No manufactured, corporate-approved diva of the sort littering the landscape these days, Jonell Mosser is as honest and real as they come. Her music is stunning in its raw power, scope and ability to take you places you've never been. A survivor of bad breaks and regrettable timing, she has nonetheless continued to be a force in the industry as well as in the hearts of her many fans. She may be the best-kept secret in some quarters, but if you believe in karma and talent, her day has come. Her newest release Fortunes Lost, Fortunes Told is scheduled for release on July 19 and shows once again why she makes life-long fans of everyone who hears her sing.
She has a voice than can belt it out like Janis Joplin, but can also convey the finesse of folk, jazz, and southern soul. She is a true musician's musician, being sought out for nearly 200 guest vocal recordings from artists including Trisha Yearwood, B.B. King, Etta JAmes, Wynnona, Patty Smythe, Bruce Cockburn, VInce Gill, Rodney Crowell, Waylon Jennings and Kristen Chenowith. Not many artists can boast that kind of respect. "For my whole career, I've gotten the question, 'Why aren't you a bigger star?' '' Jonell said recently. "But I'm not the person to answer that question. I've had the chance to do so many things, but it just hasn't been my time yet.'' While that patience may be a virtue, her time has finally come.
Jonell started singing at a young age, rising to do jazz standards in piano bars in her childhood home of Louisville, KY. Her dad, a retired Air Force Master Sargent, had died of a heart attack when she was 3, so she was brought up by her mother, Joy, who loved jazz. "I listened to all the big band stuff,'' Jonell recalled. "I loved Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday. She bought me 45s and albums from the time I was 5 or 6. Later on, my brother had great records by Jethro Tull, Al Green and Dobie Gray.'' And what about Janis Joplin, to whom she has been compared? "I didn't like her at first. Janis seemed unattainable. And on the other side, Aretha Franklin seemed unattainable. So I was drawn more to men's voices, like when I heard Otis Redding for the first time. And James Taylor, of course. I adored him and Jackson Browne and Dan Fogelberg. And then I found Lowell George and Little Feat.''
Jonell attended Western Kentucky University, but dropped out to perform. She was in the Ken Smith Band, playing up to six nights a week, and a founding member of infamous all-girl group Yo Mama. It was during this period that she met her first husband, John Cowan, lead singer of the New Grass Revival, and moved to Nashville. She started doing studio sessions and was part of another all-female project that was eventually called Girls Girls Girls, with Karen Staley and Lee Satterfield.
One of her many inspirations was Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt (whom she first met in Bowling Green around 1978 or '79) so it was only fitting that her 1996 debut album was a critically acclaimed compilation of Townes covers called Around Townes. She came to the attention of Bonnie Raitt producer Don Was after he heard her singing demos to be pitched to Raitt. Don Was was so supportive that he soon put a band together with Jonell as lead singer. He rounded up A-listers such as guitarist Mark Goldenberg from Jackson Browne's band, keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, and -- get ready -- Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. They recorded 7 songs as the New Maroons. They played two shows including Farm Aid in Ames, IA, but the recordings were shelved because other projects took precedence. Jonell also signed a deal with MCA (with Was producing) and cut and mixed a record in Nashville and LA. One song, a 6/8 version of the Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love,'' later landed on the soundtrack to Hope Floats, a 1998 film starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. Although there is no chance in her mind of the MCA record seeing the light of day, incredibly, there may still be a chance of the New Maroons album coming out in the future. "Hope springs eternal,'' says Jonell.
Her second album So Like Joy was released in 2000. A smart, sophisticated batch of songs that Jonell wrote with John Hall (of Orleans fame) and his then wife Johanna made it a connoisseur's record. Her next release was Enough Rope, a 2001 album that Allmusic.com proclaimed had "enough class, muscle and tough grace to stand out from the pack.''
A lull followed as Jonell turned to raising her sons, before last year's powerful Trust Yourself CD. The title track was a Dylan song given new heft by Jonell's powerful interpretation. Other standouts included three co-writes with the Halls and a sax-laced soul version of Harlan Howard's "The Chokin' Kind.''
Jonell has also kept busy with some impressive side projects. One is the band Kentucky Thunder, another all-girl outfit with guitarist Tom Britt's sister-in-law, Etta, and singers Sheila Lawrence and Vickie Carrico. Long known as a supporter of worthy causes, Jonell joined the Freedom Singers, who perform under the auspices of the First Amendment Center headed by former USA Today editor Ken Paulson. Featuring songs that were once banned or censored, such as George M. Cohan's "You're a Grand Old Rag'' (later changed to "Grand Old Flag'') and the controversial Billie Holiday tune, "Strange Fruit,'' the group performs across the country to highlight the importance of our often-embattled right to free speech.
All this adds up to a highly unique career with no end in sight. "I've made a lot of mistakes in this business, but I feel successful as a human being,'' said Jonell. "I play and sing every day. I've gotten to sing with Mavis Staples. I've gotten to sing with Levon Helm and with Sam Moore, Bruce Cockburn, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. I've gotten to meet and play music with so many great people, most of whom I feel I can call my friends. That means everything to me." As for this being the moment for her to grab the spotlight? "I feel a tidal wave coming,'' she says hopefully. "I just don't want to get buried by it. I want to ride it.'' With a new CD and a tour in the works, she'd better getting her surfboard ready.