JJ Grey’s voice is unmistakable. It soars with soulful howls and digs in deep with gritty growls, propelled by Grey’s backing band Mofro, which churns out body-shaking swamp rock. Earlier this year Grey released This River, his seventh studio album dating back to 2001 and the latest in a consistent line of Southern-fried stompers that mix a range of styles from amplified front porch funk to horn-driven old school R&B.
The only thing more engaging than the dance-friendly grooves are Grey’s vivid storyteller lyrics, which offer a look into the ingrained passion he has for the tea-colored creeks and tall pine forests of his native North Florida. He gets reflective on the album’s slow-drifting title track and offers rural character sketches that range from raucously seedy (“Your Lady, She’s Shady”) to somber (“The Ballad of Larry Web”).
Grey has also lent his talents to other projects. He wrote the film score for the Emmy Award-winning documentary The Good Soldier and penned a song on Buckwheat Zydeco’s Grammy-winning album Lay Your Burden Down.
As part of a tour supporting This River, Grey and Mofro will anchor the third day of The Festy Experience on October 13 at the Devils Backbone Brewery in Nelson County. Ahead of his return to the area, Grey chatted with C-VILLE Weekly by phone from his home in Florida.
C-VILLE Weekly: From your first album Blackwater to your latest This River, your North Florida home is always a running theme. How did you come to equate landscape and southern culture with songwriting?
JJ Grey: I moved out to my grandmother’s land—between Gainesville and Jacksonville—where I spent so much time as a kid, working in the chicken houses. Suddenly, I started writing about what I knew instead of what I thought people would like to hear. I was naturally drawn to telling stories instead of using catch phrases.
Who are the songwriters that taught you how to tell a story?
There are so many. I grew up listening to a lot of old country music when I was a kid. Jerry Reed, one of my favorites, always told funny stories. I’m also a huge fan of Bill Withers. Even a song like “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley tells a great story about growing up in Jamaica.
Sonically, too, your albums always seem to pick up where the last one left off.
I gave up on trying to change my sound a long time ago. The studio I use to record all my albums has certain equipment—it’s golden era stuff that sounds great. Every record has been played with the same process on the same gear—same organ, guitars, and amps.
We’ve been adding horns, which I’ve always wanted on every record. I’ve always loved Tony Joe White and all of the Muscle Shoals stuff. At first I shied away from it, because the road band was a stripped-down four-piece, and I didn’t want people to miss something during the live show. Now the horns make the arrangements tighter and punchier.
What’s the main thing you want people to take away from This River?
People make fun of this part of the country where I’m from, but everybody here isn’t ignorant and racist. It’s really more about reminding myself about where I come from. I don’t feel like I’m in some secure position to inform people about something. When I was young I wanted to be somebody from somewhere else, but there’s an old saying, “you spend the first half of your life running from home and the last half running back.” I think I flipped the script and started heading back.
Since nature is such a running theme in your songs, how do you enjoy it when you’re not on the road?
I do a lot of surfing when I’m home, and fortunately the waves have been really good recently. I also go fishing when I have time, and I’m going to take my family kayaking tomorrow. I live in the woods on 20 acres where I regularly see plenty of deer and turkey. My time at home is always short, and I usually have to include things like tiling the bathroom floor. But when I can, I get outside as much as possible.
I noticed on an upcoming Florida festival bill that you’re going to be part of the Southern Soul Assembly —a super group with Marc Broussard, Luther Dickinson, and Anders Osborne. Can you tell me about this project?
We’re doing a whole tour in the spring. We haven’t really talked about it yet, but those guys can all jam. I’m going to be holding on for dear life on the guitar, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.