By Brian Tucker
It’s a terrible thing when you can’t enjoy the moment, the mind racing, always concerned about what’s next. Not long ago that’s where JJ Grey was in his life.
“On the road I was thinking, I can’t wait to get home and be with the family and go to my favorite restaurant. Then I get home and I think about the next tour and this and that,” Grey said. “Wherever I was, I never enjoyed it. I could go to the Redwood Forest, and for a second marvel and then go, now what? That wore me out eventually.”
Grey says he’ll slip up occasionally but is in a better place today. He discussed this and new album Ol’ Glory from Florida while looking across the salt marsh as peacocks make noise and carry on. Grey and his band Mofro will perform their mix of soul, funk and southern rock Thursday at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. The new album, his seventh, has songs that are philosophical, even spiritual.
“I guess it’s got that in it, I don’t think about it too much. I just kind of roll with it,” Grey says of writing lyrics. “All the albums have that element, and maybe it leans more in that direction song to song than some of the other records.”
You can’t get more mind-open-wide than “Everything is a Song” about seeing the joy in everything around you. He sings, “I ain’t about to hear a thing to take me away from this day/I’ve been waiting for this moment all of my life.” It mirrors Grey’s realization of an addiction to the future, about thinking only of where he was going next. You can’t get Grey to readily admit much about song meanings. Humbly non-committal, he says they just happen.
“Song meanings can change to me over the years, or their relationship to me. “Brighter Days” (from 2001’s Blackwater) I wrote as an angry young dude. Now I’m not angry, but when I sing it I see it’s a mile marker to see how far I’ve come as a human being, not as a performer or whatever you want to call that. It’s about how much I can keep things in balance. When I wrote it I wasn’t, and now I feel like am. I think (new) songs might reflect that a little more.”
Musically, Ol’ Glory is filled with up-tempo numbers and introspective slow burners. Grey’s raspy, soulful voice is backed by a tight band and lovely horn playing, namely on the self-revelatory “Light a Candle.” The title track is a feverish seven and a half minutes, sounding like church testifying crossed with energetic 70s soul and funk. “Hold on Tight” is the album’s most combustible, pairing burning guitar with a down and dirty groove.
But Ol’ Glory brims with observation, internal and external. On “Every Minute” Grey begins, “I tried so hard to be the person everybody thought I was, I pushed myself and everyone almost over the edge.” That struggle is over, and sporadic fans are perplexed. One said he liked the older stuff and that Grey needed to have some more hardships.
“I’m like, hardships? I never really had hardships; I was just being a sissy all that time. I never realized what I called hardships, its just life, everybody has it,” Grey said. “The less my life is like a roller coaster the more centered and balanced things become. Then maybe the music starts showing that and sounds more philosophical, whatever you want to call it, maybe that’s how that happened.”
Do you get anxious before a tour begins?
Grey: We had almost a month off. We started in February and go into November, with spots off here and there. Pretty steady touring this year. It’s about that much each year, around 130 shows a year. I don’t get anxious, not really to be honest. You can talk yourself into anything but after doing it fourteen years straight I don’t really. I did get nervous doing new material. But I’m lucky enough to play with the people I have picked over the years. They’re so good at what they do. They dispel all nervousness, honestly.
In the last four or five years, maybe a horn player will come and go, maybe one guy comes and goes. You do 130 shows a year, especially in the early days when the money isn’t great, the turnover can be kind of high. People get a better gig or settle down, get off the road, a lot of reasons, none of them bad reasons. Things happen, life happens, it’s kind of tough to keep going sometimes.
Do you create artwork for album covers? Have an art background?
Grey: I do, yes. Not really, I always drew, always did as a kid. My grandparents always talked about me becoming a commercial artist so to speak, I don’t even know what that is. I was never as good as they thought I was, but that’s always the case with parents and grandparents. I was so impatient. It takes a lot of patience to draw really well. Drawing these things is kind of easy because I keep it real simple and turn it into a graphic. I’ll draw something then draw on a tablet in Illustrator. I’ll scan my pencil drawings and then draw it on the tablet, then fix all my mistakes. It’s a lot easier.
A real artist can draw with very few mistakes. I have a lot of mistakes to correct. Before I got the tablet that’s how I did it. When I did the Georgia Warhorse album art, the grasshopper, I just grabbed some art supplies in Mississippi and started drawing in pencil. Then I would draw it again and again until it gets there. Then I trace a few times to where think I’ve fixed the mistakes. (Later on) when I scanned it I didn’t have to clean up the eraser marks and then paint it in so it looks more like a pure graphic. Its fun, I enjoy it.
Is Ol’ Glory a spiritual album to you?
