99 Shades of Grey
J.J. Grey and Mofro keep things half honest in their new album “This River.”
by Todd Powers
The quintessential Southern musician, J.J. Grey is colorful, expressive and soulful. He exhibits a sense of social charisma that would by coveted by an affable politician or a fire-brand minister. If you did not know any better, you could easily assume Grey was the guy that fixed your air conditioner last week or rotated your tires at the local Wal-Mart had he not picked up a guitar and a microphone. In his lazy drawl, Grey speaks as if he’s an old friend, seamlessly integrating narratives of crappie fishing, fish fries and neighboring relatives into conversation while pondering the higher points of life: weather, European culture and rock and roll. A staple on the festival and club circuit, J.J. Grey and Mofro have been charming audiences with their honest blend of Southern soul-blues-rock for well over a decade.
Tallahassee, Florida-born Grey is a storyteller. His music chronicles the familiar stories of life below the Mason-Dixon Line, anecdotes Grey knows well from both observation and personal experience. In a more complex sense, Grey is a singer/songwriter with the unique ability to weave celebratory joy with edgy darkness in a funky-Southern-deep-fried fashion. Brushes with crazy women, hard drinking nights at the Florabama and working class heroes are all integral aspects of Grey’s musical repertoire. Living in the South all his life, Grey retorts, “It’s the culture I grew up in. I write about stuff that has happened to me or things that I have seen happen.” Intertwining these uniquely Southern experiences with time honored musical traditions has propelled J.J. Grey and Mofro beyond modest success.
Grey’s sixth and latest album “This River” hit stores April 16. An album more at home with the rasping needle of a 33 LP than the polished resonance of digital medium, “This River” runs the gamut of Southern soul with upbeat rockers, poignant ballads and stops at all points in between. Described simply as “songs that write themselves,” “This River” covers a lot of ground. From the guitar driven, horn infused Tame a Wild One to the blue-collar Ballad of Larry Web, Grey captures the duality of heartbreak and happiness so innate in Southern culture. Slow jams reminiscent of sultry summer evenings like Somebody Else effortlessly transition into sweaty, back porch foot stompers like 99 Shades of Crazy. In 49 short minutes, “This River” takes listeners through a range of emotions generally reserved for Christmas morning, imbibed weddings and Irish funerals.
With a new album on shelves and a swath of sold-out shows, Grey can’t complain about the music business. According to him, “Live music is as good as it has ever been. More people than ever are coming to shows and folks are having a great time.” While success flourishes, Grey maintains a laid back approach to both career and life. “I am just going to let it go and let life happen, take it one day at a time, and keep doing what I am doing,” he says. Sustaining an authentic focus on his live performances, Grey proposes: “Most people go to a show to escape reality, but I think you’re going to a show to get to reality. In the end, none of it’s as real as you think it is,” he quips.
On an unseasonably cool April evening at Sewanee: The University of the South, Grey and his Mofro band mates sauntered through much of “This River,” fusing old school favorites from “Country Ghetto,” “Blackwater” and “Lochloosa” into the mix. In a converted gym, amongst the stone facades of the hallowed university, the raucous crowd was exceedingly receptive to Grey’s musical offerings. Hoots and hollers echoed throughout the roomy hall as carousing coeds danced with passionate enthusiasm.
Delivering over two hours of sonic pleasure, Grey’s magnetism drove the audience into a euphoric state as they reveled late into the evening. With the night coming to a close, smiling faces and weary legs stumbled into the mountain air, warbling their favorite tune while deliberating the next late night festivity. After the show, Grey was jovial as the band and crew prepared for a long ride to Washington, DC. “This is why we do what we do,” he pronounced on his way out the door.
Finishing up on the East coast in late April, J.J. Grey and Mofro will be heading to Europe for a two-week excursion through Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. With the upcoming European tour, I asked Grey how Southern rock and blues translate overseas. He suggested that “honesty is the best policy.” When you “pour your guts out, there is no need for translation,” he said. As an aside, Grey retorted, “I reckon I’m half honest.”
If you’re looking to get your J.J. Grey fix in the Southeast, he and Mofro will be headlining Slice Fest in Birmingham on June 1 with Alabama legends Rollin’ in the Hay, The Banditos and more. See their full summer tour schedule here.
All photos by Todd Powers.
Todd Powers is a photographer and writer living in North Alabama. His main focus is music, particulary jambands and bluegrass. He currently write reviews for Jambands.com/Relix and the Valley Planet in Huntsville and submits photography to Bluegrass Today. When he’s not listening to or writing about music, Powers is at his day job as an assistant principal at an elementary school and also finishing his doctorate.