It’s time for my 10 a.m. interview with JJ Grey, but there’s no answer on the other line. “Great,” I think—yet another groggy rock star still recovering from the night before. Does he remember the appointment? Does he even know where his phone is? So typical.
When he calls me back, 30 seconds later, he apologizes profusely. Turns out he was just doing some work around his 20-acre plot of land and happened to have the ringer down too low. You know what assuming does.
There’s a genuine quality that comes across when talking to Grey. The whiskey-soaked tinge you hear on record exists in his speaking voice, too. There’s no pretending going on.
Grey has lived around the swamps outside of Jacksonville his entire life. He was introduced to music the way many others have been—whatever the parents happened to be listening to at the time. “They listened to a little bit of everything, from KC and the Sunshine Band to Lynyrd Skynyrd, but what really stuck with me were songwriters that told a story. Nashville guys like Big Bad John and Jim Reeves were big for me.”
We’ve all heard the stories of life-defining moments that leave musicians writing songs their entire careers. Grey never had one of those, but over time, he knew the path he was headed down. “It was definitely a process. I had been doing music for a while, but it took me a few years to realize I needed to quit surfing or chasing girls so much if I wanted the music thing to go anywhere,” he says with a chuckle.
When he first started writing, Grey tried to tell stories that really weren’t his. It didn’t take long to realize that, for him, the approach wasn’t working. “It’s just easier for me to tell stories of something I saw or something that I’ve been a part of,” he says. First-hand experience reigns supreme in his work.
One thing that Grey stresses throughout our chat is the importance of spontaneity to his songwriting process. “You never know when you’re going to get an idea. You have to be ready for it when it comes.” Because of this, he has groomed the ability to play all instruments on his records. His self-deprecating humor comes out quickly when talking about this, though. “I’m not really good at any of the instruments I play. I just need to be able to play everything so I can hammer out an idea and write that tune while it’s there in my head. I’m certainly no virtuoso.” Don’t let him fool you. He knows what he’s doing.
Grey has recorded all of his albums in St. Augustine’s Retrophonics studio. That name really does say it all. He records on two-inch tape to preserve the thick, warm sound he has become known for. It’s vintage in the most complimentary way.
As varied as they are, it’s easy to point to the bands that have been touchstones for Grey and his band, Mofro. The sound is homage to the blues-based funky soul music that the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio unleashed on the world in the late 60s and early 70s. Horns, keyboards, and harmonicas all play a big role. It’s going to make you move.
There’s plenty of straightforward rock and roll in the mix, too. Creedence Clearwater Revival is an undeniable influence. Grey’s gritty vocals hearken back to Joe Cocker. It comes from a lot of places, but in the end, it’s distinctly Southern.
When comparing the road and the studio, Grey knows exactly where his strength lies. “When you’re on the road all the time, you become comfortable up there.”
He tries his best to have his mind on nothing but the show when performing. “The best mindset is to have no mindset. Expectations kill everything. They destroy what could be a great thing. Whatever happens, happens. You have to let the night ride.”
It’s that attitude that sums up everything you need to know about JJ Grey. Carefree and genuine, his music gives you a chance to let go for an hour or two. And when you do that, anything can happen.
Photo: JJ Grey Official