“Country Ghetto” from the album Country Ghetto
“I didn’t spend 10 minutes thinking about the song ‘Country Ghetto,'” says Florida-based singer/guitarist JJ Grey of the title track of his new album. “It was the same way with ‘Circles.’ We were riding down the road on the bus, and I just ran and grabbed a keyboard, and just started playing it into the computer, this tiny little keyboard thing you can play into the computer. It was the same thing with ‘Turpentine’ … I don’t know of any song that I thought more than a few minutes about. It’s like when you went to see somebody like Stevie Ray Vaughan play guitar — he obviously didn’t start out that way. These phenomenal players build up a repertoire of licks or different things and they’re just continuously coming back to it, and eventually they are no longer just the sum of their influences and the licks they’ve learned. They’re now able to let go and play and not think. I try to do that with songwriting.”
The amazement in Grey’s voice as he looks back on those moments is all you need to know that songwriting hasn’t always been so effortless for him. His first brush with recording came in 1994, after a demo made with guitarist Daryl Hance got the attention of a British record label and earned the duo a trip to London to record. That deal collapsed, and it wasn’t until 2001 that Grey got a second chance.
By that time, Grey had returned to his home base of Jacksonville, Fla., and adopted the band name “Mofro.” Signed to the indie label Fog City Records, he recruited Hance and several other musicians to make the album Blackwater.
Partway into the project, it was clear Grey’s songs weren’t turning out the way he had envisioned, in part because he had brought in a drummer who didn’t understand the soul/funk feel the songs demanded. Eventually they brought in another drummer, George Sluppick, and the songs began to take shape. But Grey remembers not being sure about Blackwater when it was finished.
Fortunately for Grey and his cast of backing musicians in Mofro, Blackwater made musical sense, and the group gradually began building a following with heavy duty touring, playing at major festivals, such as Bonnaroo, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the Austin City Limits Festival.
“Then the second record, I knew a little bit more what to listen for and I felt better about it,” says the bandleader. “And then this record I felt really good about it. This is one time when I left the studio that I felt like, ‘Wow, we’ve really got something here.'”
With the arrival of Country Ghetto on the much larger Alligator Records, Grey could be poised for another major step up in his career with Mofro. Alligator made its name as a blues label that specialized in what it calls “genuine house-rocking music.” Grey and Mofro, with a distinctly Southern brand of music rooted more in soul and funk than in blues, is certainly a step away from the label’s core sound.
Songs like “By Your Side,” “War,” and “Country Ghetto,” with their gritty funk edge, rock harder and offer a bigger sound than much of Mofro’s earlier music. They are also some of the tightest and most smartly-crafted songs Grey has written. The fine songcraft also carries through on the more relaxed tunes, such as the deeply soulful, heavily emotional ballad “Circles” and the tangy horn-accented “Tragic.” —Alan Sculley