For more than a decade, singer-guitarist John “JJ” Grey, the frontman of the rock/blues band JJ Grey & Mofro, worked at a lumber yard while he tried to get his band off the ground.
As he explains, the lumber yard gig gave him the cash so thathe and his band could hit the road.
“I worked in a lumber yard for ten or 12 years until I got this going big enough that I couldn’t work there anymore,” Grey says in a recent interview from his Florida home. He performs at the Kent Stage
on July 6. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it weren’t for them. My boss man allowed me to go on these sometimes two month tours and then would allow me to come back and go straight back to work, so I could make money. Going on tour always put me in the hole. I would save money from the lumber yard and then pay them. The lumber yard let me do it.”
Now, Grey devotes most of his time to touring and recording. His latest album, 2015’s Ol’ Glory
, features more of the Southern-styled blues rock harmonies for which he’s known. A spirited horn section gives tunes such as “Everything is a Song” and “Every Minute” a retro feel. Grey’s eclectic approach stems from his upbringing; he listened to all sorts of different music while growing up.
“There was a little juke behind my grandfather’s place that had cover bands playing stuff like the Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder,” he explains. “One time they did a homemade rodeo down the road from our house, and they had a Southern rock band playing on the back of a trailer. I was exposed to stuff like that over the years. My sister had a good singles and 45 collection of stuff like [the soul/funk act] Main Ingredient. She also had disco. My mom sang in a choir, and my brother sang in the choir. We had a little organ in the house that I didn’t know how to play much. I didn’t have a family that was doing music all the time, but I was around music in some way.”
Initially, Grey and songwriting partner Daryl Hance, friends since high school, went to England because they had the chance to sign with a label with there. By the time they got there, the label was defunct. Grey managed to eke out a living overseas for about two years before he moved back to Jacksonville at the request of Fog City Records label owner, who offered him a contract.
“Some of the guys that played with me in London came back with me,” says Grey, who would start releasing albums in 2001. “I’ve probably had 50-odd people come through this outfit.”
He says Mofro wasn’t really a band because he wrote all the songs. His grandmother was the one who inspired him to start putting his name on the marquee.
“Before [2007’s] Country Ghetto
came out, my grandmother asked me what the name meant and I said nothing,” he says. “She asked, ‘You sing about your family and call it Mofro? Are you ashamed of me? Everybody else puts their name on it when they paint a picture.’”
At that point, he began calling the group JJ Grey & Mofro.
While Grey says he records most of his albums live, he tried to enforce that approach more strictly with Ol’ Glory
“I wanted to catch everything at once,” he says. “In the past, it wasn’t everything at once. The biggest reason it wasn’t done all at once was because I didn’t have my shit together. I didn’t have all the parts arranged. With this album, I had everything a lot more together finally. There were always a third of the songs that the band had played multiple times at least at sound checks. Another third they may have played once or twice. Another third would be these ideas, and I have to flesh them out in the studio. That’s how everything went but the last one. The last one was two thirds were down to a science and a third that the band had played a couple of times.”
He’s had horns on every album since Country Ghetto
. But he often had to overdub the horns. He recorded Ol’ Glory
with the horn players in the studio along his side.
“A lot of [the overdubbing] has to do with the logistics,” he says. “We don’t need full separation but if horn players are standing right beside the drummer, the horn mic will just pick up the drummer. We went for it and I’m happy with the way it turned out.”
Album opener “Everything is a Song,” a souful song that puts Grey’s sultry baritone vocals up front in the mix, starts things off with a bang. Grey says his daughter inspired the spirited song.
“We had left Target or Home Depot and she just started singing and didn’t have words yet,” he says. “She didn’t know a lot of words yet. She started singing and had this look on her face like she was a soul singer. I saw her in the rearview mirror and started listening to her singing, and it pulled me into being right there. Normally, I am thinking about all the things I have to do and all the judge and jury stuff in your head. For 15 seconds, it stopped, and the trees got greener, and the sky got bluer. I realized she wasn’t singing to show off or to make money. She was singing just like a bird sings. That’s what it’s all about. All that other crap doesn’t mean nothing.”
With its grunge-y guitar riff and hoarse vocals, “Brave Lil’ Fighter” stands out as one of the more intense songs on the album and features a Black Keys-like swagger. Grey says he wrote the song about his former boss at the lumber yard.
“My boss man, oh, he’s not around anymore,” he says dryly. “He made a bad decision. He ain’t the first to do it. It has to do with prescription drugs. That was the main problem. It’s just one of those things. This song is about that. It just happened and I deciphered it later and realized it was about him. It’s like if I could write a letter to him.”
Grey says despite the trials and tribulations he’s endured over the years, he never doubted his desire to play music or though that he might not succeed.
“That never factored into my thinking,” he says. “I had to do it whether I wanted to do it or not. People tell me they couldn’t have done the sleeping on people’s floors and driving. It was never hard. It was fun. There was a stretch when I made it hard on myself because I pretended it was hard. I never thought about whether or not it was going to work.”
He pauses and then uses a metaphor to explain his point.
“I compare it to a salmon swimming upstream,” he says. “If someone could ask it questions about whether it’s hard or if it’s going to pan out, the salmon would say, ‘I don’t know the answers to any of that shit. I just know I have to swim that way.’ That’s how I feel about it.”
JJ Grey & Mofro, 9 p.m. Thursday, July 6, the Kent Stage, 175 East Main St., Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $29, thekentstage.com.