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One Man Band Justin Moses Debuts As A Bluegrass Leader On ‘Fall Like Rain’

Kady Carter

Growing up in tiny Madisonville, TN, halfway between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Justin Moses lived in a home that was something of a bluegrass instrument petting zoo. His father always played the guitar, but as a trader/swapper type, he had various things with strings cycling in and out of the house. Dad probably wasn’t planning on raising a multi-instrumentalist bluegrass dynamo, but that’s kind of what happened.

“There's been several fiddles that have passed through, traded away at some point for a banjo or for something else, you know,” says Justin, now one of the most admired all-around musicians in his genre. “So anytime he would bring something in, I would mess with it. My interest was genuine curiosity and love for exploring what you could do with a new instrument.”

First came mandolin, which Justin saw as a five-year-old watching a gospel band on television. Maybe he found it cute and small, he says now. Who knows? But he asked for one for Christmas. “I was six when I got it,” he says in the audio Q&A presented here. “And Dad knew enough to show me the first few cords and first few tunes.” Then they found a local who taught Justin more repertoire, laying the parts on tape that he could take home. “I sort of took that and ran with it and spent a lot of time playing along with those cassettes, hitting that rewind button and listening over and over again and trying to figure things out.”

Thus began a decade or so of figuring out pretty much everything about bluegrass instruments, such that by his early twenties, Moses was on the road with his first professional band and a strong sense that music would be his future. Now at 40, he’s twice been named the IBMA Dobro Player of the Year. And he’s worked long stints for the Dan Tyminski Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Blue Highway, The Gibson Brothers and Sierra Hull, playing guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle and banjo as needed. With such range, Moses is a hot session musician as well, with a resume that includes performance with Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Peter Frampton and Barry Gibb.

One of those Gibson Brothers, Eric, wrote liner notes for Fall Like Rain, an album of original material that serves for all intents and purposes as Justin’s debut as a leader, singer and songwriter. Here, Gibson likens his colleague and friend to so-called “five-tool players” in their mutual favorite sport of baseball. “Such players would be masters of hitting for power, batting average, speed, arm strength and base-running ability. I am thinking of Willie Mays of yesteryear or Mike Trout today. In our field, I believe that Justin Moses has more tools than anyone I have met.”

Another one of those tools is his voice, which we hear in the lead role as Fall Like Rain opens with its title cut, a late 90s Eric Clapton song set to a grassy roll. Moses has a clean country croon that lives among the higher registers, but he nimbly tosses it up even higher into falsetto territory for maximum expressiveness. The cut opens with rhythmic restraint but steps up the energy with banjo, then bass and fiddle. With its guitar solo battle between stars Bryan Sutton and Cody Kilby and deft runs by mandolinist Sierra Hull, it is pretty much irresistible. Justin sings lead as well on the fascinating “Walking To Lebanon” and a crafty re-imagining of Coldplay’s “UFO,” while he brings in heavy hitter guests Del McCoury, Dan Tyminski and Shawn Lane to sing on other tracks.

Now, about Sierra Hull. She is widely beloved in bluegrass and beyond, a Grammy nominated star who was A) also from a tiny town in Tennessee and B) renown for her instrumental virtuosity at an early age. Somehow, go figure, Hull and Moses found a lot to like about each other and married in 2017. Historians may debate this, but I maintain that track two, the mandolin duo “Taxland,” is the highest-level, most extravagantly improvised instrumental track ever released by a husband and wife. Sierra’s mandolin tone and style is unmistakable (she’s a three-time IBMA Award winner), but Justin makes a remarkable match and foil. It’s a zipping, minor-key gypsy style tune that rides that sweet line between bluegrass and classic jazz, and it is a tour de force. Other well-crafted instrumentals include “Wise & Born,” a play on the specific brand of Weissenborn slide acoustic guitars and the album-closing “Locust Hill,” a Bela Fleck-style banjo masher.

“Instrumental music is a big part of me and what I love about music and what I end up spending my time (on),” says Justin. “I write more instrumental tunes than I do vocal tunes. That's something that's kind of new to me. So, it's important to me to be able to express something with just the music, and no words.”

Plans to tour on this music as a bandleader were deferred from 2020, but there’s no mistaking the role Moses is playing in the top echelons of string band music.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org