The first time Mitch Easter met Sam Moss as a young teenager, he didn’t understand everything Moss said. But his guitar spoke volumes.
“He was only two years older than me, or something like that, but he seemed like a complete adult the way he talked,” said Easter, who led Let’s Active and produced REM, Pavement and many other artists. “He was speaking this jazz hipster language, and I didn’t totally know what he meant.”
Moss never stopped speaking his own language, verbally or musically. His guitar playing dazzled fans and peers for decades. He mentored young players and ran a guitar shop that became a favorite West End hang out. Now, his adopted hometown is honoring Moss with a bronze star on the Arts, Culture and Entertainment Memorial Walk of Fame at the Benton Convention Center.
The Walk of Fame ceremony will be Friday morning. Moss is one of five new inductees, alongside novelist John Ehle, broadcaster Stuart Scott, sculptor Earline King, and painter Joe King. A celebration of Moss’s life will follow at Friday evening at Gas Hill Drinking Room above the Ramkat, complete with a preview of songs from the late guitarist’s first album.
“Moss was an unassuming rock god,” wrote musician and journalist Ed Bumgardner after Moss’s death in 2007 at age 54. “His onstage stance wide, guitar wielded like Excalibur, mane of hair flying, cigarette dangling as he gave himself over to the song. He assimilated things but didn’t imitate anyone; he was just Sam Moss, a man of boundless technique, bottomless cool and bona fide exquisite tone.”
Bumgardner would know: He played in a couple of bands with Moss, including Liquorhouse Soul Revue, and saw him perform countless times over the years. Other Moss bands included the Rhythm Method, the Sids, Lesbian Truck Payment Experience and the Sams.
Moss, the son of a Methodist minister, came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a time when bands played regularly at recreation centers and church coffeehouses around Winston-Salem. The scene nurtured Moss and many other young musicians, including Easter and future members of the dB’s.
Moss was playing with the band Sweet Rye at the Ardmore Methodist Chuch coffeehouse when Bumgardner first met him. Bumgardner and a friend picked their jaws up off the floor after watching Moss play note-perfect versions of songs by the Allman Brothers and the James Gang.
“We were staring at each other like, ‘Who is this?’” Bumgardner said.
Easter had a similar experience a few years earlier with his teen band, which usually defaulted to material that was easy to play. Things changed when Moss came over to jam and pushed them to play songs by artists including Jimi Hendrix and Cream.
“We learned ‘Purple Haze,’ ‘Revolution’ by the Beatles, ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’” Easter said. “These were new songs and a completely different kind of thing. Sam could play that stuff correctly.”
Over the years, Moss developed a style all his own and started writing songs. Around 1977, he traveled to Easter’s house outside Chapel Hill to cut a batch of mostly original tunes, including “Rooster Blood,” a funky blues song covered by Winston-Salem’s Luxuriant Sedans on their 2015 debut album. The Sedans’ harmonica player, Mike “Wezo” Wesolowski, plays on a couple of additional Moss tracks recorded around 1992 at Turtle Tapes in Winston-Salem.
A bonus track, “Act Naturally,” was a hit for Buck Owens and covered by the Beatles. The Moss version was recorded in his basement in Clemmons in 1967 with the Clique, one of the guitarist’s early bands.
“Sam spoke in a patois that was his alone, full of implied quotation marks and arched eyebrows around unexplained catchphrases,” Chris Stamey wrote in his 2018 memoir, “A Spy in the House of Loud.” One of Moss’s many catchphrases was “blues approved,” shorthand for something he considered excellent.
Not coincidentally, “Blues Approved” is the title of an album in the works, most from the songs Easter recorded with Moss — tapes recently unearthed after decades collecting dust. Stamey, a member of the dB’s and acclaimed solo artist and producer, has transformed the tapes into a full album 14 years after Moss’s death.
Most of the original recordings featured only two musicians: Easter on drums and Moss on vocals, guitar and bass. Stamey sought “peer review” from Easter and fellow dB Gene Holder to stay true to Moss’s artistry while tweaking the recordings enough to give them a fuller sound and feel.
“The mixing process is all about finding the dramatic shape of a song,” Stamey said. “Live shows are like plays, but studio recordings are like movies.”
Stamey teamed up with saxophone player Crispin Cioe of New York’s Uptown Horns to add some “Stax and Muscle Shoals-style parts” on three songs. Cioe toured with one of Moss’ favorite bands, the Rolling Stones.
“Once these particular mixes got to a certain point, we felt that — in just a few places — they needed some subtle underlining added that wouldn’t get in the way of what Sam and Mitch had done, but would instead just highlight the dynamics already there in the performances,” Stamey said.
The posthumous additions to Moss’s recording were “approached with some trepidation, of course, since Sam wasn’t there to sign off,” Stamey said. “But we knew Sam well, and in the end, (we) felt confident that he’d be very happy about these few textural additions, and everyone who has heard them so far has agreed.”
The end result sounds remarkably fresh and fully baked. There are echoes of ’70s artists such as Little Feat, Boz Scaggs, the J. Geils Band, Mott the Hoople and riff-heavy rock bands such as Foghat and Bad Company. Stamey has launched a Kickstarter campaign (kickstarter.com/projects/bigstarthird/blues-approved-the-lost-album-by-nc-guitarist-sam-moss). Money raised will pay for professionally mastering the recordings and creating a full CD package with photos and liner notes — with a possible vinyl release if funds allow.
Moss’ peers lament the fact that he never released an album in his lifetime or otherwise pursued the musical achievement and recognition his talent merited.
“I remember when Stevie Ray Vaughan entered the general public’s awareness, and Sam was really impressed with him,” Easter said. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s great, but he’s not any better than you. He’s probably not as good as you.’”
Moss followed his own path, one that left an indelible mark on a couple of generations of Winston-Salem musicians. Doug Davis came of age in the 1980s and ’90s and was grateful when Moss started inviting him into his late-night sessions of jamming and self-proclaimed testifying.
“There were late nights of cheap beer and expensive guitars and stories worth the price of admission,” Davis said. “Sam was a lot of different things to a lot of different people over the course of his life. He could be very open and generous and welcoming, and he could also be a guy you wanted to be very careful around if you were not in the circle.”
Like Easter, Davis believes Moss had the talent to take his music to much higher levels: “Sam could have been an arena guy instead of playing with the Flounders Friday night at Baity’s.”
Opinions vary about how Moss would have reacted to the Walk of Fame recognition. “I think he’d be very proud of it,” said Holder, who roomed with Moss and played in bands with him. Davis believes “he’d be completely dismissive, of course,” but would be touched after he was done making fun of it. Bumgardner has a similar perspective to Davis.
“He would outwardly be all gruff and grumble about it,” Bumgardner said. “Probably make some joke about being walked on for eternity. But inside, he would be all smiles. He gave all of us so much, so he would dig knowing that people really did appreciate the fact that he did touch a whole lotta lives.”