My First Non-DJ: Americana Promoter Al Moss
After doing this for a few months, I decided it’s time to venture beyond the usual DJ stable and interview some people who are in the business but not directly “on the air.” Al Moss is a record promoter who has been in the “biz” for many years and knows everybody and, most importantly, is a real music fan.
Bill Frater: What got you started in the music business, and when and why?
Al Moss: On April 1, 1974, I began promoting all of the music on any of the Warner Bros., Atlantic, and Elektra/Asylum labels and their affiliates — whether rock, Top 40, A/C, R&B, or country — to radio stations throughout Virginia and West Virginia. Prior to that, I had worked at and managed a little record store in the town I went to college in in North Carolina, and then had been in radio sales with WRVQ in Richmond. I had wanted to be in the record business for several years before that, not even knowing what that involved, or what jobs existed. Music was just so important to me, and such big a part of my life, that I wanted to be more closely involved, and get deeper into it than just being a fan.
That said, all these years later, I am still a fan first and foremost. Those first two years in particular with WEA, I had as many as 100 records at a time to keep up with. I started promoting records for one primary reason: my absolute love of and passion for the music. I’m proud to say that, after all of those years, I still promote music for the same reason.
What have you done since then?
After two years doing promo in Richmond — I am a native Virginian — Warner Bros. transferred me to Atlanta to work just their records and affiliates, so I left the Atlantic and Elektra labels behind at that point.
After the first three years under the WEA umbrella, I pretty much did only album rock promotion until I moved over to Americana years later. After a year with WB in Atlanta, I moved to Macon for a year to work for a start up, Rabbit Records, by former Capricorn Records head of promotion Dick Wooley. Rabbit was an imprint on Atco that had a couple of Southern rock bands: the Winters Brothers — Donnie and Dennis, not Johnny and Edgar — and Grinderswitch.
Then it was back to Atlanta to work for Jet Records under Linda Clark and Sharon Osborne … and then on to Ariola Records. I then went to work with Wynn Jackson, doing indie album rock promo for six or seven years, after which I went out on my own. This year marks 30 years that I have worked for myself.
In early 1995, being a little burned out, and not enjoying what album rock radio had evolved into, and also not liking some of the music that I was being asked to promote — corporate rock, hair bands, etc. — I was fortunate to hear about this new format/movement called Americana that Jon Grimson and Rob Bleetstein had created. I started to specialize in Americana almost from its beginning, in January 1995. Later in 1999, I became one of the approximately 32 founding members of the Americana Music Association and have remained on the board of directors of the AMA ever since then. Jessie Scott and I are the only two continuous AMA board members since Day 1.
What do you do now and how do you describe your business?
Working for myself promoting Americana music to radio. My primary job is to try to get my records exposed over the radio airwaves, through regular rotation airplay, specialty show play, setting up interviews and on air performances, etc.
How do you define Americana or roots music? What does it mean to you?
I define Americana music as music that is based on American roots traditions. That can really encompass a pretty wide range of music. It means authentic music with integrity to me, as opposed to “manufactured product.” Of course, there is also some music that could fit much of that description that really doesn’t fit Americana radio. It’s mostly something that I have to hear to really gauge if I think it falls under the broad umbrella of Americana music or not, and even some music that would fall under that umbrella still might not fit a big portion of what we consider Americana music, particularly as it pertains to radio. It’s also somewhat subjective, as is much that is in the world of music.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
That’s tough, if not almost impossible to answer. I remember hearing Patsy Cline and other country artists that would cross over to Top 40 radio many years ago. The same thing can be said to an even greater extent for the great R&B music back in the ’60s. Of course, I didn’t really know or think of it as “roots” music back then.
I do have a distinct memory of going to camp as a kid and one of the counselors playing Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Ike and Tina Turner, and James Brown, and being moved like I don’t recall music previously affecting me quite to that extent. Somewhere close to that time period, I used to listen to WLAC out of Nashville, the great R&B station that played music that I loved and just couldn’t hear anywhere else at the time, much of which still remains quite obscure.
Fast forward some years later, and I remember an album by Rik Grech called The Last Five Years that was a compilation of things he had worked on, and this tune called “Kiss The Children” on that album blew me away. That’s what led me to Gram Parsons, who remains one of my Top 5 all-time favorite artists. Rik Grech co- produced G.P. with Gram and that tune was written by Rik. That might be one of the first times, other than the aforementioned, that I kind of began to dig deeper into what was really one of the earliest examples of what came to be considered Americana music many years later.
