when they grow up. It’s trying to just help them have a better quality of life. By doing songs that I think have some kind of message that’s bigger than “I broke up with my girlfriend,” or “Boy that was a good hit of acid” or whatever people write about. I think it’s a little bit bigger than that.
C: What was the first instrument you learned to play?
B: I played guitar when I was ten and I was really frustrated because I had these stubby little fingers that couldn’t stretch across the neck, but I had my right hand going like a fiend. My sister was dating a drummer and I thought he was pretty cool. He said “you need to be playing drums.” I said “man, anybody can play drums, I want to play guitar.” One of my heroes was Chet Atkins. I’d go to see Chet Atkins every time he’d come to Chattanooga. For some reason I started de-tuning the strings on my guitar and bouncing things off of it, so I was an early hammer dulcimer player and without even knowing it! Then going into the eighth grade some band director realized that I could bounce sticks and hitting things was going to keep me out of jail. And it has, knock on wood!
C: How about you Jeff. Were you playing the banjo growing up exclusively?
J: No, I was really into music and drama in high school and then my senior year, which was 1977, probably before you were born (laughs), a friend brought a banjo over. Of course, I had heard banjo growing up in Tennessee. I grew up in Bristol. He brought it over and sat it in my lap and said, “here’s my banjo.” I thought it was the weird and heavy and loud and nobody played one. I had never seen one up close. When I had seen them on TV with Buck Trent or Earl Scruggs it looked like their fingers were moving one speed and what was coming out looked like it was another speed. It was the weirdest, coolest thing. Being a weird person, of course I gravitated toward it and became obsessed with it. I went out and bought a banjo the next day for $100. Two weeks after that I bought a $1000 banjo, which in 1978 was a really expensive banjo. It was called a Fender Artist. It had been played at Jimmy Carter’s presidential inauguration one time before I bought it. My dad thought I had lost my mind. He said “What are you doin’?!” Now he realizes that I was serious back then.
I’ve never played anything else but Dobro. The Dobro is picked very similar to banjo but on the left hand you use a slide. The politically correct term for Dobro is recephonic guitar. Dobro is actually a brand name.
B: Kind of like National