With The River, his seventh album, Jacksonville, Florida native JJ Grey delivers definitive proof that he is the unchallenged master of swampy, soulful southern rock. Now you know what jam-band festival followers have known for a dozen years — that Grey and his smokehouse band Mofro deliver the goods, sizzling and funk-infused, each and every time.
On one hand, JJ is a white Wilson Pickett. On the other, he's like the bastard love child of Delbert McClinton and Tony Joe White — an explosive combination of energy, sweat, deeply felt soul and a talent for expressive (and very Southern) storytelling in the context of a catchy four-minute song.
And the band — well, it's a Muscle Shoals-type R&B powerhouse with a twin horn section that carries Grey's gritty vocals higher and higher (baby). Mofro got the mojo.
JJ Grey and Mofro return to Savannah for a Lucas Theatre show Thursday, Oct. 10. We spoke with JJ this week .... And here's (part of) what he had to say. The man can spin a yarn.
"When you're young, you want to try to be somebody other than the people you grew up around. In other words, when I was in school everybody wanted to be Elvis Costello or something. They didn't want to have nothing to do with say, something like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Even though deep down everybody was still listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. If they heard it, they'd be humming along and then they'd catch themselves — 'wait a minute, I'm not supposed to be listening to this!' Whereas Elvis Costello, wherever he's from, and his generation would probably die to be the Allman Brothers.
"If you got straight hair, you want it curly; if you got curly hair, you want it straight.
"I honestly made no effort to be like the music that I'm doing. I made no effort to try to have a certain sound or anything, really. It just kind of all happened. We're all a collection of our influences — eventually, I feel, you get to be who you are, whenever you quit thinking about it."
Good rockin' tonight
"My sister and I grew up where you weren't supposed to listen to any of that kind of music. Rock music and all that stuff was bad, it was sinful, it was different things. But my sister had a lot of 45s, and a lot of that music was like KC & the Sunshine Band, a lot of horn stuff, man. I loved all that stuff. And the Bee Gees had some nasty arrangements, great songs ... now, I'm learning to appreciate that falsetto kind of voice they sang with. I wasn't crazy about it back then, but now I've learned to love that, too. I feel like that was influencing me early on."
"My dad loved the Grand Ole Opry. He had a Grand Ole Opry box set of 8-tracks. I can't remember how many of them was on there. The tracks that I kept coming back to, over and over again, was Jim Reeves and Hawkshaw Hawkins. But I really loved Jerry Reed; he was my favorite.
"When I listened to his tracks, 'Amos Moses' and 'When You're Hot, You're Hot,' stuff like that ... he had stuff with horns in it! I didn't never really think of it as straight-ahead country music at all. I thought it was country/funk, country swamp soul funk blues. If I wanted to be like anybody, I always wanted to be Jerry Reed. Of course, I haven't come close. And certainly haven't come close in the guitar-playing world, because that guy was probably one of the nastiest guitar players around.
"I wanted to land somewhere between him and Jerry Clower. Because he was a storyteller; if you put on Jerry Clower Live in Picayune, Mississippi, I could probably still recite it."
"My sister got me Skynyrd's Gold & Platinum for Christmas one year, that double album with the light blue cover, and my parents let me keep it. My dad, for whatever reason, loved Creedence Clearwater Revival. I don't know, maybe they didn't have too long a hair. I can't remember.
"When I was about 14, I played him the Skynyrd song 'I Know a Little.' And he was like 'Well, that's just jookin' music.' And I was like 'OK, that's good enough for me! I love it.'
"I didn't put horns on the first two records, on Blackwater or Lochloosa. Because Dan, the producer, said 'Don't write a check in the studio you can't go cash live; you can't afford to take horns out.' I had horn parts written out for all those tunes, and I just had to drop 'em.
"Anyway, in a review of the Country Ghetto album, the guy was saying I had left my Tony Joe White roots, because I added horns and stuff like that. 'Gone is the Tony Joe White flavor.' And I'm like dude, Tony Joe White's got horns all over his records. I don't know what record you were listening to, but all those tracks, they have horns and strings ... Skynyrd used horns on 'Call Me the Breeze' and 'T For Texas.' And those mellotron strings on 'Tuesday's Gone.'
Recording The River live
"I wanted the horns with us in the room. I didn't want to add horns as an afterthought — not that they were an afterthought on the other records. The thing is, you'd go in and record as a four-piece rock band — me, bass and drums, then I'd get the guitar and keys, and then I'd add horns. And hell, by the time you do that, there's not a lot of room left.
"So this time, I said I want to think in terms of these tracks as drums and bass and vocals, and then horns. Because the guitar players — me and Trube — we can find a little spot. Horn players have to play with each other; they can't just change everything they're doing instantaneously throughout a song. Those parts have to be ironed out at the top. If there's a solo, they can do whatever they want, but with horn parts they gotta make chords together. And the intensity of the horns! So I wanted the horns right there with us."