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By James Rea

Widely known as the charismatic 'long term-driving force' behind Highway 101, Cactus Moser is one of the most multi-talented drummers to ever, hit The Row...and, one of the most passionate. To my astonishment, Cactus told me he was back on tour, playing drums with Wynonna three months 'to the day', after the horrific motorcycle accident that took his left leg and almost destroyed his left hand, in 2012. And he hasn't slowed down any since.

Prior to forming Highway 101 with Paulette Carson, Curtis Stone and Jack Daniels, Moser was a full-time session player in LA, who quickly started honing his producer chops, after taking a 9 week course in engineering. Propelled by his love for all things music, Cactus started writing songs and soon got his first publishing deal with Warner Bros, which lasted for five years before he signed with Sony Tree (now Sony ATV) for another 5 years, both of which garnered about 20 cuts, over and above the songs he wrote and produced for Highway. Warner Bros. signed the band to their first record deal in 1987 and released 4 albums over the next 7 years, before they re-signed a new deal with Liberty under Jimmy Bowen in 1993. After Bowen left the business for health related reasons, the band signed a new deal with Intersound Records in 1996 and with FreeFalls records in 2000.

Cactus Moser
Cactus Moser

In all, the band had 16 consecutive top 10 singles, four of which went to number 1 and after their initial chart success, Highway 101 was nominated and won the award for Vocal Group of the Year at the 1988 ACM and CMA Awards.

Today, Moser is a producer, engineer, musical arranger, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and actor, who has appeared in 11 films and documentaries...and...he has scored several soundtracks for TV and film. Not bad for a cowboy from Colorado. Raised on his father's cattle ranch, but inspired by a local band, Cactus started playing guitar at the age of 9 but that was short-lived. At the time, the ranch was struggling so his parents moved to Denver and Moser went to live with his grandmother, where he started playing drums at the age of ten.

Cactus Moser: That year for my birthday, I got tiny Japanese drum set. As soon as I felt where I had enough under my belt, I wanted to play in a band. Through some friendships I did find some guys that played and I also started playing in the stage band at school and then the school orchestra, while looking for better bands to play with.

Cactus then went to Regis Jesuit College for 1 yr, but he just wanted to play so, he went to Bolder, auditioned for a band and got the gig.

Moser: My first session was for the guy I got the gig with. He already had a record deal with a big swing band called Dusty Drapes & The Dusters. They had a deal on Columbia but that didn't pan out. Chris Hillman from The Burritto Bros. and The Byrds found him and was going to produce him. Chris was finding his way to being a producer. Chris was married to one of Elton John's managers. So on my first session, Hillman was producing and that was at a studio in Bolder called Northstar. I was 19 and that led to going to LA. Fast-forward I wound up playing on a ton of things and we toured Dan's stuff.

After having a taste of LA, Cactus went back and put a band together in Bolder which got offered 2 deals.

Moser: We chose Asylum right before 'Black Friday' which was when all the labels got gutted. We probably should have signed with Michael Nesmith, who had the other record company. He told us he was going to do these things called videos for this thing called MTV and that this whole visual thing was going to be big and he wanted us to be Ginny-pigs, but we all thought he was nuts.
Asylum got gutted and our deal got blown out, so I stayed in Colorado for another couple of years because of that band and started going to Nashville to do concerts "We opened for everybody". Later when that fell apart, I moved to LA.
The scariest moment of my life but I was playing with a Christian rock artist by the name of Steve Taylor (kind-of David Bowie meets Divo). His producer said; "Come live at my house and I'll put you right to work" and that was a blessing. I was never a waiter or cab driver. And I was playing with huge glorious names in the studio world right off the bat. It was scary and intimidating but I couldn't have asked for anything better to happen.

