Stephen “Mojo” Mougin is a busy man. He has his hands in virtually every aspect of bluegrass music: playing, producing, recording and band coaching. And what hands they are. They certainly know their way around a guitar and, like a surgeon’s, they open up your heart and supply it with the stuff of life: when he plays, that is splendor and grace.
Stephen’s main gig is guitarist for the Sam Bush Band. This puts him on stage next to the King of Telluride Saturday night: the premiere set of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. As he has previously, Stephen knocked it out of the park during this year’s Festival. Unquestionably top-notch, his playing is profound and carried out expertly. He miraculously makes it look effortless whether he is ripping runs at high speed or laying down full-bodied, slow-bending beauties. His solo on Whayasay was simply mind-blowing. That put his immense talent in the spotlight, showcasing, really, the awesome feats he was performing throughout the entire set. His voice, too, is as good as it gets: strong, true, and a perfect match for harmonies with Sam. Stephen even broke out the mandolin for a duet with Sam on Ozzie and Max. What a treat to see his skill on that instrument as well.
Earlier in the afternoon, Stephen led an epic workshop. It started as the Sam Bush Band minus the drums. They delivered a fabulous East Virginia Blues, and Salt Creek. Stephen then led Scott Vestal and Todd Parks for a rousing and touching set of bluegrass treasures, old and new. He drew us in with his sentimental original, Ginny Danced, belted out In the Gravel Yard, and harmonized with Scotty V. on a terrific rendition of Little Georgia Rose. He also got us grooving with an original blues tune and kicked it hard with Vestal on Groundspeed. Dan’l Kimbro came up for a few numbers on bass. The whole time the sparks were flying off the strings and Stephen’s magnificent pipes were working their magic. No better way to spend time on an early Saturday afternoon than listening to Mojo’s music.
Busy as all get-out, Stephen was still nice enough to take a few minutes with Bluegrass Today not long before rolling out of Telluride. It was great to have a chance to ask him some questions.
Mojo: Sometime in high school I figured out that I would be doing something in music. I started my professional life as a music educator. I was a choir director in middle through high school and also performing in bluegrass bands. Finally, someone asked me to play with them down in Nashville. It was the first time it occurred to me that I could play professionally. I jumped at the chance, and here we are.
BT: Now you’re in the Sam Bush Band. Can you talk about the steps you took to get there?
Mojo: It is a lot about networking. It is also about opportunities. But, it is also about being prepared for those opportunities. A couple summers before I started playing with Sam, I was playing in different bands. I played with Randy Kohrs, Melonie Cannon, Audie Blaylock, Jim Lauderdale. Randy Kohrs got me singing a lot of tenor with him and I got used to singing a lot of falsetto kind of things. I got more confident with that. And, Scott Vestal was playing with him at the time. Scott ended up joining Sam’s band a year before I did. When the guitar slot opened up, he was one of the people that recommended me for the job.
BT: Was your first time to Telluride with the Sam Bush Band?
Mojo: Yes. 2006. Last night was my 10th performance in Telluride.
BT: Can you tell me a little bit about what the Telluride Bluegrass Festival means to you?
Mojo: It is my favorite festival we play each year for a couple of reasons. The facility is so amazing. The beauty of everything beyond the festival itself: being able to ride up the chairlift and walk around on top of the mountain at 10,000 feet and just enjoy nature; take hikes to the falls and see the sights around the canyon here. It is just gorgeous. It is something that cannot be described in pictures. You just have to be here to see it.
The lineup is also always so incredible: a wide swath of music, ranging from bluegrass to rock to who knows what. Every year I run across somebody I have never heard of before and I am blown away. And that is a cool thing. Also, because of Sam’s longevity here, he knows everybody and now we know everybody. It is like old home week. It is like family here.
BT: Can you describe what it feels like to be on stage Saturday night during the Sam Bush Band performance, looking out with the King of Telluride?
Mojo: It is really surreal. The first year it took me about four or five songs before I noticed there was an audience. The stage is so high. When you look straight out you just see these mountains, and you can almost see the falls on the right. Everywhere you look is this massive beautiful thing. We go on during the daylight and it gets dark during our set, and it is cool to see that, and then you look down and realize there is a sea of people who are digging what you’re doing. That is a very special thing.
I did have a moment last night during Circles Around Me, when Sam was talking about what the song meant and where it came from. It was a spectacular moment being able to sing that tune in this place.
BT: That song catches me all the time. I wonder is there a song, maybe that song or another one, that no matter that you play it over and over again it still grabs your soul?
Mojo: I am such a fan of music and I listen to so much variety. But that one [Circles Around Me] really does. We play that every show since it came out and I never get sick of it. Ever. It just has such a powerful lyric and melody, and it just can be so big especially when you’re in a place like this and it’s referencing “High in Telluride. Up on Bridal Veil,” and you can see that. It is pretty spectacular.
BT: How did you enjoy your workshop and how did that come together?
Mojo: Planet Bluegrass billed it as a Mojo and Friends thing. Scott Vestal and Todd Parks joined me for the duration, and Sam came in for a couple of songs, and it was really fun. I don’t get to play with those guys in just a bluegrass jam kind of way. It was fun to hear them do that.
BT: As fans, we envision you guys hanging out together all the time, just having a blast and playing for fun. How often does that actually happen?
Mojo: As you begin your life as a bluegrass musician, you do just get together all the time and jam for fun. I found that the more it has been my career, the less I get to just hang out and pick. And, I miss that. I miss going to all weekend bluegrass festivals and just hanging out and jamming with everybody. But, at a certain point that is what makes the stage show as much fun as it can be for us. Because we don’t just sit around and jam with each other all the time, when we get on stage that is the jam. That is a cool thing in its own right.
BT: You have collaborations outside the Sam Bush Band. You have Nedski and Mojo. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mojo: It is always just trying to play more great music. During the off-season with Sam, Ned Luberecki and I got together and decided to play some shows. It was a good opportunity to keep the chops up and it is fun. We have a great time traveling together and playing music. Hopefully, this winter, we can get back on tour and do some more. It turned out to be a really interesting thing for me because it has been a showcase of songwriting and a lot of songs that had just been in the drawer get to be performed in that situation.
BT: Do you also do session work?
Mojo: I do some session work. I also own Dark Shadow Recording, a bluegrass record label, and also a studio. Most of my session work is done in my own studio.
BT: Anything we should be keeping our eyes out for?
Mojo: Well, the Becky Buller album [‘Tween Earth and Sky] is still really raging on the charts, and, who knows, there might be something fun coming from there fairly soon.
BT: You are heavily involved in all aspects of the industry: playing, producing, band-coaching and mentoring. Can you talk about these efforts?
Mojo: I do coaching sessions for folks and have done those this year with some family bands. That is always a good time: getting together with people and listening to what they do and accentuating their strengths, helping them define the weaknesses and finding ways to improve them both musically and performance-wise. That is a lot of fun, and I really enjoy doing that. Of course, that is what I do at Bethel University. I had two bluegrass bands this past year and we are adding a third band this fall. We have a bunch of new recruits coming in. It is a cool program. It is an extra-curricular program but our students all receive a scholarship to come play bluegrass and then they are able to get a degree in whatever they want.
I, myself, would vie my hardest to join that program — if only I had musical talent. What could be better than having Stephen Mougin share his mojo with you?
Whether you are in that program or not, you can get your Mojo fix this summer. And, you absolutely should. Not one to rest for a second, Stephen was heading out of Telluride to play more hot festivals. Check the schedule online and high step yourself to a show stat! Let his playing and singing rip open your heart and fill it with splendor and grace. You will be glad you did.