Click here to download a free MP3 of Nick Moss' "Lyin' for Profit."

Nick Moss
readily admits that he was “young and green” when he began playing bass in the band of Chicago blues legend Jimmy Dawkins in the early 1990s.

“It was really exciting to go on the road with Jimmy,” Moss remembers. “But I have to be honest: When I got the call, I really wasn’t aware of how hip he was, what a heavy cat he was. I knew the name, but I wasn’t aware of his stature in the blues world—all the great stuff he’d done.”

A Mississippi native who came to Chicago in the mid-1950s and made his name as an A-list sideman before waxing 1969’s classic Fast Fingers, Dawkins gave Moss a lesson that the young man would never forget.

“Jimmy’s style is the West Side style, and it’s pretty difficult to comprehend right off the bat, especially for someone who isn’t too familiar with his stuff,” Moss explains, citing the music’s “lag beat,” or slightly behind-the-beat feel. “I played with him for about a year, and he was such a nice guy. But I just wasn’t grasping it. And he just told me one day, ‘Look man, you’re a good bass player, but you’re just not giving me what I need, and I just don’t have the time to sit and show you, so I’m gonna have to let you go.’

“That was like my first kick in the ass—it told me that I had to do some woodshedding. It made me realize that I had to learn a lot more, that the blues wasn’t just about B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. After that, I started hitting the clubs every night. I went everywhere and asked which bass players I should be checking out, and I ended up listening to some of Chicago’s greats, guys like Willie Kent, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones, and Bob Stroger.”

More than 15 years later, Nick Moss, now nearing his 38th birthday, has learned his lessons well. He’s a bandleader with a growing discography, one of the Windy City’s A-list blues guitarists, and an established musician who continues the proud, storied tradition of urban blues. He’s won raves for his original songwriting, tough, gritty vocals, and slashing guitar work, heard on albums like First Offense, Got a New Plan, and Count Your Blessings. And on the latest release from Nick Moss & the Flip Tops, the double-disc Play It ’Til Tomorrow (Blue Bella Records), Moss expands his musical scope to build upon the momentum created by his last studio effort, the simply incomparable Sadie Mae, released in 2005.

“You always find something you want to change once you’ve finished an album,” Moss says. “But when we finished Play It ’Til Tomorrow, I was happy with the outcome. There was nothing about it that made me go, ‘Oh man, I wish I could go back and do this or that.’” The new album finds Moss’ electric blues in fine form, but this time around an acoustic side—for the first time on record—is also present. Moss used a borrowed 1959 Gibson LG-0 to record five of the songs on the album’s second disc, including the instrumental “Fill ’Er Up” and the gospel-infused “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Gibsons are also well-represented on the first disc: Moss employed a sunburst Orville on a tune called “You Make Me So Angry”; a 1966 ES-345 on three songs, including the shuffling “Lyin’ for Profit”; and a 1962 SG Special on another shuffle, “Herman’s Holler,” and the rocking “Tend to Your Business.”

Following his stint with Dawkins, Moss joined the Legendary Blues Band in 1993, eventually making the move from bass to guitar at the behest of longtime Muddy Waters Band drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Moss handled six-string duties on Smith’s 1995 album Bag Full of Blues, and those endeavors continued when Moss joined the band of another Chicago legend, guitarist Jimmy Rogers, one of blues history’s truly remarkable session men and, like Dawkins, a big fan of the Gibson ES-335.

For Moss, working with Rogers was a continuation of the educational process that had begun with Jimmy Dawkins. Among the lessons learned: Playing the blues is about getting the essence of a song—feeling it, getting the timing right, and then putting your own stamp on it.

“I remember one night I was driving in a van with Jimmy [Rogers] on the way to a gig somewhere,” Moss says. “It was a long drive, and I was putting on a cassette of some of his old stuff—I was still trying to pick apart what he had recorded for Chess Records. And I said, ‘Hey Jimmy, when you’re singing this song, do you want me to play this part like you played it on the record?’ He turned the stereo off. And he said, ‘Look man, we never played it the same way twice. That stuff that you hear on that tape, that’s just the way we did it that day.’ That really hit me hard. It was like a revelation, right then and there.”

Jimmy Rogers died in 1997, but his words resonate to this day, especially as Moss continues to carve out his own niche in the blues world as an artist who wants to remain true to a tradition while creating music that still looks forward—and bears his own personal stamp. Fortunately, Moss says, the contemporary edge that’s found in his blues is more organic than calculated.

“I’m not trying to take the blues into a new millennium,” Moss says. “I’m not trying to do anything really new with it. I’m just trying to make sure that it receives the justice that it deserves. And because I’m young, I can’t help but put a contemporary spin on it. I mean, I’m not black. I didn’t grow up in the ’50s. Sure, there was a time when I played straight into a tweed amp, used big-box guitars, greased my hair back and wore the clothes. But then I came to the realization that Halloween only comes one day a year, man. The rest of the year we’ve got to be ourselves.”