Grey: I guess it’s got that in it, I don’t think about it too much. I just kind of roll with it. I think all the albums all have that element in it and maybe it leaned more into that element than the other records. “The Sun is Shining Down” and “This River” and all of them have a tinge of that thing in it somehow. But I think that maybe leans more in that direction song to song than some of the other records.
Walking onstage, do you change, experience a change of character?
Grey: Some shows and some people’s music, it’s about the show. That’s great, I love that stuff. Some shows are just reflections of a person’s life. A lot of music is done that way. It’s not any better or any worse. It is what it is. That’s the only thing that I’ve done that is real for me. The other stuff, its not that I didn’t think it was real when I was younger, before even what I called JJ Grey & Mofro.
I was never any good at going into character and becoming somebody else, a larger than life putting on a giant rock and roll type of thing. That was never me. I always envied cats that could do that. Get up there and become this whole other person and walk off stage. I tried that and I wasn’t any good at it so I started writing songs about life and my life.
The good news for me is that it makes it easier for me. And it keeps changing all the time. It might not change drastically but it’s subtle and that’s like life. The less my life is like a roller coaster the more centered and balanced things become then maybe the music starts showing that. And hints that it sounds more philosophical, whatever you want to call it, maybe that’s how that happened.
Did you experience a major life change?
Grey: Oh I did, I had several. It’s a major life thing that has been gradual. I didn’t jump all the way into the swimming pool so to speak. But I also didn’t come in one tortuous inch at a time. I was somewhere in-between. In other words, enough things happened one after another that gradually I realized I was already there and I had a friend point in the right direction. I would have people come up to me and say, you must read a lot about Buddha. I got nothing against that, I just don’t know anything about it.
It’s a universal thing with human beings that at some point you realize you’re in a wrestling match with your mind. And your mind keeps winning and when it wins enough it runs you. You don’t run it anymore. You get wore out from it. It kept me sick all the time on the road. I didn’t like what I was doing, didn’t even like music, didn’t like anything hardly. I just got tired of it and I made a choice to not be that way anymore.
Was it the pressure to be successful?
Grey: Not at all. It was just an addiction, not pressure to do anything other than just. I could always feel the back current flowing where real things are happening. And outside of that, my mind was like a power boat trying to power its way through everything, to everywhere. I was addicted to time, the future. I didn’t care about the past.
I don’t have pictures, I don’t reminisce. I don’t have memorabilia from what I’ve ever done. I don’t have anything against it. I just don’t care about what happened. But I was addicted to the future, what was going to happen next. Wherever I was I was always in my mind about where I was going to be next.
If I was on the road I was thinking I can’t wait to get home and be with the family and go to my favorite restaurant, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that. Then I get home and I have to think about the next tour and this and that. Wherever I was I never enjoyed it. I’d look at the sunset and wouldn’t see it. I’d hear people say, it beautiful, and I’d think so what, I got stuff to do. I could go to the Redwood Forest, look at a Redwood tree and for a second marvel and then go, now what? That wore me out, eventually.
So once I had the realizations that time’s relative, things just started slowing down and I made a conscious effort to notice things. My buddy told me, you should pay attention to patterns in your life that keep repeating. The people change, the places change, the circumstances change, but the patterns are still there.
When you notice those patterns they start to go away. I was filling up (my individual life) with future so there was no room for anything else. It starts taking chunks of you away, your health, everything. You just live out what’s already there and good things happen.
Are you in a place where you can slow down and enjoy moments in life?
Grey: Oh yeah, but I slip and get caught up in it. But I don’t think I’ll ever go back to where I was and be completely ignorant of it. Where I just lived and thought that was normal and never questioned it. Now, I wake up from it and realize I’m running around like a dog chasing its tail. It’s time to take a couple of deep breaths.
My way out is always to hear everything at once. I do it during shows. The mind will come in and wage war with you sometimes, even during a show, and try to take you away from it. It’s a journey, not a destination. It’s like working out and being in shape. You can’t work out and get in the greatest shape of your life and say that’s it and never do it again and I’ll stay this way.
One thing I realized is that life does not reward things being static. If a car sits in a driveway for a year it’ll be in worse shape than if you drove it for a year. Life does that with everything, our minds, with our bodies. With anything. It’s not good for you. Movement is rewarded. There’s balance between all that.
You do too much…you know, the dog chasing its tail. You need to find that spot where you just let go. My way into that is to hear everything, hear all of it, not just one thing. Try to see all of it at one time instead of one thing at a time. Those always are a quick ways for to get back to reality instead being in my mind.
Ol’ Glory full playlist:
This River full playlist:
Georgia Warhorse full playlist: