Chasing the Dragon with a Big Machete
A Q&A with Nick Moss
By Geoff Gehman
Nick Moss is cooking with all kinds of gas during a simmering-to-boiling version
of “Woman You Must Be Crazy” on a blues cruise. He sings with brawny soul, makes his
guitar sting and sing, and shakes his head in ecstatic wonder. His fingers trigger other
parts, turning his body into an amplifier and a lightning rod.
Moss happily spreads the joy around the stage, practicing band-leading chops he
learned from his mentor, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Muddy Waters’ drummer. He enjoys a
neat guitar solo from his wife Kate, signals for more barrelhouse blues from pianist
Taylor Streiff, and savors blistering blasts from harmonica master Dennis Gruenling, a
’60s hipster with mutton-chop sideburns and a jacket with a big-cat print. Together they
create 18 minutes of crawl, shuffle, jump and stomp that’s delightfully unhurried and
Expect a similarly intimate, expansive show on June 14 at the Mauch Chunk
Opera House. Moss and his mates will play “Woman You Must Be Crazy” and the title
track of “The High Cost of Low Living,” a 2018 release from Alligator Records, a
pivotal label for both Moss and Gruenling, winner of the 2019 Blues Music Award for
harmonica. Expect robust stories and jokes from Moss, whose personality is as big as his
offensive-tackle physique. “This is more fun for me than for you,” the Chicago native
once told spectators after Gruenling brought down the house. “We all have opinions but
mine is bigger because I have a microphone.”
Below, in an email interview from a European tour, Moss discusses a key lesson
from Willie Smith, the elements of a great guitar solo, and the eternal importance of
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned you upside
down and inside out?
A: I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. The earliest songs I remember that really got to
me were “When the Whip Comes Down” the Rolling Stones, “Low Spark of High-
Heeled Boys” Traffic, “Black Dog” Led Zeppelin, “Just Got Paid” ZZ Top, “Never Make
Your Move Too Soon” B.B. King.
Q: What was the first blues tune that stuck in your wheelhouse?
A: “Mannish Boy” Muddy Waters off the “Hard Again” album.
Q: Have you ever rewarded your big brother Joe for taking you from your hospital
bed after kidney surgery, tubes disguised under a big-assed camel’s-hair coat, to a club to
hear Little Charley and the Nightcats–a big part of your introduction to true-blue blues?
A: I’m not sure what you mean by rewarded. But my brother knows exactly how
much it means to me, and how much it meant to me! My brother is the person I’ve
always followed; he is still a better guitar player than me in my opinion! Pretty much
every interview I’ve ever given I’ve mentioned him.
.Q: You learned a whole lot from Willie “Big Eyes” Smith about conducting yourself
onstage and off. When you asked him how to balance a family and a music career, he told you,
straight up: “Just figure out a way and do it.” What was his most valuable lesson to you, one you
like to share with up and comers?
A: The best lesson I learned from WILLIE was to keep on going! WILLIE told
me you have to carry a big machete and hack your way through this world and one day
you’ll see the sunlight through the vines.
Q: You’re a real gregarious guy onstage. You love to tell stories behind stories;
you love to have everyone join the fun. Do you have any role models as front people, as
emcees, as musical tribal leaders?
A: I love the way Rick Estrin [songwriter, singer, harmonica player and leader of
Rick Estrin & the Nightcats] conducts himself on stage. Rick sometimes acts bigger than
life, but for the most part what you see on stage is a lot of what you get off stage. I like to
think that I’m pretty much the same on and off the stage. I’m not one of these guys who
puts on airs and has a different personality just for the stage. I’m glad that you like the
stories! I’ve been told sometimes I talk a little too much. However, I have the goddamn
mic … so there!
Q: You and Dennis Gruenling have known each other for over 20 years and have
been band mates since 2016. Why do you like playing with him? How has he changed
your game—if he’s changed your game?
A: There is not any kind of a reason to not love playing with a musician of his
caliber! He is an absolute genius on the harmonica, A wonderful stage presence who
turns out to be a great friend; our friendship has only gotten stronger since he’s played in
the band for the last three years! I really love the guy. Sometimes we butt heads on the
road, just being in close quarters and spending that much time together, but we have an
understanding that runs deeper than just a minor moody flare-up.
As far as changing out my game, anytime you play with a musician with that
much talent you really have to step up your game! I’ve played with some excellent
musicians over the years, but Dennis is so far ahead of the field on his particular
instrument, I really have to be on my toes!
