maxville's back porch swamp music

by liza mitchell
Much has been written about the rural Floridian roots of Jacksonville’s favorite sons, JJ Grey and Mofro. Grey’s lyrical homage sparked a literary firestorm of expressions to describe the band’s signature sound from swamp funk to front porch soul. Their fresh-caught flavor paints a musical postcard of NE Florida that’s instantly recognizable to locals and serves as an ambassador to a treasured time and place.
After bursting onto the local radar in 2000 with their release Blackwater, Grey and Mofro continue to crank out the gritty, bluesy funk that defies being pigeon-holed into one particular genre. As the band hits the decade milestone, the music remains an honest, pure reflection of Grey’s childhood, home, family and tradition.
Grey, who serves as the band’s primary songwriter, is outspoken about his love of home in the tiny city of Whitehouse. Like an artist wielding a brush, his music conjures up images of a time when the sun was hot – “10,000-degrees in the shade,” as he sings on the title track of the band’s sophomore release Lochloosa – and the air was thick with fragrant orange blossoms.
A natural born storyteller, Grey can talk for days about his love of the land, fishing the waters of Lake Lochloosa with his grandfather and the primal sounds pumping from the juke joints back that sparked a fire inside of him way back when.
Grey’s artistry is as authentic as his Grandma’s cornbread, and he works hard to keep outside influences at bay. For Grey, his music is organic, earthy, pure. While not completely devoid of comparison to the likes of Sly and the Family Stone as well as Otis Redding, it’s a visceral experience that Grey himself does not pretend to understand. “The more I shut my mind off and get out of the way, the more creative and connected the music and lyrics become,” he says. “You can’t force it. It defies words, it’s just a feeling.”
Grey’s proclivity to rely on the disconnect is paramount to his abilities as a lyricist, a storyteller and an artist. His tendency to view his craft from some cosmic perspective rather than a deliberate intention gives voice to his place on life’s stage, how he fits in the space he’s carved for his music and those with whom he shares it. To connect with his audience, he must first “let go and let it happen.”
JJ Grey and Mofro have connected with their audience since arriving on the scene in with Blackwater, a rootsy homage to Grey’s home. The band earned its place on the club and festival circuit, finding a home among blues purists at the Springing the Blues Festival in Jacksonville Beach and the jam band family at the Magnolia Fest at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak.
Even on the opposite coast, Grey finds an effortless common ground in a Los Angeles club with songs like ‘Lochloosa,’ an obvious fan favorite. The crowd sings along to every word. Most have never seen Lake Lochloosa and likely never will. But it is the sense of place that is at once familiar and comforting, like an old photo or a favorite sweater. To Grey, it’s more than that. It’s a feeling.
“Some things are just hardwired from birth,” he says, drawing humorous comparison to an episode of the Mike Judge classic Beavis and Butthead when Beavis forgets how to pee. Regardless of how absurd Butthead’s explanation of the human urinary system may seem, therein lies the lesson that some things defy explanation. “It is not often that we forget how to pee but we can forget how to feel.”
Grey said he named the band after a slang phrase tossed around the lumberyard where he and Mofro guitarist Daryl Hance worked during the band’s early years. He later changed the name to JJ Grey and Mofro as a way of taking back ownership of his life experiences illustrated in his lyrics.
Mofro has not been without adversity. They struggled to recover from a horrendous car accident on Normandy Boulevard as they headed home from the first show of their first tour. All remaining dates were cancelled to allow time to heal both physically and financially.
The release of Lochloosa in 2004 found the band had not lost all momentum. Grey and company joined the bill at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee as well as the Austin City Limits festival. Mofro left Fog City Records to sign with the famed Alligator Records label for the release of their third studio record: Country Ghetto. Grey infused that release and its 2008 follow-up Orange Blossoms with a rich brass vibe and a dose of sweeping gospel to add new flavor to the Mofro stew.
JJ Grey and Mofro have pounded the pavement for the past year in support of Mofro’s last album. The record came out on the heels of Country Ghetto and Grey is hoping for an equally quick turnaround with the fifth project. “Orange Blossoms has just been out a year,” he says. “We are working on stuff right now. I want to get a new record out by next summer, definitely.”
Mofro will celebrate the fall release of a new vinyl record on November 3, featuring two songs from each of the band’s four albums as well as a version of Van Morrison’s ‘Tupelo Honey.’ “I decided to do an acoustic version of ‘Tupelo Honey,’ [and] I was in the studio before I knew it, [the song] had a full band feel.” Not every Mofro song has all the bells and whistles. Some of the band’s most intimate arrangements revolve solely on the haunting drone of the organ, soulful wail of the harmonica and earnest longing in Grey’s voice.
Grey need only call back to his home to tap into the energy he exudes on stage. There is no one formula, no procedural steps to follow. Put it down and let it come to you. “In all forms of music, art or expression, it’s fully there or it’s not. There comes a point when it can’t be explained, just experienced,” he says. “For me, it’s when I’ve forgotten I’m writing a record, when I’m beyond that periphery, that it happens.”