JJ Grey's hybrid style melds soul, emotion
JJ Grey & Mofro and Jonny Lang
He brings his band to Sweetwater Pavilion
Photo by Jay Simon
August 1, 2019
The South is more, much more, than country music.
Among those in the south who have found a winning hybrid of musical styles is JJ Grey, a Florida native whose music seamlessly fuses the blues, rock, funk, soul, and a little bit of all that can be found musically in the South and beyond.
Born John Higginbotham, Grey dubbed his band Mofro as a reflection of that very hybrid of musical styles. He explained the genesis of the name in a 2016 interview with Flamingo magazine.
Using his name
“A guy at work used to say that to me, ‘Sup, Mofro.’ It just sounded Southern and didn’t mean anything specific so I was like, ‘I’ll call what I’m doing Mofro.’
“Then my grandmother, one day she’s sitting there, you know, crocheting, looking at the TV, and she just stops and is like, ‘What the hell is Mofro?’ Just like she’d been rolling it around. Then she’s like, ‘You know that song you’re singing about mine and your granddaddy’s last conversation on Earth? You’re singing about your daddy in another song. You’re singing about your boy Trey dying on OxyContin. Are you ashamed of us?’ I’m like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ She said, ‘Johnny Cash is just Johnny Cash. Some people, they don’t even sing songs about their own people, and they still got their name. Why don’t you put your name on there? Is it embarrassing?’ I called my manager the next day and said, ‘I’m putting my name on the music.’”
Now recording and touring under the name JJ Grey & Mofro, Grey admits that his music is hard to categorize, and he has said his most treasured albums include Otis Redding’s In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Jerry Reed’s greatest hits.
More Soul, less Country
His admiration for Reed was somewhat tempered by his desire to infuse more soul and less country into his own music. Although Grey himself finds it hard to define his “sound” when asked, he did tell Flamingo who he most wanted to sound like.
“Everything from Marvin Gaye to Wilson Pickett, George Jones to Jerry Reed, AC/DC to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Donny Hathaway to Stevie Wonder, James Brown. I want to sound like all that.”
Early reviews of Grey’s recordings suggest he was on the right track from the beginning, as noted by critic Jeff Hahne when reviewing Grey’s 2008 release Orange Blossoms.
“JJ Grey’s vocals lie somewhere between Joe Cocker and Otis Redding,” he wrote. “He’s got the growl, soul, and emotion to pull it off, too. The album kicks off with the reelin’ and rockin’ title track that showcases his vocals out front of occasional horns and a backdrop of sound that’s straight out of the ’60s. When I first heard the group, I (incorrectly) assumed they were out of Louisiana — it’s swamp-based rock n’ soul with some blues and funk mixed in. The album has an old-school feel to it — solid rhythms, heartfelt vocals, and powerful vocals. The band isn’t afraid to slow things down for ‘The Truth.’ With a wah-wah pedal and an organ grinding the groove, ‘Wylf [What You’re Looking For]’ sounds like it comes straight out of the ’70s without sounding dated.”
More recently, Grey’s 2015 release Ol’ Glory allowed Grey to tap into his cinematic approach to making music, according to the album’s press release which detailed how Grey had become somewhat more analytical about his music and lyrics, eschewing the more “shoot-from-the-hip” style he’d taken in earlier recordings.
“I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey said. “I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a moment of peace — that’s the only thing I consistently try to achieve with a record.”
Creating a great live set
As he told Flamingo magazine, Grey takes equal care and puts similar thought into how he constructs his live set.
“My thing with the set is, however I start —whether it’s quiet or I come out bang! — I break it down, and then build it back up, and then break it down, and then build it back up, and then break it down, and then build it back up and don’t come back down until an encore. Then I usually play something really subdued as the first song of the encore, like ‘This River’ or ‘The Sun is Shining Down.’ I don’t like to play ‘The Sun is Shining Down’ in the middle of the set.”
In that same interview, Grey shared how he is able to sing the same songs again and again, and his philosophy bodes well for audiences who see him perform next week at the Sweetwater Pavilion.
“So whenever I go up there and sing the song, it’s this minute, this second. That’s all there is. And I just try to let that inspire each moment as it unfolds in front of me.”