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Nashville Cats: Salute to Wayne Moss

March 02, 2009 | Posted by mmanning

May 2, 2009
Famed Nashville guitarist Wayne Moss still remembers the words of his hero, Chet Atkins, after auditioning for him at age fifteen. Accompanied by his mother, Moss had traveled to Nashville to play for Atkins, the legendary producer and guitar player. After Moss sat before the future Country Music Hall of Fame member and displayed what he could do on guitar, Moss’s mother exclaimed to Atkins, “Isn’t he amazing?” Atkins replied dryly, “No, he’s average.”

Moss’s mother pushed forward, asking Atkins if her son had a future in the music business. Atkins replied that a music career is full of “headaches and heartaches.” Asking for suggestions as to what to do, Atkins told Moss’s mother, “Lady, I don’t know, he looks like he’d make a good plumber.” However, Atkins added that they could check with artists at the Grand Ole Opry to see if anyone was looking for a road guitarist.

Moss looks back on the incident philosophically. “I went to hear a motivational speaker one time who is also a sportscaster, Rudy Kalis,” Moss said. “He said, ‘You’re either going to spend your life trying to prove somebody right or prove somebody wrong.’ I was doing both. I was trying to prove my mother right and Chet wrong.”

Years later, after Moss became a leading Nashville session player, Atkins often hired him to play on sessions for RCA Records. “That helped me prove him wrong,” Moss recalled.

Moss was honored in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to veteran musicians who have proven integral to the city’s role as a leading music center. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Moss traced his wide-ranging career in an eighty-minute program before a rapt audience in the museum’s Ford Theater.

Among those in attendance were several former honorees of the Nashville Cats series, including guitarist Ray Edenton, guitarist and producer Jerry Kennedy, harmonica player Charlie McCoy bassist Bob Moore, pianist Pig Robbins, and fiddler Buddy Spicher. Other dignitaries in attendance included Wayne’s brother Rob Moss and a variety of musical colleagues, from Nashville veteran Buzz Cason to California rocker Tommy Heath, leader of the band Tommy Tutone.

Moss moved to Nashville in 1959 from Charleston, West Virginia, quickly establishing long-running musical relationships with such exemplary players as McCoy, drummer Kenny Buttrey, and guitarist Mac Gayden. Moss’s guitar provided an integral part in such pioneering Nashville rock bands as the Escorts and the Casuals, and he helped form groundbreaking bands Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry.

As a session guitarist, Moss played lead guitar on George Hamilton IV’s “Abilene,” David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” Waylon Jennings’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” and “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” Loretta Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl,” Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Charley Pride’s “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” Joe Simon’s “The Chokin’ Kind,” and on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album. His guitar work can be heard on songs by such disparate artists as Patsy Cline, Burl Ives, Loretta Lynn, Steve Miller, and Porter Wagoner, and he has had success as a songwriter, publisher, recording artist, and studio owner. Moss’s studio, Cinderella Sound, opened in 1960.

The program began with a clip from the 1981 documentary film Heartworn Highways, capturing Barefoot Jerry recording “Two Mile Pike” at Cinderella Sound, with standout performances by Russell Hicks on pedal steel and Moss on what he called “lead bass.” The clip showed how Barefoot Jerry, like Moss’s band Area Code 615 before it, melded country and rock into a progressive style that showed off the outstanding instrumental talents and musical arranging abilities of Moss and other band members, most of whom made their livings as Music Row studio musicians.

Inspired by Flatt & Scruggs, Moss began playing ukulele as a youngster, then graduated to guitar. By his teen years, he had discovered Chet Atkins, who became his hero. He performed in bands in high school, including the Blue Star Drifters and the Versi-tones, and appeared on a TV show on the station WOAY. Moss wrote his first song, “Starry Eyes,” with Versi-tones member Bobby Cox, and a local deejay sent it to a Nashville connection. The song got recorded by the Hilltoppers on Dot Records.

“It was the first song we ever wrote, and here the Hilltoppers cut it,” Moss recalls. “Well, that ain’t too shabby. Let’s write some more!”

After moving to Nashville, the young Moss became part of the city’s burgeoning rock scene. He joined the Casuals in 1959, and they became the Casual Teens when backing Brenda Lee as her road band and in the studio with producer Owen Bradley.

With drummer Kenny Buttrey, Moss left the Casuals and formed the Escorts, who became Charlie McCoy & the Escorts once they recruited McCoy. “Charlie would play bass with his left hand, and trumpet with his right hand, and then sing in the middle,” Moss said. “So we were dangerous.”