When in the studio, did it hit you to become a producer?
I think it was later but the thought process was part of those bands. We produced ourselves. We made records/demos and I learned the process. I would listen to every record that came out and just sit inside of it and go, why does this sound like that and what is happening? Some time before that, I had taken a 9 week engineering course so, I was in there telling the guys what to do.
During that period we were doing gigs with Johnny Rivers, and playing on a lot of records, because of the Steve Taylor connection with artists like Amy Grant, Jennifer Warren, Phil Cagie including Twila Paris's classic recording "The Word is a Child".
We started 101 in 86', released the record in 87' and stayed in LA through 89' until Chuck Morris our manager got us signed to Warner. I learned a lot from Paul Worley. We were at Sound Emporium and he was the first one to say; "Don't think like this is a a band...bring-it and he had a lot of impact with that one comment alone. We already had 'The Bed You Made for Me" out and it was a 'hit'. We did that in LA then we came down here and I started watching how Paul worked and how he thought, doing what we did naturally and I started seeing the creativity of that environment.

When did you move to Nashville?
1991', I we had decided to separate with Paulette Carlson, our first lead singer so, at that point Paul Worley and Martha Sharp who was our A&R at Warner said it would be a lot easier to get the band re-k-joined with the new singer and the label, if I moved here. I was already spending a lot of time here writing songs because I could already see that's how you make money and I had a single or two by then and wanted to keep that up so, as much as I loved LA, in late 91' I made the jump.

Tell me about your writing. Did you have a publishing deal?
I got a publishing deal with Warner down here because of the band signing. I had some oddball outside cuts with some Canadian artists like Michelle Wright but I probably wrote the most of the songs on our records over the course of the band's history. Curtis and Paula were cool writers and we were the three main writers. Then Paul Worley became the head of Tree so after 5 years with Warner, I was at Tree for 5 years and got into the whole thing of walking into a room, pulling down your pants and writing with strangers. We were producing a lot of demos. I had Pam Tillis as one of my demo singers. That's where you learnt how to cut 5 songs in 3 hours.

When you moved here, were you strictly focusing on Highway 101 or were you also doing session work for other people?
I was trying to do all of the above. It was a challenge because what I learned was that there was some interesting attitude. People going...well, you have your face on the record and we're not letting you have more and just be a session guy, so there was some resistance. But there are two sides to the sword. In those days, guys in bands didn't play on their own records, so the fact that we could, would and did, was kind-of off the grid. The big name bands used session guys. I was a face in Highway 101 and there was a certain perception. A great friend of mine John Hobbs, an amazing session piano player said; "Dude, you got two strikes against you. People either think, you won't play on their session cause you're that guy or, he can't play on our session, cause he's that just be aware, you're a little bit screwed."
Producing was something where you just had to make your own way. Highway's career was settling due to some political parts of the record company business. We kinda got shafted and Paul Worley felt the same way. They kind of dismantled that whole building and the inner workings and the label fell apart.

That's when I started venturing into other musical landscapes. I started writing a bunch of rock n rill stuff that was very edgy modern rock in the 90s and started going back to LA. I sort-off dropped off the map because I felt very burnt and I got into a funk about this town because of what happened to us. And I did turn down some cooler things that I could have been doing production-wise because I wanted to break ties and go and do something else. So I started writing with some rock guys who had deals, in truth, just to re-energize myself to like music again, because I got to the point where the business was all I thought about.

Was it session work or producing that you wanted to get back to?
Both...I had a chip on my shoulder to prove that I could play on all these records. Then I met Chuck Howard, who was doing Billy Dean and a bunch of stuff and he started using me on stuff. Highway finally got off of Warner and we went to Capital (Liberty). I told Jimmy Bowen I wanted to produce and he said; "Well, I'd like somebody else in there with you." So Chuck and I hit it off, became buddies and wound up co-producing and this is where my funk began. I wrote 7 of the 10, I co-produced with Chuck, here was finally our chance to re-establishing Highway, Jimmy wants to spend the money, he called me when it was done and said "You did it" and I was so proud. Then we had the record release party at my ranch and TNN and CMT were there and the only person missing is Jimmy Bowen because he wasn't feeling good. Three or four days later, he goes in the hospital and has a quadruple by-pass and announces, a week later from the hospital; "I'm quitting the business". And there went deal #2 because the new guys coming in didn't care about who was already there. I remember sitting in a diner on the east coast with Curtis and Nikki our fresh new singer and she's like; "What's goin' on guys" and I said, I'm going to b honest with you guys, I want to do something else before I'm too old. I don't like this music anymore and I don't like this game. Curtis was kind-of the same and Nikki wanted to keep going. In hind-sight, we should have gone to Tony Brown at Universal or somebody and said, hey do you want this record but instead we said, screw it and we quit. So that's when I went into that darkness and spent some real hard years, trying to figure out what to do.