Who are your favorite artists from any genre and what artists define Americana music for you ?
My tastes are widely varied. Among my all time favorite artists are Doug Sahm (#1), Van Morrison, Gram Parsons, Duke Ellington, Patsy Cline, Dinah Washington, Arthur Alexander, Bod Dylan, Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Sr, The Four Tops, Jack White, John Prine, Delbert McClinton, Big Al Anderson, Candi Staton, Dwight Yoakam, Dusty Springfield, Raul Malo/Mavericks, Little Feat, Ray Charles, Allman Brothers, Louis Prima, Leon Russell, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Allen Toussaint, Chris Gaffney/Hacienda Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda, James Brown, Todd Snider, Prince, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, George Jones, Dean Martin, Gershwin, Kellin Watson, James Hunter, Monk, Coltrane, Miles, Kacey Musgraves … that’s kind of a quick desert island list. If I did it again in another hour, there could be more additions as they came to me.
I’d say for artists that define Americana to me, I could go from older ones, like the aforementioned Doug Sahm and Gram [Parsons] to some of the great singer-songwriters like Guy Clark, Prine, Willie, Chris Knight, Rodney Crowell, etc. More recent artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, Shovels and Rope, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and others certainly in my mind also help to define the format. That being said, it’s a very broad umbrella and it’s anyone’s opinion to define for themselves what is Americana, and what artists define the format or genre for each person. There are certainly many artists that are pretty universally accepted as artists that make Americana music, and there are certain ones that I think almost everyone could agree are not. But there’s also a pretty big middle ground of artists that might or might not be considered Americana depending on whose opinion you use. There are some right and wrong answers, but many that are neither right nor wrong.
Where do you see Americana radio, or radio in general, going in the future?
I don’t think, based on years of observing radio, that I could answer that. I will say that I hope that radio in general, and Americana radio specifically, becomes more inclusive.
There are many great artists that don’t always seem to fit a format, and radio is programmed largely in “formats.” Thank heavens for many of the noncommercial stations, specialty shows, satellite and internet stations, and a few adventurous commercial stations that push the envelope.
With the major corporate owners of radio seriously hurting financially, so I read and hear, I can only hope — and I do believe this is a very realistic possibility — that these corporate radio chains will be broken up and dismantled, to a large degree. I think some might have to begin to divest themselves of some of their radio properties in order to meet their financial obligations, or that they might be forced to do this if their creditors force them into bankruptcy, which I understand is a real possibility for one or more of the big radio corporate owners. This could — and, I hope, would — lead to more stations being individually owned and thus more mom and pop stations that are free of corporate programming dictates to play whatever music they want to.
It’s really hard for me to listen to most stations because my musical tastes are so much broader than what most radio stations play. When it comes to mainstream radio of most any format, I really can’t stand to listen to them. In fact, [I] almost never do unless I’m surfing around the dial, and then can rarely handle even one song. Of course, I also don’t eat at McDonalds and I don’t shop at Walmart either.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
My hands down number one favorite album of 2015 was Kacey Musgraves — one of my most favorite new artists of the past decade — and there’s nothing I’ve heard this year so far that tops that. Chris Stapleton was another recent fave, as was Anderson East, Parker Milsap, and Brandi Carlile’s album last year was really wonderful. …
One that not many people heard that I personally really loved was an album from Tami Neilson. Her next one is even better. What I have heard of the new Ray Lamontagne album I thought was great. I really like the Aubrie Sellers album a lot. The Honeycutters is a band that I have really liked for a few years now, and their new album is their best yet. Robert Ellis’ new album, I think, is definitely pretty wonderful and his best yet. Cactus Blossoms blew me away on first listen. I was never particularly a big Nickel Creek fan — personal taste, I did recognize their talent and greatness — but I immediately fell in love with the new Sara Watkins album. Cyndi Lauper’s new “country” album was a very pleasant surprise. I knew she was an amazing singer, but had no idea her album would be anywhere near as good as it is. I’m really excited about a new Jesse Dayton album finally coming out later this year. It’s been way too long waiting for a new album from one of my favorite Texas artists.
Three new independent artists that have albums coming soon that I absolutely love are Greg Humphreys, Jeff Turmes, and Hymn For Her. I could go on and on, and I’m sure I’m forgetting several at the moment. … And no, all of those mentioned above are not albums that I’m even promoting. I wish there was more space here to mention more. There is just so much great music out there that most people never even know about.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or interests or anything else you wish to share?
