How Nick Moss moved beyond the blues

A Chicago singer/guitarist reconnects with the music he loves

If critical accolades were worth their weight in gold, guitarist Nick Moss wouldn't need Kickstarter. But after receiving 16 Blues Music Award nominations (and inexplicably not a single win) since debuting with his 2001 album, Got a New Plan, followed by eight subsequent releases, Moss hasn't cracked the elusive crossover market. As a result, he turned to Kickstarter to fund his upcoming tenth, arguably his finest, and certainly most diverse project to date, Time Ain't Free. The album comes with a change in musical style, direction, and attitude — brave moves for a blues artist who built a small but dedicated fan base by mastering traditional blues music.

Moss, who has played supporting roles for over a decade with Chicago blues heavyweights such as Jimmy Dawkins, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Jimmy Rogers, first on bass, and then guitar, before stepping into the frontman spotlight, was never content taking the easy way out. He formed his first band, the Flip Tops, and started his own label Blue Bella Records so he could maintain control over his music and career. His initial albums — which include two roaring live sets (Live at Chan's and Live at Chan's, Combo Platter No. 2) — cast him as a talented, rugged Chicago blues traditionalist in the manner of great Chess masters such as Muddy Waters. But in 2009, after releasing seven discs in such a narrow musical genre, Moss saw the need for change. "I spent almost 20 focusing on straight Chicago blues," Moss says. "The color of my skin — being a white musician and playing blues — you're not taken as seriously as when an African-American plays it."

He first noticed while on the road opening for guitarist Lurrie Bell who prompted a much greater crowd response while playing what were essentially the same shuffles and slow blues. Moss had already been listening to his old Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Free records, and since these albums were what drew him to the blues in the first place, he reconsidered his approach. "We started doing these new tunes on the Lurrie tour and it was amazing to see the reaction," he says. "It was as if they were thinking 'Yeah, that's what you're supposed to be doing.' The blues audiences today are between 40 and 60 years old and they identify more with that stuff.'"

Moss began playing songs that made him happy, and appealed to the sensibilities of those who paid to see him play. And with his more electrified rock style the Nick Moss Band replaced the Flip Tops with the 2010 album, Privileged. The album features 11 covers songs by '60s warhorses such as Cream's "Politician" and a swamped-up rearrangement of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." The album was followed by 2011's Here I Am, and the latter's title underscores the change in Moss' path, advancing his '50s influences up a few decades to the '70s. The album also introduced a vital new member of the group, singer and rhythm guitarist Michael Ledbetter who was also an eight-year veteran opera singer.

With Moss as his mentor, the 28 year-old Ledbetter dropped the tuxedo and took a crash course in traditional blues and soul and the toughened up psychedelic direction Moss had embraced, culminating with Time Ain't Free (due out March 2014). Here, Ledbetter's powerful, classically trained voice guides Moss toward a more R&B, funk, and gospel groove. The song lengths for the album's 14 numbers average about five minutes each, allowing Moss and his blistering guitar solos room to roam, while giving Ledbetter space to establish himself as one of the genre's foremost frontmen.

In the end, Moss' Kickstarter plan came up short, a major disappointment but one he takes responsibility for as he was not touring when it was put in place. It's a mistake he won't make again. But he's rightfully thrilled with the album, his revitalized approach, and simply staying on the road, performing the music that he loves. He has left any regrets behind about critical accolades not leading to financial security, adding, "I look forward to every show and can't wait to play every night." It's this upbeat attitude that keeps Moss rolling along, loving his life, and most importantly, never looking back.