After Liberty, the band was signed to Intersound. How did that come about?
The original singer Paulette wanted to come back because this management guy from LA wanted us to put the original four together and do a reunion. Warner Bros got wind of it and said; "If you guys will guarantee us 18 months in writing, we'll give you a nice chunk of money to do that." And I just said nope, can't do it. So the Intersound deal came up because I bowed out. Warner said we need Paulette and Cactus because they are the faces, so we're out. Intersound signed them without me. Curtis and I had ownership so I went ahead and leased them my half. It was basically a re-packaging of 4 new songs and all the stuff I was on, yet the credits ironically said that, the guy who played on the four songs played on the rest of the songs too. Now this record said that somebody else played on all those hits.
Two years later people still want to book the band and Curtis said; "Do you want to come back, Paulette's gone again" and I said, well...let's try some other girl, so we did and we made a record called BIG SKY for Free Falls Records for Bob Freeze, who was one of the executives from Liberty. That was a cool record.

How did you meet Wynonna?
In the golden Warner years, we toured with Randy Travis in our first year, the second year we toured with George Strait and then we toured with The Judds for a whole year in 89'. Wy and I hit it off as buddies during that time. We had a little spark. She was single and I was single but on the very last night of the tour, Naomi Judd was getting sick and getting ready to go to the Mayo Clinic and I offered to go and Wy said; "No, I just have to take care of my mom" so I went back to LA. Later, we'd see each other at award shows, but it would just be 'hello'. But I moved here and said I'm building fences, can I leave my horses at your place. So I kept my horses there while I built fences. Then there was a long gap and in 2009, I'm playing at Puckett's in this little group with Al Perkins from Manassas and The Byrds, Christy Arnold from Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Reese Wynans from Stevie Ray Vaughan's band and Gary Link, the bass player from Steppenwolf. We'd get together and play these fun classic rock gigs. That night, Wy comes walking in with Naomi. They'd been out filming a commercial that day and we're like WOOOO. So then we got together on the phone and went on a couple of dates.

How did you get the job, producing Wynonna's next album?
Wynonna was doing another tour with her mother and they had this reality show on Opra's network. So the network said to Wy and me; "Why don't you guys write a song for Naomi and surprise her on a show and record it?" I had discovered a group called The Henningsens. Paul Worley and I re-united and started the whole Henningsens thing, so I started writing with them and recording them at my house. So Bryan and I and Wy got together and wrote a song called LOVE IT OUT LOUD that we cut and recorded for that show and they said they were going to make it down-loadable the night the show airs. So I went in and cut the song with Wy. Curb heard the song and said who produced that? We don't really like where the album is going, can you guys do more of this? So I got given the keys, to go in and see what I could do but it didn't feel right because I wanted to make a record that didn't care about country radio. Next thing you know, 'SURPRIZE' the label cleans house and everybody exits the label. What else is new? So the new regime comes in with Jim Ed Norman, who I'd been with at Warner and I did my sales pitch and said; let's get out of the box of modern rockin' country and let's make music that sounds like a woman who's got some life experience. I don't think everybody has to hear about spring break. So I stuck my producer balls on and said, if I sink, I sink but at least it'll be on my terms. So that's what we've done and that's where we are now.

When was your first gig back after the accident?
It was 3 months to the day that I got on the bus for our Christmas tour. We did 18 cities. It was later that we went back and played Deadwood and I met the guy who saved my life.

Did you need any special equipment to play with a prosthetic?
For the first tours, I used two hi-hats in front of me, one tighter and one open and they had these clutches that had been designed that would open and close. But later we had to do a TV show where I'd show up and have to play someone else's kit, so I eventually went back to playing normally.

Did your playing change drastically?
My head changed in, how I heard music, which I think helps, producing-wise. I played differently and I played better than I ever did before, more musically, in a way. I stay inside the song more than just playing a drum part.

Did you and Wy write any of the songs for this album?
Some...One of my favorite lines I've heard is...The best producer isn't somebody who comes up with the best arrangements and parts, it's the guys who spends the most time, looking for songs. I do a lot now-a-days. Jim Ed Norman said that to me.

