JJ Grey recently sat down with us before his show at Birmingham's WorkPlay Theater to chat about growing up in the South, who helped develop his musical accent, and creating an honest moment with his audience.
If you listen to JJ Grey & Mofro's seventh album Ol' Glory—and I mean really listen—you'll hear a celebration of life, the wonderment of nature's abundant and amazing beauty, and the joy of sharing it with one another. And, if you're really listening, you'll have what JJ Grey likes to call an honest moment.
To the layperson, Florida-born JJ Grey's sound can be described as a delightful amalgam of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Southern rock, the soulful funk of James Brown, the rhythmic blues of Otis Redding, the gospel spirituality of Brother Dave Gardner, the songwriting skills of Neil Young, and the yarn-spinning prowess and stage presence of Grand Ole Opry great Jerry Clower—all wrapped up into one electric package. Grey's stage performances are incendiary, and always worth the price of admission.
Just don't ask him to try and describe his own style.
"I'll be honest. I really don't know [what I sound like]," he says. "It's like going to a friend's house and hearing a voice message you left on their answering machine. Who the hell?! Is that what I sound like? And I feel the same way about what I do—I have no idea what I sound like."
You didn't have to be born south of the Mason-Dixon to know that Grey's sound and roots are as Southern as the black-eyed peas and corn bread he belts about in songs like "Ho Cake," though. So much of who and what he sings about can be traced back to his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, where he spent summers getting his hands dirty on his grandparent's land, watched over by a towering, 50-strong pecan tree grove.
Grey was given the grisly task of walking the property's two chicken houses and clearing out any and all dead chickens. He later graduated to egg picker, plucking up eggs by the dozens, cleaning them with a small sandpaper tool, and then sorting them by weight in the concrete refrigerator building between the chicken houses. Grey now owns and lives on that same land his grandparents once toiled, the refrigerator building no longer housing cool, sanded eggs, but a music studio aptly dubbed The Egg Room, where Grey hatched many of the tracks on Ol' Glory.
The indelibly strong connection he feels to that little piece of terra ferma, where his grandparents once grew okra and snap peas in their one-acre garden, has led him to write songs like "Lochloosa," in which he laments in no small terms the loss of Florida's natural habitat in favor of "one more Mickey Mouse/ Another golf course another country club/ Another gated community."
Back in those egg-picking days, his young ears were nurtured via the vinyl tones of Gardner, Clower, and Jerry Reed, to name a few. Grey would listen to his father's 8-track copy of "Amos Moses" over and over again, and these gentlemen helped develop Grey's knack for onstage storytelling, a skill set he deftly deploys each show to draw his audience in ever closer.
While Reed et al. honed his showmanship, others helped lay the framework for what would become Grey's unmistakably soulful Southern sound. He idolized Otis Redding, loved Jacksonville's own Lynyrd Skynyrd, and snuck in some Isley Brothers behind his grandfather's trailer park in Baldwin, Florida, from time to time (but only when "mama and daddy wouldn't find out"). And he knows growing up in the South is what gave him his musical "accent."
"People say there's blues, soul, funk, a little country in what I do," he says. "All that stuff is just an accent, you know? To me, it's just like talking with an accent. So when people ask, 'Why do you do that?' You're just born into it. You just talk with a Southern accent, and I grew up around bands that played Southern rock."
When combining the influence of those Southern musical staples with his skills on the guitar and harmonica, and in harmony with his indomitable band, Grey's timbre is both cathartic and invigorating. Ol' Glory is his magnum opus in that regard. Tracks like "Light A Candle" make you want to rise with the sun to feel its ray's heat on your face as you breathe in the scent of fresh dewdrops, shed a joyful tear while phoning your mother to tell her how much you love her, and dance until your knees give out, all at once. Or, it might make you want to share your own story, something Grey encourages in earnest.
"For me, everybody's got a story going on, and they don't realize it," he says. "People say, 'Man, I couldn't write a song.' I'm like, 'Of course you could.' If you can carry on a conversation, then you can write a song, because that's all it is—it's a conversation with yourself."
Ol' Glory is rife with fun, grateful celebrations of appreciating just how beautiful life is that are guaranteed to put a grin on your face. And that's what Grey means when he says his one goal through his music is to create "an honest moment" with his audience. To Grey, an honest moment is a sudden realization of how truly amazing being alive is, acknowledging everything and everyone that's alive around you, all connecting in an instant that elicits goose bumps and causes the corners of your mouth to curl up into an unsolicited smile of appreciation, of pure, unadulterated joy.