Sermons of Suwannee: Jeff Mosier on the Healing Power of Music March 19, 2019 16:03
Interview by Brett Hutchins: Brett on Bands
It shouldn’t surprise you that a man nicknamed “Reverend” has a lot to say. Rev. Jeff Mosier, the longtime right hand man of spiritual jam forefather, Col. Bruce Hampton, is a jamgrass pioneer in his own right. But more important than that is his uniquely purposeful approach to live music. Here, he speaks with Live & Listen about the brain of the improviser, the magic of the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, and how the lessons of music align with everyday life. Mosier’s words are like his playing. They weave and wander, but in the end, they hits home in an intentional, powerful way.
Let’s jump right in with this ensemble you’re so excited about. What’s the format?
Jeff: It’s banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bass, drums, and electric guitar. The music is very open. We do a lot of improvising and we write. The magic is in the way we present it, almost like chamber music. We sit in the round where we can see each other. We do normal songs too, but it’s the way we play them that makes it different. It’s the best thing I’ve done and I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to do a live album.
I’d bet you prefer playing with groups versus solo.
Jeff: As I’ve gotten older, I’m doing both. I have a solo set planned for Suwanee this weekend. It forces me to use my brain and language more when I’m by myself to do some storytelling mixed with music. When I’m in an ensemble, I use the improvisational Grateful Dead-affected, Col. Bruce nutcase run through the woods naked brain. That’s the brain of a child. The brain of imagination. It’s where all the things he taught me reside - that a band is people yielding their ears one to another in the hopes of becoming bigger than the sum total of their parts.
You can rehearse something and pull it off or you can get up there and make the donuts, take chances, risk, and do it in front of a live audience. I prefer that. I like having some structure, but improv is what really moves me these days. Now I’m playing with musicians who are all comfortable with improv. I don’t get scared looks on the stage anymore. Anyone I play with knows that anything might happen at any given moment. And nobody ever looks surprised.
Is that part of the brain something that needs to be developed or does everyone have an inkling of it from the get-go?
Jeff: It’s more of a philosophy that you apply to your ears. Improvising is not something you can learn. It is feel and how you respond to your environment. That’s how I define it. Feel is how you relate to The One or The Beat. It’s what you leave out. It’s what you put in. As has been said many times - John Hartford said it and many others - style is based on limitations. It’s what you can’t do that defines you, not what you can do. A lot of people who fill up their bucket with skills are people who think they have more to offer than they do. Sometimes, having less to offer affords people opportunities, meaning that musicians who are really good at what they do and don’t reach beyond that are better to play with because they are comfortable with who they are.
From a spiritual point of view, it’s your philosophy that makes you a good improviser, not your skill set. If you love the concept of improvising, then it lets you get to the point where, as Bruce used to say, you let The Invisible Whip take over. You’re getting to the point where you aren’t playing music, the music is playing you. That’s what I learned when I was in the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Even though I was in a band that could play circles around me, I was an equal with them as far as how open I was. It changed my life at 30 years old. I’ve never been able to go back to formulary music.
It sounds like a lot of those lessons you’ve learned through music, via Col Bruce or otherwise, translate to the real world and everyday life as well.
Jeff: They really do. If you keep your expectations low in life and you raise your tolerance for frustration, that space in the middle is mental health. A lot of times, if you raise your expectations too high in music, you miss the point. You want to bring too much to the table. You want to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it’s the simplest of notions that will hit a listener right between the eyes, bring a tear to the eyes, chill bumps to their arms, make them move, dance, think, emote, and realize something. I play music as a spiritual activity. I know it’s entertainment, too, but in my mind, I am playing it as a healing point in the universe. That’s what Albert Ayler called it.
Right now more than ever, people need that healing aspect, they need it live, and they need it together in a crowd. Festivals are serving a need that we never imagined we’d need. The elephant in the room I don’t even have to mention, but we do need that community. Music is color blind and culture-blind. And is a beautiful reminder of what makes us human.
Circling back to that communal experience you were talking about. I know you have a theology background. What similarities do you see between the experience of church and that of live music?
Jeff: Live music creates community very much like the church does. A lot of people that come into music or are at Suwannee are also involved with church. I had to step out of that mold because I was overloaded. I saw the first Moral Majority meeting in Atlanta. I was involved in the hardcore Christian Right growing up.
When I got into music, it became my new family. I could believe, cry, feel, think, have friends, have ritual, have all the things church provided me, in and around performing and listening to music. We had something in common and the music became the belief system. My biggest belief is that art equals life. No matter what you have to do as a parent, a spouse, a worker, your life is in some way, a creative activity, Hopefully, we are all working to leave a legacy of something that will survive in perpetuity after you’re gone.
We’re really good at making something out of nothing. We can do it. Sadly, we’re really good at bad ideas as well. We’ve yet to achieve viability as a species. We are only viable to ourselves right now. We’re not doing a good job being viable to the system that spawned us. Music can do that.
We can do it without being political and playing green songs and all that stuff. We prove ourselves simply by being out there under those trees together, dancing, joking around the fire, hearing the music and seeing our friends. We sleep. We watch the days go by. We see the weather. We’re in the weather. All that stuff reminds us that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. The more apart from nature we become, the more miserable we are. That’s why we focus on money and government. We’ve lost our way.
Music holds our hand and brings us back to our senses. That’s why I still do it. For myself, my family, and all the people that enjoy what I do.
Great stuff, Jeff. Anything else you’d like to add?
Jeff: Live Oak is the balm. It heals me from missing Bruce, missing Vassar. It gives me a chance at 60 to keep it going as long as I can. So far, so good. That’s all you can do - keep writing, creating, doing interviews with folks like you and you doing your writing, that’s what life is - keeping the ball rolling.
That’s one of the things I love about these Suwannee roots festivals - you can feel the musical history floating through the air and you have people full of intention, both onstage and out in the crowd that are there with respect for the past but also there for the now.
Jeff: It’s a special place and it made a huge difference in my kids’ lives. They’re in their 20s, but they started going when they were babies. It taught them everything they needed to know without us having to teach them. It taught them how to be. They decided to be people like the people of Suwannee. And now they’re good people. My little boy used to say, “Why can’t the world be like Suwannee?!”. That’s really it. Why not? I think it can.
I go there every year in hopes of keeping that going, though it seems like the world’s gone down and that the message has lost its meaning. It’s easy to go there, but I can’t. Gratitude is the attitude.I keep my chin up and post more about the things I believe in and less about the things I don’t.
The Jeff Mosier Ensemble is scheduled to perform at Suwannee Spring Reunion Festival in Live Oak, FL this weekend. This group features Mosier, Mark Nelson (bass), Leah Calvert (fiddle), Adam Goodhue (drums), Neal Fountain (electric guitar), and Michael David Smith (mandolin).
Photo by Andy Estes