Florida to the core, JJ Grey has thrived by singing about his roots and living one day at a time.
By Steve Houk
So when you think of Florida, what do you think of? No, I mean the good part, not the butt-of-jokes negative part.
Well, you could start with a sunset over the Gulf. Collard greens and black-eyed peas and ho cake. The sweet smell of an orange grove. The Everglades. The Keys. Real sweet tea. A pelican swooping down over the bay. There’s a lot more, but yeah, those work.
Oh, and as much as a gator skulking in a swampy marsh says Florida, there’s also the music of JJ Grey.
As deeply ingrained in the Sunshine State as anything you’d find on a beach in St Augustine, a dinner table in Olustee, or in a pine forest in Alachua County, JJ Grey has spent his life as a living piece, a living treasure really, of the heart and soil of the state he was born in. He sowed his oats there, got his hands dirty there, raised a family there, and last but certainly not least, has made and continues to make incredible music there. Florida’s DNA is Grey’s DNA, and it’s what has primarily fed the miraculous soon-to-be eight albums worth of songs of one of the most respected singer/songwriters and live performers of the last 20 years. And that deep and sincere connection to his roots and his family has gotten him to good place, as he sits a stone’s skip across the pond from 50 years old.
“My family, my daughter, wife, son, ya know, music to me is a by-product of all that,” Grey, 47, told me as he was driving down the road in, where else, Florida. “It’s a by-product of the rest of my life, it’s just a conversation of that, you know what I mean? Everything seems to be a journey in the same direction, so to speak. In other words, whatever I’m doin’, it always seems to end up being about me focusing on bein’ who I am, where I am, when I am, and enjoying that and just sort of basking in that, if you will. That’s kinda where I’ve been for a little while now, it’s kinda like turnin’ on a joy switch and not turnin’ it off. I’m lovin’ it.”
You can probably cull from that that life seems to be going pretty good for JJ Grey right about now. From his first record Blackwater in 2001, to the soon to be released Ol’ Glory, Grey and his band Mofro have become eagerly anticipated staples in clubs and halls and festivals across the world, known far and wide for their blissful live shows that erupt with swamp-soaked, soul-charged, Southern-shined rock and roll, all driven by the powerful songs of Grey’s Florida life that grace records that, surprise, all have titles that drip with the imagery of his home state, like Georgia Warhorse, This River, Orange Blossoms, Lochloosa, and sure, Country Ghetto. Grey and Mofro and special guests, the also fabulous London Souls, grace the 9:30 Club stage on February 18th.
“Soul” – that word is stunningly prevalent in Grey’s music, and in his voice. His inner soul is where he visits to mine his past, present and future to write his songs, and it is with unbridled soul that he gloriously sings about the people, stories, moments and times he has experienced. Grey creates music that is at different times celebratory, reverent, poignant, exulting, deep. So where does this stunning and diversified JJ Grey soul come from?
“Man, you know what? I have no idea,” the affable and open Grey says with a chuckle. “All I know is I just hope it comes out. I liken it all to a sailboat, because I just man the rudder, which means I kinda move it in a direction, but I ain’t in charge of the current, I ain’t in charge of the wind, all I can do throw the sails up and then stand at the rudder, and try to steer it. And you know what, I’m happy there, I’m happy with that. Maybe it can be rough sometimes, but you can have all kinds of moments of beauty, and it feels so free. And for me, singin’ has become that same way. I used to be able to tell you exactly how I do this, that and the other, but anymore it’s all about just manning the rudder, man, and sail where the wind takes me.”
Born in the 60’s in Jacksonville with roots to Florida ancestors going generations back — surely as far back as some of the roots of the pecan trees that line his grandparents’ Florida farm where he now lives — Grey never had clear designs on becoming the successful and respected musician that he is today: “I’ve never really had that moment, that do or die moment. I’ve had friends who felt that there was this huge commitment that they would have to make to music, but I never viewed it like that. I just did what I felt like I was supposed to go do.” He took life as it came, one day at a time, working at a local air conditioning company and then a lumberyard, all the while gathering snippets of his burgeoning musical sensibility from family, Casey Kasem, and even some inspiration from the Skynyrd boys, who all grew up cross town.