Are you playing any other instruments on this album?
To be determined next week...In our show, I play slide guitar, I play banjo and I play mandolin. We'll be doing background vocals, she and I and maybe one other person. I wanna keep it very spacious but there may be some guitar and some other isms.

What's the biggest challenge facing Wynonna, at this stage?
It's a reinvention. Its re-educating people to the fact that, this new music, is a chance. It's not music following the same path. That's the challenge and it'd an exciting one but you almost want say, to make a loud enough noise by public opinion, the business of music, can't mess it up.

What other projects have you been working on?
I produced 5 or 6 songs for a soundtrack for a docu-drama about Afghanistan called THE HORNET'S NEST. That was really fun to do plus...I wrote a song called FOLLOE ME, which Wy and I did that got nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy. I acted in a film this year called UNION BOUND and I've scored a lot of movies. The scoring thing is a huge passion. Henceforth Wy has been talking to the guy from HELL ON WHEELS and he said; "Come up with some music for us.", so I've been talking to those guys about doing some more score stuff. To me, that's just a dream, to come down here and watch a scene and just know the vibe. I just start playing stuff and have Wy come down and sing melody or play. She's a great musician herself, guitar player and keyboard player and I think that's all part of this, producing sounds that speak and songs as well. And I love that concept of not having just radio, cause part of my dark years were me going, there's got to be another way to do this where, I don't have to wait for the phone to ring as a session player, I don't have to wait for the cut to come in from the publisher and I don't have to scratch and claw and bite and beg for people to listen to your song and keep creating and that's where I feel I've finally come to.

You're also producing Pete Scobell. How did that come about?
The Pete Scobel connection was from producing a soundtrack to a film called the hornets nest. the producer director introduced me to Pete as an artist produced not really thinking he would be involved in the soundtrack. I started recording his music found songs and he came up with a song of his own that I felt was ideal for the closing credits of The Hornet's Nest. We had another name artist who had given the song for that part of the film but just didn't feel like it fit. So I called those guys in LA as soon as we were finished tracking the song and said man I think I have the perfect song to close the film I sent them a rough track and all parties agreed so that begin the process. And we went forward on his album as well then were asked to record a song for the movie American sniper coincidentally with Pete as well. That ended up being a song it was a duet with Wynonna and was perfect for the film except Clint Eastwood felt that point in the movie should be silence it was the last scene final funeral scene so the song got taken out. we then in turn just decided to release it as an iTunes single and it proceeded to go to number one without a major label smacking which was incredible. so I am now this very weak in the midst of picking the last half of the songs for Pete record!

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing our industry today?
The age old challenge is that you've got to accept that things change all the time. How do you play the game this month, as opposed to last month? And how do you make the money that is allowed, workable? You don't have to spend beaucoup dollars. We all gotta get paid and that's a real hard thing. How do we make money elsewhere? Producing used to be a fat job. It's now an hourly wage, unless you get a hold of a tale like Taylor Swift or Luke Bryan or this new guy Hozier, who's blowing up everywhere. You need to get one artist who is going to move product, cause it can still happen. Otherwise, you gotta figure out how to keep yourself employed.

Have you ever considered starting your own label or publishing company?
I've considered and do look at publishing. The label part, I've conceptualized but until I see a better model, no.

Has producing changed your approach to drumming?'s kind of a coming together. As I said, after my wreck, my head changed about drumming and I started hearing the whole song more clearly. When I'm in the studio playing drums, I don't think about being the drummer at all. I play but, I don't think about trying to get what I would have done before. I think about the sounds, I think sonically about these old drums but even when I use new drums, I do I make this feel great. It has changed. I think more of the whole and less of the singular player.

Has producing Wynonna been an easy or challenging transition for the two of you?
Actually, it's been very easy, shockingly so. She's a gem. She's an amazing woman. Using time wisely is a big part of our marriage.

Is the gap between the creative and the business side of the business smaller, when it comes to iconic artists, like Wynonna?
I think it broadens. It's a new challenge, to re-introduce. It's a lot easier to tell the artist's story the first time, than it is 30 yrs in. Granted you have a built-in audience but getting the business to allow that artist to be seen again is vastly challenging.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

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