Posted by: George | May 12, 2012

The Voice of J.J. Grey

Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing J.J. Grey and Mofro at the Rev Room in Little Rock. It was the third time I had seen the group live, and it was by far the best show of the three. The crowd fed off the band’s energy, and the band fed off the crowd’s energy. Remarkable, especially for a small venue on a Wednesday night.

Grey calls his music Ghetto/Country, which makes sense, as far as it goes. Actually, his music is an interesting amalgam of just about everything that is right about American music. His influences include Lynyrd Skynyrd, B.B. King, Otis Redding, and George Jones. Grey draws from a number of traditions, but he doesn’t get lost in them.

The Ghetto part of Ghetto/Country relates to his vocal style, which will remind you of the golden era of Motown. And it is his voice that you want to hear live. Those of us who love live music are used to being disappointed in the live performance of singers who have to do forty takes in a sound booth to make a simple melody sound acceptable on a CD, who sing harmony with layered tracks of their own voice, or who resort to Auto-Tune to stay on pitch.

J.J. Grey sounds good on his CDs. He sounds even better in person. I would only say this about a handful of singers.

The Country part relates to Grey’s songwriting. Like the best of country songwriters, he tells a damn fine story. In a recent interview with Relix magazine, Grey said, “Just tell the story—there’s nothing else to do.”

The Country part also relates to his ethos, though I am pretty sure he has never used this word. He hates gated communities and golf courses. He idolizes his grandma, loves his baby girl, and respects his preacher. His music is connected to a particular rural place, the swamp region around Jacksonville, Florida, which inspired songs like “Lochloosa.” You can call him a Dirt Floor Cracker, as he tells us in a song of the same name. He regards the term as a source of pride. (Don’t get too sophisticated with your etymology here. For him, Cracker just means country white boy without all the nasty redneck values.)

For a Dirt Floor Cracker, Grey’s lyrics are surprisingly poetic. He must have spent some time listening to Bob Dylan and The Beatles, or maybe even reading poetry. Here’s a sample from “King Hummingbird”:

The deepest green, and rainbow blue

As delicate and light, as morning dew

Beating wings they whisper, a baby’s breath

Filling me with wonder

I would read those words more than once on the page. They hold up on their own, without the music, without Grey’s resonate voice.

In other ways, the Ghetto/Country label is misleading, or too limited. Grey’s guitar style comes from the Blues, especially when backed up by Andrew Trube on slide. When you add in the Todd Smallie on bass and Anthony Cole on drums, he comes across as Southern Rock. When you add in Dennis Marion on trumpet and Art Edmaiston on sax, his music takes on a Jazzy feel, at times. The horns can also become a Motown companion to Grey’s voice. Many of his songs are in the key of Major G, often used in spirituals.

So, you can call Mofro Ghetto/Country, Swamp Music, Soul, Blues, Jazz, or Gospel. In a mini-documentary made about the time Georgia Warhorse was released, Trube said, “It’s James Brown meets Skynyrd meets The Band.” It is all there in layers that nourish something holding it all together.

 That something is Grey’s voice.

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Responses

  1. I like this review. I hope you keep doing these things in your blog!

    Like

  2. Nice review and glad to hear this literary voice return to blogville. A long year of silence makes one wonder what intrigue and adventure have ensued?

    Like

  3. I had the pleasure of seeing them for the eighth time last night and you are dead on with this article. I looked for a band with an old sound and meaningful lyrics for years and finally found it with them a few years back. Just incredible

    Like


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