Deliverer of fun for Nashville SC fans

Musician strikes unlikely chord with ‘Soccer Moses’

Friday, August 12, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 32
By Lucas Hendrickson

For a brief time this Saturday afternoon, Stephen Mason thought critically about his choice of alter ego.

No, it wasn’t about the fact that he has one, in Mason’s case the beautiful game-loving, pseudo-prophet now known as Soccer Moses.

It was more about the persona he chose for what his wife Jude calls “his Old Testament cosplay.”

As sheets of rain pelted the Bransford Avenue building where the Masons were preparing for the latest installment of their Nashville Soccer Club mini-tailgate location helpfully titled “The Tabernacle of Soccer Moses,” the fleeting thought of Noah being the more appropriate character for the moment passed through his head.

The storm quickly passed through downtown, leaving blue skies in its wake and the expected slow-moving parade of NSC fans making their way to GEODIS Park waved, honked and pointed at the mural of Soccer Moses on the side of the building.

Some stopped to check out the related merch on-site: Soccer Moses T-shirts, stickers and scarves, part of the proceeds of which go to benefit local youth soccer nonprofit KickinIt615, a project close to the Masons’ hearts.

Ever since Soccer Moses appeared on the scene – mere moments after the very first goal in Nashville SC history was scored and a two-second shot of a fake-beard-and-bewigged Mason holding aloft a vinyl “scroll” that read “Let My People Goal” flashed across the national Fox Sports broadcast – Soccer Moses has been an omnipresent cottage industry in the Masons’ lives.

“It’s not about creating another stream of income, although it does require the energy of a side hustle,” Steve says. “But it’s about being able to have fun and support things like KickinIt615, which is great because Nashville needs the next generation of soccer players and fans.”

Mason well understands the hard work, talent and opportunity required to put oneself in the public eye, sometimes surprising ways. In 1994, Steve and three college friends relocated to Nashville to pursue the age-old Music City dream.

Only this time it worked, as Jars of Clay burst onto the scene with the omnipresent 1995 hit “Flood” (there’s that water theme again) breaking the band onto the national and international stage.

Stephen Mason and the mural that immortalizes him near GEODIS Park.

-- Photo By Ed Rode | The Ledger

These days, with Jars being mostly retired from recording and touring, most of the members pursue their creative vocations within the confines of that Bransford Avenue building now known as Gray Matters Studio, which they purchased as a collective in 2007.

“I often describe Steve to anybody I’m working with as the Kramer in my studio,” says Matt Odmark, Mason’s longtime bandmate in Jars of Clay. “He’ll just barge into the middle of a session and kind of begin a sentence mid-thought and tell us all an amazing story and then be, like, ‘I gotta go.’

“It was through a bunch of these sorts of fragments that I got wind that this was something he was cooking up,” Odmark continues. “He told me about all the conversations he and his wife had and where she was like, ‘Are you sure this is the play you want to make? You’ve been watching soccer for so long, and now MLS is coming to your own town. You sure you want to be the Moses guy?’

“Which I think was a fair question and just proof that she’s an amazing spouse because that’s exactly what you’re supposed to be, a check on you in those moments.”

While Mason still plays guitar on the occasional session, he took his dexterity in a different direction when the band came off the road, becoming a master barber and setting up a one-man shop on the south face of Gray Matters, titling the new endeavor “The Handsomizer.”

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s three public-facing personas for Steve Mason: guitarist, Handsomizer, Soccer Moses.

But it was in his private life where his love of soccer fully formed, with the help of someone who grew up calling it football.

Jude Adam moved to the U.S. from her native London, finding work as a radio producer and contributor, but more importantly finding kinship and eventually love with Steve, who she initially met when she interviewed Jars of Clay in the UK years before.

While football fandom was not the driving force of their initial relationship, Mason’s familiarity with the game and choice of rooting interest didn’t hurt his chances in winning over Jude’s family.

“When I met Steve, he was already an Arsenal fan, so that kind of worked, and it was really nice for him meeting my father, that he was already an Arsenal fan, that they had that kind of touchpoint,” Jude says. “Stephen was already into it. And Stephen, when he loves something, he really loves it.

“Cut to, we would go to Fleet Street (pub in Nashville’s Printer’s Alley) when that was the only Arsenal pub on Saturday mornings and watch the Premier League there,” Jude continues. “I’ve been all about him doing (Soccer Moses) because, I think, just we love community, and the more I saw the community that is around (soccer in Nashville) and met some more of the people, the more we both loved it.

