Behind the Music (City)

As anyone who has ever lived there knows, Nashville is two places. There is the Nashville that the world knows and -- well, perhaps "loves" is a bit strong, but is certainly well acquainted with -- the Music City, USA, the place of sealed-for-your-protection country and antiseptic tourist traps. Then there is the other, more real Nashville, the one that, for lack of a better term, rocks. This is the Nashville of lean and hungry musicians, of whiskey-soaked after-hours parties, impromptu jams that extend into next week. This is the Nashville of Elliston Place, the Douglas Corner Cafe and the Bluebird, venues where some of world's finest session players, set free from another day's toil in the studio "polishing turds" (as they call it), go sit in somewhere and play for love instead of lucre. The world is all too aware of Music City's hit-factory megastars, but not too keen on its rock-and-soul singers like Jonell Mosser who reside inside the scene.

Part of the problem lies in pinning down the redheaded fireball. Even though she has recorded an entire album of Townes Van Zandt songs, she's not country -- alt or otherwise -- nor is she a folkie. She's a little too rock and roll for pure soul and much too soulful for mere rock and roll. Like someone whose talents transcend genre, Mosser, with her conventional songbird voice, befuddles narrow-minded record execs.

At her quarter-horse farm just west of town, Mosser punches children's videos into VCRs and makes arrangements to treat a sick steed. "Watch out," she warns, probably to keep a listener on his toes. "Maura O'Connell's husband said that her and I are both 'wont to sing unbidden.' " The word "effervescent" is often used to describe Mosser, and it is apt both onstage and off. Indeed she is, delivering several extemporaneous performances during our phone conversation. Not everybody can have A-list producer Don Was's favorite singer crooning to him and him alone -- even if only over a telephone.

Mosser's career has been dogged by maddening fits and starts ever since she first arrived in Nashville in the mid-1980s. She seemed on a fast track to fame when Was pegged her as the vocalist for the New Maroons supergroup featuring Ringo Starr, Benmont Tench and Mark Goldenberg. After an appearance at Farm Aid, the band parted ways. In 1990 Was also produced an album, which was completed just in time for its label to implode.

The title of Mosser's latest album, So Like Joy, seems ripe with poetry. "Joy was my mother's name," she says. "She died 11 years ago. Just before she went, I was visiting her. And one day I put on this old sweater, and one of my relatives said, 'Oh, you look so like Joy.' " The album cover reveals as much, and the title track revisits that time a decade ago when Mosser had to say a long good-bye to her cancer-stricken mom.

Over the past ten years Mosser has collaborated with the husband-and-wife songwriting team of John and Johanna Hall (Janis Joplin's "Half Moon," Orleans's "Still the One" and "Dance with Me"). All of the songs on So Like Joy are the products of this musical ménage à trois. "It's been really great for all of us," she says with a laugh. "Whenever they would get stuck, I would just rattle off some rhymes or tell one of my terrible jokes, which I collect religiously. John introduced me to Johanna, and at first she was nervous about the whole thing, but it ended up, if anything, with me being as close a friend to her as to him, maybe even closer."

Mosser is, as she says, "living proof that you can survive as a soul singer in a country music town," though "survive" is a bit of an understatement. Mosser seldom draws anything less than a full house, and she has sung in the studio with everyone from Etta James and B.B. King to Joan Baez and Patty Smyth. She is also, as far as she knows, the "only white girl to open for Bobby Bland and live." "In fact," she says, "by the end of that show, I had 'em hands in the air, testifyin', shoutin' out, 'Sing it, sister.' "

Yet only one collaboration still haunts Mosser. That was with Van Zandt, under whose spell she fell at 19 when she saw him perform at the Pickin' Parlor in Bowling Green, Kentucky. In 1996 Van Zandt commissioned Mosser to record some demos of his songs with an eye toward pitching them to Wynonna and Bonnie Raitt. The demos became a legendary Nashville bootleg, later evolving into Mosser's debut, Around Townes. While Bland passed on collaborating, Delbert McClinton lent his voice to the duet "If I Needed You." Nowhere on earth is there a collection of Van Zandt material so finely sung as these 13 tunes. Still, Mosser has had to defend herself from some in Nashville who have questioned her hard-driving treatment of the Van Zandt oeuvre. "I'm a singer," she has said. "This is what I do. I don't have to make any explanations. I don't have to say why I'm doing a rock album in a country town. I sing. He writes. It lives."

While the transient Nashville of starry-eyed tourists and curious conventioneers plies the well-worn way of Second Avenue, Music Row and around Opryland, Mosser is usually hanging out at the local joints. This is where her fame resides. Why it remains "local" is a mystery. When Al Kooper says someone is the queen of live music, people should probably check her out. When a songwriter like Harlan Howard ("Busted," "I Fall to Pieces") compares someone's charisma to Elvis Presley circa 1957, people should probably beat a path to her shows. And when Was calls someone one of the greatest singers in the world, and when that someone lives in one of America's recording industry capitals, it is unfathomable that she is not a household name from Bangor to Baja. "When Jonell sings," Nashville author/musician Tommy Womack has said, "people shut up and flowers grow faster."

Jonell Mosser performs with John Hall on Tuesday, July 11, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. $15. For more information, call (713)528-5999.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax