Sometimes when you get into a story, you find a thread that leads to another equally interesting story. Let’s start with a rock and blues legend from the 1960s, releasing her first album in over a decade, a triumphant tour de force with several notable guests. Then a small liner note contains the information that part of the album was recorded in a Weymouth studio, and following that thread leads to a story about a contemporary jazz artist who now makes the South Shore his home. A superb new album, from a septuagenarian rock/blues icon, led us to a 30-something Renaissance man in Weymouth.
Tracy Nelson returns
Tracy Nelson’s album has been out less than a month, but “Life Don’t Miss Nobody,” on BMG Records, has been gathering accolades nationwide, a sterling return to action for a singer whose last album was in 2011.
Nelson was a seminal figure in the 1960s blues-rock scene, fronting her band Mother Earth. Nelson grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and studied social sciences at the University of Wisconsin. She found her way to Chicago and immersed herself in the city’s blues scene, recording her debut album in 1965 with a band that included future harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.
Shortly afterwards, Nelson landed in San Francisco, just in time for “the Summer of Love,” and by 1967 had founded Mother Earth. That band was an integral part of the way the modern rock community embraced blues, but it delved into other American roots music like country too. Before long, Mother Earth was sharing stages at places like Fillmore West with the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. The band would release six albums over the next decade, and tour widely.
Tracy has a hit with Willie
Nelson worked her way to Nashville after that and had a solid hit in 1974 with “After the Fire Is Gone,“ a duet with a young singer named Willie Nelson (no relation). That tune earned the duo a Grammy nomination.
By 1977, Mother Earth had fallen apart, and Tracy Nelson took a hiatus from the business. She released a comeback album in 1998, with fellow roots music stars Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas, and that earned her a second Grammy nomination. Nelson has now released 10 albums as a solo artist, and most recently has been based in California, where she performs occasionally as part of The Blues Broads, with Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson and Dorothy Morrison.
The new album could be seen as a cool career retrospective, with its dozen songs encompassing almost every genre Nelson, 78, has worked in. She co-wrote two of the songs, including the title cut, a jazzy ballad offering hard-won perspective on life, with a south-of-the-border undertone. Nelson also wrote “Where Do You Go (When You Can’t Go Home)?” with Ball, contemporary pop-blues where the vocal arrangement contrasting her with four-person harmonies is exquisite.
Album covers many different styles
Elsewhere, Nelson revels in some of her favorite songs and styles. There’s a joyful romp through the traditional blues “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” and a stirring gospel-flavored take on Doc Pomus’ “There Is Always One More Time.” Sonny Boy Williamson’s advice to a wandering lover, “Your Funeral and My Trial,” is a loping march, delivered with just enough tongue in cheek by Nelson in a duet with young guitarslinger Jontavious Willis.
There’s a lively country-swing duet with Willie Nelson on Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’”, a bright charge through the jazz-rock staple “Compared to What” and a warm take on Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense,” with old pal Musselwhite as guest. The cover of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is simply a party-in-the-grooves, with Nelson swapping verses with Ball, Thomas and three more feisty female singers.
But a couple of the songs are the record’s heart and soul. “Hard Times” dates back to 1854, written by Stephen Foster, a litany of common folks’ struggles that is timeless. Nelson’s version features accordion and B-3 organ, in a hushed setting that gives her soulful vocal plenty of room, and she uses it adeptly to add some modern attitude and emotional lift. In the best tradition of the blues, her version of the song leaves the listener hopeful and upbeat, a stunning bit of catharsis.
The other old blues tune is a delightfully old-timey take on Ma Rainey’s 1925 hit “Yonder Comes the Blues,” delivered as a gently bumping ballad that features a haunting clarinet interwoven throughout. Again, it presents the song’s theme with an air of transcendence, a palpable feeling of overcoming and uplift.
Weymouth musician collaborates
That Ma Rainey cover is where we noted a Weymouth studio was credited; Doug Mosher recorded the woodwind track in his home studio. A bit of internet sleuthing led us to Mosher, who graduated from Southern Cal after studying music and had begun working around Los Angeles, mainly as a tenor sax player. But his father had grown up in Duxbury, and Mosher had been to the South Shore many times to visit his grandparents.
Working around LA, Mosher had been mostly involved in jazz groups but also did a lot of session work, appearing on an album by Americana singer Kim Richey, and with Randy Newman right after college. He worked on a couple of movie scores, for the Elisabeth Moss/Jason Schwartzman film “Listen Up Phillip,” and on the all-jazz score for a film about Iceland. In 2010, Mosher moved to Nashville, and played a lot around that town. Meanwhile, Mosher has released a handful of albums, including 2015’s “Southern Lights,” a duo project with bassist Jon Estes.
Musician becomes a teacher
“In Nashville, everyone has a home studio, so I found session work was a lot of overdubs,” said Mosher this week from his Weymouth home. “I was not going into studios as much as before. I began substitute teaching, just to fill my time. I realized I really loved schoolteaching, so I got my certification and became a full-time, first grade teacher in Nashville public schools for five years. There’s something special about teaching kids to read that I really came to love. And I could still do my music at night.”