Jude and Stephen Mason, with their daughter Milly, outside “The Handsomizer,” Mason’s one-seat barbershop

-- Photo By Ed Rode | The Ledger

“So all this to say, I have been very enthusiastic and encouraging, although I may still roll my eyes when, on a Saturday morning, he gets up at 6:30 a.m. to watch Leeds vs. Burnham, and I’m like, ‘I have no idea what you’re doing,’” she admits. “I love this game, but I think I have to kind of protect myself a little bit and not lay myself out there as much, because I don’t like living my feelings like my darling does.”

It wasn’t until the day after that first Nashville SC game – Feb. 29, 2020 – that the Masons started to understand the magnitude of what a $20 investment in a beard-and-wig combo would bring.

“We were at a hot chicken brunch at Slow Burn in Madison, standing in line on Sunday morning,” Steve says. “There were some Atlanta United fans behind us, and we were jawing back and forth having fun.

“We turned to the television cause we saw, oh, wait, they’re, they’re gonna show the highlight,” he remembers. “And then you see it open the package with me, and we all lost it.

“They were like, oh my God, you’re on ESPN.”

The clip was in steady rotation on SportsCenter that day since the Nashville-Atlanta match that kicked off the Major League Soccer season was the only game on the schedule. Social media got hold of Soccer Moses as the season got underway, even more so when Mason made an already scheduled trip to Portland to see NSC take on the Timbers, taking the now-coined Soccer Moses garb with him and serving as an unofficial ambassador for the city in the wake of the March 3 tornadoes that ripped through Middle Tennessee.

Not only did Timbers fans welcome the prophet from the east to their home pitch, the organization made a substantial donation – $15 for each general admission ticket sold for that match – to area tornado relief efforts.

But the bigger issue of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down so many aspects of normal life in March 2020. MLS resumed a limited schedule in July of that year, but with no fans in attendance.

Mason faced the challenge of losing significant chunks of his primary income (even the one-seat Handsomizer barber shop was forced to shut down during those early pandemic days) by throwing his creative skills at extending the Soccer Moses brand. He generated Bitmoji-driven social media posts, spinning up the Soccer Moses merchandise line and creating searchable Instagram gifs and stickers that have been viewed and used more than 12 million times, according to the Giphy app.

When a limited number of fans were able to attend NSC games at Nissan Stadium in 2021, the team featured Mason in one of their promotional videos about fan experience and the community being built around the second-year MLS club.

The sun sets on another loss at GEODIS Park, which hasn’t been a great place to play of late for Nashville SC. The team is now  3-5-3 at the stadium since it opened May 1.

-- Photo By Matthew Maxey | Icon Sportswire

As longtime East Nashville residents, Mason and his family enjoyed the proximity of the team to their home, especially on match days.

“There was a sweetness to the transient aspects of dealing with the situation at Nissan,” Steve says. “For me, a lot of that was being able to walk from my house dressed as Moses and just stop at different pubs in, in full dress and just hang out with people. And you know, confusing tourists was pretty fun.

“It was definitely more challenging because NFL stadiums don’t understand soccer fans and were maybe a little ill-equipped to deal with the banners and flags, the various kinds of fan expressions as it were. I know it was challenging for the club.”

Those challenges have been alleviated with the opening of GEODIS Park, NSC’s permanent home and the largest soccer-specific facility in North America, with seating for 30,000 fans. And what Mason missed by having the pitch so close to his home was offset by watching the new stadium emerge piece-by-piece from his longtime place of business.

“Many afternoons, I’d walk out between haircuts and take a picture generally from the same spot,” he says, “thinking at some point I’d want to do a progression of what it looked like, but when the trees are flourishing, you can’t really see anything. You’d just see the little top of the steel beams.

“Over the time frame of watching it come up, it was very much a feeling of, ‘Let’s hurry this up, I can’t wait to be there,’ that kind of thing.”

Even with the relative newness of the franchise and the barely broken-in feel of the team’s new home, Mason realizes one day the novelty of Soccer Moses (not to mention the energy it takes to maintain) may come to an end for him.

Those thoughts can come to mind in the wake of results such as Saturday’s the 4-3 loss to Toronto FC, but mostly, not-so-deep down, he hopes the persona could live on via a “Princess Bride”-esque Dread Pirate Roberts situation.

“I’ve thought that very thing, like eventually I’ll just pass the beard on to someone else, but at this point, it feels like it can ebb and flow,” he laughs. “I think it would be amazing to be able to do this in a way kind of like the way (Jars of Clay’s) career has gone, that when we have an itch for something of that nature and, we can just pick it up and put it down as we are moved. I recognize that as a definite privilege aspect of it.

“But part of it is people have enjoyed it so much and made space for Soccer Moses to exist. And at the moment it’s still fun.”

It’s especially fun when that energy is still shared by the people closest to him.

“It’s really remarkable how much Soccer Moses has been embraced by the community at large,” Jude says. “That’s really surprising, considering how much of it, as Steve says, is a dad joke gone right.”