Photo by Adam McCullough
Like his music, JJ Grey has a healthy respect for the past while remaining vibrant and contemporary. On Georgia Warhorse, the latest by Grey & Mofro, the Muscle Shoals, Memphis Soul, blues and swamp rock influences combine for a sound that echoes that of his previous four studio releases yet maintains its own vitality. Like the album’s title, a reference to a resilient southern grasshopper, Grey has been a persistent musician – working blue collar jobs to stay afloat and slowly building a national reputation as singer, songwriter and performer. A tenacious approach in the demo phase and familiar recording surroundings in Jacksonville, Florida, bring out the best in Grey on Warhorse. Guest appearances by Derek Trucks (“Lullaby”) and Toots Hibbert (“The Sweetest Thing”) add extra spice to what’s already a wickedly potent album.
Similar to our 2008 conversation, my time with Grey finds him eloquently and modestly discussing this current chapter in his career. One of the major differences this time around is that it opens with his 15 month old daughter (the youngest of his two children) toddler demanding the attention of daddy, as Grey opens the conversation by explaining, “I’ve been playing with my little baby all morning, yellin’ and carrying on.”
JPG: So, you have two new additions right now, a new addition to your home and a new addition to catalogue. How have you been able to work out the two things?
JJG: Well, it’s tough going out on the road (at this point her screams can be heard over the phone) Excuse me. As soon as I get on the phone she starts screaming. She don’t want me on the phone. It’s tough but that’s part of the stuff. I don’t like to leave, especially with my little girl here right now. Hold on one second, let me pick her up. Now, she’ll probably want to take the phone out of my hand.
JPG: So, are you home right now or is she on the road with you?
JJG: I’m at home. These 14 days is the longest I’ve been home since March.
JPG: Oh , really?!? I knew that were you doing some touring prior to the album’s release but I didn’t realize that you were also on the road so much earlier in the year.
JJG: In March I went out and did the solo tour, just myself acoustic, opening up for Mavis Staples and Booker T. After that I brought out the full band and started doing dates all summer. Some bussed but mainly flying here or flying there. So, put you home for a couple days and then you turn around and leave again.
JPG: Is it so much that touring a financial reality or getting out word about this way in advance or…?
JJG: After Halloween last year, I only did Jam Cruise and two or three dates in Florida, right around New Year’s Eve. All the guys that play with me, they’ve all got their own bands and other band that they play in to keep the money coming in but I want to keep ‘em working, too, so I can keep together as many of the guys as I can for as long as I can. So, I go out on the road and say. I got to make a living and I want to get out there and play, to be honest with you. I miss being at home but I just want to go play anyway.
JPG: Your music has that lively feeling from the studio but there’s also the sensation about it that you want to break out of there and give it volume and another dimension in a live setting.
JJG: It’s all I’ve known. I’ve only known live music. Don’t get me wrong I’ve worked in a studio, too, but it didn’t work from having a breakout record or having a bunch of money from a label to try to help out and start you that way. Just the opposite. Play live all these years and then the records finally catch up with that instead of the other way around.
JPG: Now, is that true what I read in the press release, something about as a teenager you played clubs with chicken wire in front of the stage?
JJG: (slight laugh) Yeah, I’ve done that. As a matter of fact, I drove by one of the clubs today and it’s closed up. There’s a “For Sale” sign there.
JPG: I bring that up because, as I listened to Georgia Warhorse, the music sounded like something that should be played in a smoky club that had chicken wire.
JJG: Nice. Right, right, right.
JPG: Did the experiences there resonate and they now run through you now like blood?
JJG: I would say yes. It’s certainly there for the experience. It’s been so long. Honestly, I’ve gotten more comfortable over the years playing on in a big theater or on a big festival stage. I got a lot more comfortable doing that but that took some getting used to. I was used to people being (slight laugh) two feet from you the whole show. Always. People right there in front of you. So, that’s what I was used to.
JPG: I would think two feet in front of you. That could be a good thing or a bad thing.
JJG: (laughs) Yeah, that can be. That all got cleaned up eventually. Somebody buys the bar and says, ‘I ain’t tolerating this,’ and don’t put up with it no more. At first it was like that movie Roadhouse but there weren’t any Lamborghinis in the parking lot.