Flash forward to 2018, and Mosher and his wife moved to the South Shore, both to be close to his parents, who now live in Norwell, and because his teaching ambitions had grown. Mosher is now working toward his Ph.D. in education at Harvard, and his wife works as a physical therapist in Norwell. Just a bit more than three months ago, they welcomed their first son into the family.
Back to Massachusetts
“I’d always wanted to come up here again,” said Mosher. “We were originally in Cambridge, and we’ve been in Weymouth three years now. How this Tracy Nelson contact came about was I had done a track for Jontavious Willis several years ago, when we were in Nashville, and Keb Mo produced. When Tracy asked for a clarinet for this song, Keb Mo recommended me to the producer (Roger Alan Nichols, with Nelson) and they got in touch. Tracy sent me a message that she really liked what I did.”
On the tune, Mosher’s clarinet serves as a subtle backdrop to Nelson’s vocal, and then does a 20-second solo later in the song. Along with doing tasty fills at the end of verses, he adds a 10-second intro to the final verse, lending the tune that old-time feel, and just a hint of giddy optimism.
“The Jontavious Willis call had come out of the blue, while we were still in Tennessee,” Mosher said with a soft laugh. “But playing with different folks is one of my favorite things – you never know where the next call comes from. I don’t do a ton of music around Boston, but I still go out and tour a couple weeks a year with (fellow USC grad, and jazz-funk drummer) Louis Cole and his band.”
A secret double life
A few people are aware of Mosher’s double life.
“One of my professors played the class a clip of me playing, to show a different side of me, and they all had a good laugh,” said Mosher. “But I think research like I’m doing and music are similar in that both are painstaking, and require lots of practice. Living here now is a good opportunity to explore both of my passions, and the two of them provide a good contrast. I can still do my music at night, and actually did a couple of album-length projects during the pandemic. I’m really happy with where our lives are right now. The only thing is, with our young son, we’re not getting a lot of sleep at the moment.”
Concerts take over home of the Red Sox
THURSDAY: The newfangled bluegrass of Cold Chocolate at The Spire Center. Country-folk troubadour Charles Wesley Godwin headlines Royale. Rock legend Jorma Kaukonen is at The Narrows Center (and City Winery on Friday). Larry Joe’s bluegrass at Club Passim. Eggy jams at Soundcheck Studios.
FRIDAY: Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen are a big deal, a premier New Orleans group led by Bonnie Raitt’s former pianist, at The Spire Center. Providence rockers The Silks are one of the best rockin’ Americana units anywhere, at The C-Note. The three-day Green River Fest kicks off at the Franklin City Fairgrounds, topped by St. Paul & the Broken Bones tonight, The Wood Brothers on Saturday and Little Feat on Sunday. The big country show at Fenway Park features Kane Brown. North Shore gal Annie Brobst hosts an after-party at The House of Blues. The Danny Gallagher Band rocks The Jetty. Songwriter Dayna Kurtz is at The Narrows (and at Club Passim on Tuesday). Kenny Werner tops a tribute to Toots Thielemans at Scullers. The Rocket Summer rocks Brighton Music Hall. British songsmith Billie Marten arrives at The Sinclair. Oblivious Fools – A Phish tribute – jams at Soundcheck Studios.
SATURDAY: It’s a big night of country-rock from Scituate, as Dalton & the Sheriffs headline Leader Bank Pavilion, with Ward Hayden and the Outliers opening. Dead and Company shake up Fenway Park, with Bearly Dead doing the post-show party at The House of Blues. Abraxas is a Santana tribute band at The Spire Center. New York’s Midnight Callers return to rock The C-Note. Jimmie Vaughan and his acclaimed Tilt-A-Whirl Band visit The Narrows Center. Lovelytheband rocks The Paradise Rock Club. R&B singer Dave Hollister at City Winery. Scullers hosts an octet performing the music of Tadd Dameron. Westwood Junction rocks The Jetty. Dave Cooper and Jeff Black perform at Club Passim.
SUNDAY AND BEYOND: Sunday night is busy: LL Cool J tops a classic hip-hop bill at the TD Garden, with Queen Latifah and Jazzy Jeff; The Eels rock The Paradise; and get an early start for the 1 p.m. Manomet Blues Fest, at the John Alden Sportsman’s Club, with Johnny Hoy & the Bluefish, and the hometown Delta Generators. Wednesday, MGM Music Hall welcomes The Steve Miller Band with Dave Mason. June 29, look for Michael Franti headlining Leader Bank Pavilion; Peruvian guitar master Carlos Odria at The Spire Center; Capricorn Records vet Eddie 9V at The Narrows Center; and Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade at MGM Music Hall. Americana star Eilen Jewell plays The Sinclair on June 29 and The Narrows Center on June 30. Don’t forget June 30 also sees Ed Sheeran open his two-night stand at Gillette Stadium. Future shot: Elvis Costello, with Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets at MGM Music Hall on July 6.