His first session work came through a member of the Casuals, Snuffy Smith, who insisted on using Moss for a session on MGM Records. Not long after that, while cutting demos in another studio, singer Tommy Roe walked in and heard Moss. “If I ever cut a session, I want you on that,” said Roe, who scored several pop hits in the 1960s and early 1970s. Moss played on Roe’s first #1 hit, “Sheila,” in 1962.

Moss opened his studio about the same time he started session work; Cinderella Sound will celebrate its fifthieth anniversary next year. Among the artists to use the studio over the years are Vern Gosdin, Leo Kottke, Mickey Newbury, Linda Ronstadt, Ricky Skaggs, Billy Swan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Tony Joe White, and the Whites.

Moss became a favorite of pop and rock acts that came to Nashville to record. He credits the movement of rockers coming to town to Dylan using Charlie McCoy on a New York session. “Next thing you know, Dylan wanted to come down here and get that country flavor,” Moss said. “Charlie seemed like a nice guy, and [Dylan] figured maybe they’re not all hillbillies, so maybe I’ll go down there and cut a record. So he did, and he was quite happy. I’m sure the label was, because it was the biggest-selling record he ever made, Blonde on Blonde.”

Looking back, Moss still marvels at one aspect of the famous recording sessions. “The part that confused me is how he could sit there with that rack and play at the harmonica, looking dead in the eye of the world’s greatest harmonica player, who was on bass,” Moss said of Dylan and McCoy’s roles in the recordings.

Lloyd, during the interview, told of a conversation with keyboardist Al Kooper, who came with Dylan from New York for the sessions. Kooper told him how everyone’s jaw dropped when Moss played a triplet guitar figure leading into the first chorus of “I Want You.” Lloyd then signaled for the first section of the song to be played over the speakers in the Ford Theater, prompting a burst of applause from the audience at the end.

Before recording the rock classic “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” which opens Blonde on Blonde, Moss recalled how Dylan asked everyone “What do you do down here?” McCoy answered, “Well, we fish, and we golf.” Dylan interrupted, asking the question with more emphasis on the second do. McCoy understood that time. “Oh, we might drink a beer,” he told the singer-songwriter.

Dylan sent out to a bar, requesting the strongest drink they served. The bartender named it, the Leprechaun, and said it usually came in a shot glass. Dylan ordered eight full milkshake cartons and instructed the musicians to drink one each. “Henry Strzelecki was on bass until he killed his milkshake carton, then he was on his hands and knees playing bass pedals for the organ, and I played bass,” Moss said, to a round of laughter.

Moss’s band Area Code 615 was born during a lull in a recording session for a solo album by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees. To kill time, the band began playing an instrumental version of “Lady Madonna.” Inspired by what they heard, they decided to cut an album of instrumentals, and formed the band. They recorded two albums, in 1969 and 1970, getting a Grammy nomination for the second, Trip in the Country.

The band ended because the record label, Polydor, withdrew its support when the band chose not to do a concert tour. The group did two shows—a Fillmore West concert in San Francisco and a live TV appearance on The Johnny Cash Show.

Several band members continued as Barefoot Jerry, which had a vocalist, unlike Area Code 615. The band was signed to Capitol Records and was active as recording artists from 1971 to 1977, eventually recording for Warner Bros. and Monument as well.  Barefoot Jerry, unlike Area Code 615, stayed on the road for eleven years.

“I think both of those bands were at the vanguard of what was hip about Nashville at that time,” Lloyd said. “They were really musical and very strong.”

Moss ended the program playing guitar, recreating the licks on “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” and “Oh, Pretty Woman,” among other songs. When recreating the Jennings hit, Moss recalled that Chet Atkins was the producer on the session, years after Moss’s first encounter with him on his early audition. After executing a brilliant solo, which fellow guitarist Jerry Reed enthusiastically praised as the gathered musicians listened to the playback, Moss asked Atkins if that was what he had in mind. Atkins replied, “Not really, but let’s go to the next song.”

Moss later learned that, in the recording booth, as the guitarist finished his lead, Atkins leaned over to the engineer, Jim Malloy, and said, “He’s pretty good, isn’t he?”

Moss figures Atkins withheld his praise for a good reason. “[Chet] didn’t want anybody getting the big head,” Moss said. “That’s the reason he told me I ought to be a plumber. He knew what he was doing.”

—Michael McCall