The Ubiquitous Jonell Mosser
Veteran Nashville artist Jonell Mosser is still singing with passion, pipes, and personality - and loving this town
Jonell Mosser learned one of the most important lessons of her life at a writer’s night at the Bluebird Cafe in the late 1980s.
”I had written only one song at that point, ‘Mama’s Dream,’ Mosser says. ”I was singing with Karen Staley and Lee Satterfield and both had written hits. Mine was last and there was a guy in the front row with a big cigar in his mouth. The first line of the song was, ‘I never got along too well with Mama,’ and the cigar chomper said, ‘You can’t say you didn’t get along with your mama. That’s like saying you don’t like apple pie!’
Mosser’s eyes shine with fire as she continues her story. ”I thought, ‘Screw these people! Why am I opening my heart to them?’ I was singing the song through gritted teeth. At the end I put my guitar in the case and thought, ‘I’m leaving! I’m never going to do this song again!’ On my way out I ran into this very tall man. He had tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘Did you write that song about your mother?’ ”I said, ‘Yes I did!’ still furious about what had happened. And he said, ‘That’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life.”’
A big, infectious smile fills Mosser’s face. ”I thought, ‘I’m singing this song every night of my life, and I don’t care what any of these people think!’ That’s how one person’s encouragement can destroy the criticism of a mob. I’ve had to learn that lesson a few times. You cannot live and die by other people’s opinions because you will be living and dying 50 times a day.”
Since arriving in Nashville over 30 years ago, Mosser has built a reputation as a solo artist, backup singer, session vocalist, and more. Loaded with passion, pipes, and personality, she’s a singer who has never quite grabbed the brass ring, but creates gold every time she performs. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Mosser’s chosen profession called to her at an early age, but for many years she faced a seemingly unsurmountable obstacle.
”I knew I wanted to be a performer, but I had debilitating stage fright,” she says. ”I thought I wanted to be in theater because somehow that seemed easier than singing.”
That decision led to her majoring in theater at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green in the late 1970s. She struggled with acting classes and auditions for two years until she decided to drop out and jump into the deep end of the performance pool as a singer.
”Being in Bowling Green and just having to do it made the difference,” Mosser says. ”I got mad over being scared, and my anger became a bigger motivator than my fear.”
Performing with a variety of local groups and cover bands, Mosser quickly became a stylistic chameleon, imprinting her personality on every performance. Mosser’s career found a new path when she began dating (and eventually married) New Grass Revival bassist and vocalist John Cowan, who was living in Bowling Green in the early 1980s.
”Meeting John really changed me as a singer,” Mosser says. ”Listening to New Grass Revival and how they interwove things vocally was an education, and John had a very natural way of singing and opening up.”
In 1985, Mosser and Cowan relocated to Nashville. While Cowan expanded his career as a singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter beyond New Grass Revival, Mosser began a process of discovering herself as an artist.
”I had no plans about what I wanted to do when I moved to Nashville,” she says. ”I was in love, happy, and just wanted to sing. Both John and my good friend Sharon Eaves were telling me, ‘OK honey, now you have to find songs of your own. People don’t need to think of you as a lounge singer.’ I didn’t believe I could write songs, because I would look at people I knew – Harlan Howard, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine – as writers, not me.”
After writing her first song, Mosser’s chance encounter with a simpatico audience member at the Bluebird proved particularly fortuitous. The very tall man was singer-songwriter (and eventual U.S. Congressman) John Hall, who, as a member of the pop group Orleans, captured a huge swath of ’70s pop-radio real estate with the hits ”Dance with Me” and ”Still the One.” Mosser became fast friends with Hall and his wife and co-writer, Johanna, and they became her songwriting mentors. At the same time, Mosser’s desire to sing made her the hardest-working singer in the Music City.
”I started meeting more people and putting a band together,” she says. ”I was trying to learn about recording and became a demo singer, and I grabbed every opportunity to sing I could. I became the ‘benefit queen.’ I was on almost every bill and every show. [The late Nashville journalist] Jim Ridley referred to me one time as the ‘ubiquitous Jonell Mosser’ and I guess I was. People started telling me I played too much, but I said. ‘Why? People are still coming. The place is packed every time.’ They’d say I needed to be more exclusive, but that would be manufactured, not real. The whole thing about me is: This is real.”
Despite her refusal to play by the standard industry playbook, Mosser zoomed to the top of Nashville’s ”Next Big Thing” list. The one-two punch of her marriage to John Cowan ending in late 1988, and the death of her mother in early 1989, were challenging but temporary setbacks, as she continued impressing audiences and acquiring well-connected supporters.
”Harlan Howard was such a good friend he brought everybody to hear me,” Mosser says. ”He always called me, ‘Juve-nell.’ Don Was saw me sing ‘Dark End of the Street’ at the Bluebird with Mike Henderson and hired me for a session. That led to The New Maroons.”
Formed in 1993, The New Maroons was star producer Don Was’ personal ”supergroup,” featuring Mosser on vocals, Was on bass, Mark Goldenberg on guitar, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench on keyboards, and Ringo Starr on drums (yep, that Ringo). After making their debut at the 1993 Farm Aid benefit concert, an album was planned with Merle Haggard as a second guitarist, but the project fell apart as various members pursued other projects. As an alternative, Was signed Mosser to his newly formed personal label, Karambolage Records, and recorded her planned debut solo album in November 1994.
”We finished the album right before Thanksgiving and [the distributor] MCA said to hold on, and they would bring it out after the holidays,” Mosser says. ”First of the year, there was a complete changeover of staff at MCA, and I was persona non grata, so the record never came out.”
It would be 1996 before Mosser finally released her debut solo album: Around Townes, a tribute album to her close friend, legendary but troubled songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
”My management at the time said my debut record can’t be a Townes Van Zandt cover album, and I said, ‘Yes it can,”’ Mosser says. ”Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest career move, but I’m so glad I stood my ground because he died the next year.”
The ability to accept the negative and embrace the positive has been woven through dead-end projects and four independently released, critically acclaimed solo albums (featuring her own songs), as well as the mega- wattage Nashville vocal group Kentucky Thunder, where Mosser shares the spotlight with three fellow Bluegrass State expatriates: Etta Britt, Vickie Carrico, and Sheila Lawrence. It’s the same thread that runs through Mosser’s forthright acknowledgement of subsequent failed marriages that produced and molded her two beloved sons, Matthew and Kenan, and other discussions of life’s ups and downs.
Mosser’s chance at big-time superstardom never arrived, but as she sits in the East Side Bongo Java on a warm summer’s morning, 31 years after she learned a lesson about not living and dying by the opinions of others, it’s evident her life is a major Nashville success story. She may lack ”name recognition” to the public at large, but there’s a frequent parade of friends who spot her across a crowded coffee shop and stop by to say hello, each one receiving a big smile and a hug. And as she runs down her schedule for a typical week of live appearances, rehearsal jobs, and session work, it’s clear that Jonell Mosser never had time to become a ”star” because she was too busy singing her heart out.
”I sometimes feel I dodged a bullet by never becoming a star,” Mosser says. ”There have been a few times where circumstances have tried to steal my joy. Times when I’d say, ‘Why them and not me?’ I don’t do that anymore, and I regret those moments of pettiness. I always wanted to be like Harlan Howard was when I met him – tooling around town, singing when I want to, hearing new musicians, and loving this town. I might not be the most famous person in the world, but I’ve gotten to do everything that I wanted to do, and I’m still doing it.”