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The Faces of Bluegrass

The Rev. Jeff Mosier dreads playing the role of bandleader. After all, as the banjoist, songwriter, and founder of Blueground Undergrass, Mosier's busy enough doing his own thing. Besides, his bandmates easily carry their own weight; they're quite capable of defining their own musical identity, thank you very much.

"You can't lead a band," Mosier tells New Times. "You can facilitate creativity."

Mosier has abided by this principle throughout his career. He formed Blueground Undergrass in 1998, giving Georgia's jam band and newgrass scenes a good shakeup. The original lineup disbanded in 2002 after cranking out three albums' worth of bluegrass-inflected psychedelic rock. Two years later, Mosier revived the band with original fiddler David Blackmon and new members Matthew Williams (guitar), Francisco Fattoruso (bass), and Matt Crowley (drums). So, with a trio of new faces onboard, the band got to work on a new album called, simply, Faces. But by the time Blueground Undergrass got around to launching its current tour, Fattoruso and Crowley were out, replaced by Steve Abercrombie and Eric Sanders, respectively. Why the turnaround? Well, if you ask Mosier, a band is more about the personalities involved than the sounds they make.

"Good music comes out of who a person really is," Mosier says. "It's not a genre thing. A lot of bands get out there and try to fit into some genre. I expect people not to get us at first, just as they wouldn't get me until they get to know me as a person."

Mosier's not alone in this way of thinking.

"I follow a philosophy I got from Col. Bruce Hampton in the Aquarium Rescue Unit," he says. "I think the stage can become a platform for change, healing, thought, and new ideas."

Taking the colonel's cue, Mosier developed his own concept of how to run a band. And it's not about dictating what should be played but helping his bandmates find their voice. He calls it cooking.

"The cooking in a band, to me, is that vibe that we all bring on stage when everyone senses safety," Mosier says. "If I create an environment of safety for my musicians, I don't approach them with an arrangement and say, 'Here's what I had in mind for the drums.' I never use those terms. If they say, 'What were you thinking on this?' I go, 'I don't know. What were you thinking?' The guitar player goes, 'Do you think this should be on a line?' I go, 'Well, what do you think?' I always throw it back. Some people can't hang with that, so I've had some turnover in personnel. They thought I didn't know what I was doing. What they didn't realize was, I wanted them to know what they were doing."

On Faces, Blueground Undergrass fits squarely into a folk and bluegrass songwriting tradition — but that's just to set the tone for some rock/funk/psych-styled improv. Lyrically, Mosier's quite the storyteller, as evidenced by the title track — a personal tale of how Mosier and his young daughter survived a riptide at Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia.

"We're really a song-driven project," Mosier says. "We really tried to create a CD that has continuity. We're a rock band with bluegrass sensibilities. Our rock guys bring in their things from funk, rock, blues. The drummer and bass player bring in their things. The front line, me and David, we come from experimental bluegrass like Newgrass Revival. They're our Beatles."

Mosier, 47, shares songwriting duties with Williams, a 27-year-old veteran of the Atlanta music scene. With his love of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Drake, and Gram Parsons — as well as pioneering musicians like Bill Monroe and Col. Bruce Hampton — Mosier's roots are planted firmly in experimental folk, country, and bluegrass. Williams, on the other hand, embraces funk and rock with an eye toward Wilco and Phish.

"He really does have the vibe of Blueground Undergrass in his mind and under his belt," Mosier says of Williams. "He doesn't mind that we morph his tunes to fit Blueground Undergrass."

Mosier approaches songwriting with definite themes in mind. His near-death experience in "Faces," for example, gave him an appreciation for the role forgiveness plays in love and death.

"Forgiving yourself and those around you is the only way to keep the rigidity of your mind from causing you to become old. We don't grow old. What happens is when we stop growing, we die." For him, life is about change. One has to comprehend those changes to appreciate life. He is a maverick thinker, rejecting the herd mentality and intellectual conformity in favor of personal cooperation and acceptance. He is, after all, the Reverend Mosier.

"It's about real freedom and real human credibility," he says. "Without getting too political, I try to rant and rave about how group behavior is coming back at a level that is terrifying to me. It has nothing to do with being a Republican, Democrat, Christian, or Jew. It has to do with whatever is driving it."

And as long as Mosier's driving Blueground Undergrass, spiritual enlightenment has a rockin' soundtrack.

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Robert Hicks