“My Dad had a buncha 8-tracks, there’s where I first heard Jerry Reed and Amos Moses, and was blown away by that,” Grey continues. “And my sister had a bunch of 45s, like disco 45s, like KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees, Main Ingredient, all that stuff from that era. Yet there wasn’t a whole lotta music that parents would give their stamp of approval to, especially secular music. But on the way home from church, my Dad would let us listen to that Casey Kasem Top Countdown on Sundays, and by the time we got outta church I think it was getting pretty close to the top 10 or so, if I remember right, on the way home, and we’d listen to all that stuff. Then my sister bought me Gold and Platinum which is the (Lynyrd) Skynyrd double album, and that’s the first record that was mine, that I owned. And my parents let me keep it. I remember playing that song “I Know A Little” for my Dad, and he was like, ‘That’s just juke music,’ but my Dad liked it, I could tell he liked it. But as a parent, he can’t qualify it, you know what I mean, he’s just gotta stay a daddy.”
Grey also used a little homegrown Florida ingenuity that he learned right in his own backyard and traded it for what would be his biggest gateway yet to a wealth of even more musical experiences.
“I got an AM radio, see, I traded a kid what we called a chinaberry gun,” Grey said. “We had a big ol’ grove of bamboo behind my Mom and Dad’s house, so we could make these guns, that you could shoot out a little chinaberry, about the size of a marble, pretty fast. Anyway I gave him one of those and he gave me a little cheap pocket radio. And I used to listen to the Greaseman on the Mighty 690AM, and they played stuff like a little mixture of rock, and you might hear Marvin Gaye on there, it was a little wider range mixture than it is these days. I used to hear a lot of music on that, but Mom and Daddy didn’t know it, ya know?”
Music (orange) blossomed for Grey and became a viable way for him to support himself, but he had to choose if he should go at it full speed. And as usual, he dealt with this first big life decision like he seems to deal with everything else: with humility and a laid back take-it-as-it-comes attitude that appears to have served him well throughout life.
“For me, I never felt like I had to make a big choice,” Grey said. “It was tough at the beginning, at some points I didn’t get to sleep very much, I’d come home (from gigs) and go straight to work at the lumberyard. But they supported me, all long the way I had great people helping me, you know. And maybe that’s why it never felt like I had to make this hard core choice of one lifestyle or the other, I just did it all at the same time. Then I quit working at the lumberyard and if music could pay for the mortgage and the food and the car and the gas, that was good enough. Time just shifted to doin’ music more than workin’ at the lumberyard.”
And if adversity came his way, well, he’d harken back to that ol’ A/C company job for a bit of office wisdom he hasn’t forgotten to this day.
“At the air conditioning company, this lady there had one of those little life things she put up that said, ‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.’ And the other one was a frog half swallowed by a stork, but the frog’s arms were still out and he was strangling the stork, and it was called, ‘Never give up.’ It’s funny how those two things come back to me later on.”
JJ Grey (photo courtesy JJ Grey)
Since he stacked the lumber behind him and chose a life of music, Grey’s reputation has grown every year based both on his live shows and his stellar records, which blend the sounds of Otis Redding type soul and Jerry Reed style twang with his deeply personal and revealing songs largely about, yes, his beloved Florida, where he has experienced life, with all its struggles and triumphs. One thing he has dealt with in his music is the ongoing struggle in his home state between progress and preservation, and like fellow Floridian and best-selling author Carl Hiaasen, Grey uses his work not so much to preach about the consequences of overdevelopment, but to move someone via his art to think about their own connection with the land.
“A friend of mine, actually it was my first manager, she was a developer,” Grey said. “And she told me, she’s like, ‘After I listened to Lochlooosa, I decided that if I do anything, I want to do it with ‘x’ amount of land per house, and we gotta leave so many trees, and we gotta leave so much forest within a little subdivision’ and stuff. And I told her, ‘Look, I didn’t do that to preach to you, to tell you what to do with your business. I was just doin’ my best to remember what’s important for myself.’ So I guess, through my music, it was always my own wake up call, and if that helped her make her own connection with the place, then that’s great too, you know?”
Grey’s new record Ol’ Glory is another powerful mix of rollicking soul-fueled rock and roll and beautiful front porch ballading, another joy ride rife with sweet voice, big horns and slide guitar that once again epitomizes JJ Grey’s Florida style, a style that is steeped in where he came from, and where he’s going. And with that ol’ JJ Grey attitude, well, the sky’s the limit.
“The point is that everybody’s got their own hills to climb, their own crosses to bear and all that good stuff. For me, it’s just down to are you you gonna make it hard on yourself, or are you gonna make it easy? And I just decided to make it easy on myself.”