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Digging them roots
A candid conversation with reformed jam bandist Jeff Mosier
"People imagined that we'd draw hippies to their festival, and people would be smoking pot and selling drugs, and eatin' burritos and spinnin' around," reflects Jeff Mosier, left. "And that wasn't true."

Jeff Mosier has had it up to here with hippies.

As the founder and longtime driving force behind Blueground Undergrass, Mosier has played more than a few jam band festivals around the world. He’s worked with some of the best, and collaborated with everyone from Phish to Widespread Panic to Leftover Salmon.

He was a charter member of Georgia’s own progressive rock/jazz band the Aquarium Rescue Unit.

It all began with a bright idea. In the wake of such innovative envelope–pushers as Hot Rize and New Grass Revival, Mosier – an accomplished banjo player, singer and songwriter – built Blueground Undergrass as a hybrid of bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll (“psychedelic hick–hop”), and watched the band become a major draw amongst the ‘shroomers and the potheads.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Mosier, eventually, wanted more.

He’s re–tooled his band into the Mosier Brothers – a more acoustically pure, song–driven unit. Brother Johnny Mosier is in the “new” band, on guitar and vocals, as is pedigreed fiddler David Blackmon (both were part of Blueground Undergrass). Drummer Jack Watson and standup bassist Kris Dale round things out on the just–released album The Mosier Brothers.

Saturday’s Live Wire Music Hall show is the band’s CD release party.

The Atlanta–bred brothers had a strictly traditional bluegrass group, Good Medicine, for 23 years, and hosted a long–running radio show called Born in a Barn.

Everything changed when Jeff met Col. Bruce Hampton in 1989, and threw his banjo lot in with the hard–jamming Aquarium Rescue Unit.

The circle, while unbroken, has taken a wild ride on its way to here and now.

So why the change?

Jeff Mosier: The genre that we were in, and had been in for a long time, is a tribute genre. Jam band music is a tribute to the Grateful Dead, whose leader died in ’96. And though that’s a huge part of what we’ve come up through, the other side of us is bluegrass. We’re grassically–trained. It’s kind of a back to our roots, but also not letting go of the improvisational aspects.

As far as the music goes, the biggest difference is that it’s more song–driven. So we’re not doing three–part songs with a jam in the middle, and somebody gets to take a ride for three minutes. It’s really focused: Here’s a song, three minutes, in and out. With a bluegrass sound – not necessarily progressive bluegrass, but really kind of alternative rock and bluegrass mixed.

It’s been exciting for me to write for, because I’ve always had to write for the booty aspect of the music, trying to keep people dancing and moving.

How does this change your live show?

Jeff Mosier: I’d say the biggest difference is that we actually present the music now, and we’re more compatible and more accepted in theaters and sit–down listening rooms than we ever have been. We were kind of shut out of that world for along time. Because people imagined that we’d draw hippies to their festival, and people would be smoking pot and selling drugs, and eatin’ burritos and spinnin’ around. And that wasn’t true, but we were associated with Leftover Salmon, and String Cheese ... and it’s really nice, at 52, to play these tunes, grappling with language, and lyric ... you know, real songs.

Did you get frustrated with the limitations of the jam band thing?

Jeff Mosier: I saw the writing on the wall when Coachella and all these festivals came up with jamtronica. There’s nothing wrong with it – I know people can make real music on computers. I just was born in ’59, not ’89.

I get that, but now I think it’s about the light show, bring your own Ecstasy and we’ll keep a beat going, you can spin around. And that’s not anything I’ve ever wanted to do.  To me, that’s rave.

Do you realize, you sound like an old geezer saying that?

Jeff Mosier: I’ve been told that, but I think people know that what we did, back when we did it, was insane and cutting edge. But I’m an old geezer with a brain. I’m seeing the Avett Brothers and people like that come up, and I’m seeing the folk scare of the ‘60s relived through simplicity and minimalist presentation. The Grammys were full of banjos. And this week, Alison Krauss’ album and songs are right at No. 3, up there with Adele.

So it’s hilarious, but bluegrass, from a market share and money thing, has probably got a bigger audience than it’s ever had before.

But that’s not what drives you, is it?

Jeff Mosier: No, I’m not saying that from a marketing point of view. I’m saying that I really want to entertain another group of young people that are finally waking up to appreciating the guitar, the banjo and the fiddle. All of a sudden we’re seeing all these 20–year–olds in the crowd, and they’ve come through the Avett Brothers and Old Crow, and not through the hippie world.

Before, see, everything that Blueground did came from Phish, Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce, they came through my resume. Now, as we go through the “who the fuck’s the Mosier Brothers?” stage, we’re picking up a whole different kind of fan.

And it’s exciting, because they remember the words and sing along. I’ve never had that! I’ve always had tapers that collect 30 versions of one tune. Which is great, too, but it’s kind of neat to see people singing along to the tunes. It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something as a songwriter.

You came from a pretty straightforward, acoustic music background. With the jam thing, did you think “I’ve taken this as far as I can”? Was it literally a desire to re–discover your roots?

Jeff Mosier: Here’s how I’ll answer that. I did a stint in Alaska recently with Peter Rowan and his Free Mexican Airforce. He likes the Mosier Brothers because we do loud, we do soft, we do traditional and we do improvisational. Which, as you know, he has done his entire career.

I’ve watched him now go back to his roots – he’s doing the around–one–mic thing, he just got a Grammy nomination for his album – and I guess you have to keep trying to do all that you’re good at. And sometimes you get trapped inside a project that’s one color of what you do. I’m a language guy, I write a lot, I’m from theater and I did radio for 14 years. I’m fascinated by packaging ideas in different ways, re–framing things.

And this particular version of what we’re doing now allows me to use my name, use who I am as a person – not the Blueground Undergrass guy, I get to be Jeff Mosier – and it’s been nice to get back to communicating about my art in venues where I started. And I love that.

It’s not a kiss–off to your illustrious past, is it?

Jeff Mosier: I also love that I worked with Phish and Widespread, and that I was part of the original jam band world. I’m very grateful for all of that, but at this point in my life I’m more excited about subtlety. And more about communicating.

I’m still here, and I’m still the same guy. I just feel like it’s not quite as forced now. Because what we did, we were doing it when people really got it. They’d never seen a banjo and a drummer onstage together, except in Leftover Salmon.

And now you’ve got Railroad Earth and all these wonderful bands doing what we do. I got tired of not changing and tired of feeling like I was writing for the same exact canvas all the time.

The Mosier Brothers

Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.

When: At 9 p.m. Saturday, May 7

Tickets: $12 advance, $15 day of show