Q: I’ve been waiting a long time to ask this one: What makes a great guitar solo?
To me it has a beginning, middle and end, tells a story, and takes listeners and players on
a journey that may be very different from the song’s main journey. Can you give me
examples of guitarists whose solos you love to listen to over and over for their craft and
A: Tension and release! Everything you said is true, but you must have emotion
and feeling to have the tension and release. There is no one better than B.B. King, Jimmie
Vaughan, Anson Funderburgh, Otis Rush…. these guys are all masters of telling a story
with emotion and feeling and tension and release! I believe one of the most creative
guitar players of our generation is Junior Watson, and let’s not forget Kid Andersen!
These guys seem to have endless streams of thought and creativity.
Q: Have you made a recent discovery about making music—writing, recording,
singing, playing guitar, interacting with spectators—that’s made it easier and more
A: The older I get the lessons I’ve learned over the years just make more sense.
It’s hard to understand as a young man how to just be content and grateful and thankful,
because you just want it all. Nowadays, if the music’s good and the audience is smiling
and clapping and grooving to what we’re playing–I can’t even explain the feeling it
creates inside of me!
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you seriously considered
abandoning your calling?
A: I’ve never wanted to abandon this. It’s pretty much all I know, and it is my
therapy and without it I’m pretty sure I would be lost. I love my family and I love sharing
time with them when I’m home, but being on the road with my bandmates and playing
music night after night, I couldn’t ask for anything more!
Q: What was your favorite time in the music trade, when you felt—as Frank and
Liza sing—“king of the hill, top of the heap”?
A: There are so many moments throughout the years that I’ve had euphoric-like
episodes while playing! I don’t ever want to be the guy who feels like “this is it–it can’t
get any better.” I’m always chasing the dragon!
Q: So, Nick, what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from
ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.
A: Right now I’m learning how to just say fuck it to the little shit. It’s my biggest
weakness, I sweat the little shit. You can crash my car and burn my house down, and I
will be level headed and clear headed to figure out a solution. However, if you make me
late, or don’t do something that I ask, I’m a fairly difficult person to be around! I’ve been
meditating the last couple years and it’s really helped, I know that when I don’t meditate
the little stuff bothers me a lot more.
Q: And what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from
touring the world to world peace.
A: I would love to play sold-out stadiums! I would love to play in front of
hundreds of thousands of fans! But, honestly, I’m happy playing wherever they’ll have
me. I look forward to a day my wife can accompany me whenever she wants and my
daughter can see the places that I’ve seen all over the world!
Q: Are you still teaching guitar to Kate and have you been giving any musical
pointers to your daughter Sadie Mae?
A: First things first, Kate already knew how to play when I met her. I’ve shown
her a few things, but to be honest Kate can pick up things that I struggle with. There have
been times when I’ve been trying to learn something and she’s just walked by me while I
was practicing and tells me “You’re not playing that right”!
My daughter Sadie has an incredibly gifted ear also. She has taught herself how to
play the ukulele, and teaches herself piano. And last year she picked up a guitar and
plunked out chords on her own! I’ve told her that if she ever needs anything from me she
can ask, but she’s doing just fine on her own!
Nick Moss: The Scoop
His football and wrestling career ended at age 18 when he underwent surgery for
a genetic kidney disease. His big brother Joe helped his emotional recovery by moving
him from a hospital room to a blues club starring Little Charley and the Nightcats, which
was signed to Alligator Records, Moss’ future label.
He played in the Legendary Blues Band with drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith,
pianist Pinetop Perkins and harpist Kim Wilson, now the singing leader of the Fabulous
In 1998 he launched Blue Bella Records with his wife Kate, a graphic designer
who was Buddy Guy’s house photographer. The label is named for Moss’ former favorite
car, a 1970 Lincoln Mark III.
His latest album, “The High Cost of Low Living,” includes a tribute to
Barrelhouse Chuck, who invited a teen-aged Moss to play with his band even though the
young man was a bass novice. After a subpar performance, Moss went to Chuck’s home,
where he listened to classic blues records for six hours, after which he received a cassette
of the songs to study.
He’s shared the Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea cruise with Joe Bonamassa.
He likes to joke about harmonica player Dennis Gruenling’s big-cat-print jackets.
One time he suggested the jacket fur came from a civet, a cat-like mammal whose
excreted coffee cherries are processed into a ridiculously expensive caffeinated beverage.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He
shares Nick Moss’ fondness for Muddy Waters and Jimmie Vaughan. He can be reached