Although I’m not really a big sports fan overall, I am pretty obsessed with basketball, both college — Go Vandy! — and NBA. I’m a big Warriors fan, and yes, I do have a Warriors T-shirt that predates the 2015 championship year.
I love good food, good wine, and good movies — particularly music docs and spy/caper/thriller films — and I love and collect a wide variety of books and magazines on various music oriented topics. I also love the art of Maxfield Parrish.
What inspires you and what keeps you going?
Watching my kids grow and develop into fine adults and finding their way through life, great music, great people, seeing the development of all the new technology, living in Nashville, which for me is one of the greatest places on earth, and just loving life in general.
Asheville, North Carolina, San Francisco and Northern California in general, and Paris, and the hopes of getting back to all of those special places again keeps me going.
What are your most memorable experiences or memories from working in the music industry?
There are so many over 42 years, that’s it’s hard to even know where to begin.
Having lunch with Frank Zappa at Aunt Fanny’s Pancake House — his call — in Richmond, Virginia, certainly has to be up near the top. Getting to spend a little while with Willie Nelson on his bus some years back is pretty memorable. Meeting Tony Bennett was a real treat. Hanging out with Lowell George in his hotel room comes to mind. Spending hours with Bonnie Raitt the first time we ever met was special. The Capricorn Records picnics attended by luminaries such as then-presidential-candidate Jimmy Carter, Bette Midler, Andy Warhol, and numerous others was pretty cool. Going to a small club in DC with the Eagles to hear a young artist named Emmylou Harris, who didn’t have an album out yet, was quite memorable. Being in Daniel Lanois’ studio in New Orleans for a couple of days when Chris Whitley was recording his first album, while a young, unsigned Canadian artist, Sara MacLachlan, was recording upstairs, and all of us going to dinner together … is quite a special memory.
I was honored to be selected as a member of the Class of 2007 of Leadership Music, and that is undoubtedly one of the absolutely greatest experiences of my career in the music business.
Of course, the many, many concerts that I have had the privilege of attending over the years ranks up with the greatest experiences of my life so far.
It’s hard to beat the memories of the three years I worked for Warner Bros. in the mid-’70s with the culture that was WB back then, and the astonishing output of amazing music that WB put out. That is perhaps unequaled in my mind by any other label or era, and [it] was a great way to start in this business. The traveling that I got to do over the years was a great experience for a kid from a small town [of] 759 people [in] rural Virginia, and was quite an education in itself. … Of course nothing tops all of the fabulous people that I’ve gotten to meet and often call friends, from artists to fellow industry folks. I’ve mostly loved pretty much all of it, and I do have many wonderful memories, and continue to make new ones constantly … and sometimes I even remember them.
There are several particularly special artists and records that I helped to promote and break, that will always stand out and rank high among my career memories and accomplishments, including, among others later on, “Blackwater” by the Doobie Brothers, “Pick Up The Pieces” from the Average White Band, “Best of my Love” by the Eagles, and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” all during my first years.
Over the years, I have had the honor and privilege of working with and around many great creative artists and individuals. A few of the many brilliant artists whose music I have helped to promote include Kris Kristofferson, the Doobie Brothers, Chris Stapleton, Frank Zappa, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, Lee Ann Womack, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Delbert McClinton, Loretta Lynn, John Prine, Todd Snider, Brandi Carlile, Buddy Miller, Average White Band, John Hiatt, George Harrison, the Spinners, Dionne Warwick, Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Alabama Shakes, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, John Fogerty, Levon Helm, the Eagles, Pam Tillis, Linda Ronstadt, Queen, Lucinda Williams, Gregg Allman, Alison Krauss (with and without Robert Plant), Patty Griffin, Delbert McClinton, Carl Perkins, Electric Light Orchestra, Robert Earl Keen, Neil Young, Son Volt, Fleetwood Mac, Kelly Willis, Chris Knight, Doug Sahm, Shawn Camp, Billy Burnette, Jim Lauderdale, Joe Ely, Little Feat, Band of Heathens, Kasey Chambers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Allison Moorer, JD McPherson, Shovels & Rope, Jamestown Revival, Chuck Mead, Rodney Crowell, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Del McCoury Band, Nikki Lane, Kacey Musgraves, and so many other incredibly talented artists. … [They are] far too numerous to name, including many relatively unknown but superbly talented artists. I consider myself very honored and blessed to have been able to spend my professional life so far working in music, which has always been one of my greatest passions.