Florida gets a bad rap. Over the last half century, it’s become known as a place where children go to play and geriatrics go to die. Get off the interstate, out of Orlando, or a couple miles from either coast, and there’s another world of blackwater rivers, bayous, and subtropical forests hiding amidst the encroaching neighborhoods of New Jersey transplants.
JJ Grey grew up in the North Florida woods outside of Jacksonville and doesn’t hide his roots. His songs are topical, lamenting the destruction of nature and “the marginalization of Southern culture.” Thunder boomed constantly around him as he talked with City Paper last week from his family’s 20 acres of woods in north Florida. “I ain’t never selling it or leaving it, and as long as I live it’ll stay like it is,” says Grey.
Mofro — Grey on vocals, keys, guitar, Daryl Hance on guitars, Adam Sconeon organs and bass, George Sluppick on drums, and an occasional horn section — come to Charleston this week in support of their new album, Country Ghetto, a collection of songs touching on everything from hard work and war to love and injustice.
Those hearing Grey’s voice for the first time might be surprised to discover such a soulful, bluesy croon can emanate from a white man. Grey counts Otis Redding, Donny Hathaway, and Toots Hibbert (“the greatest male soul singer alive”) among his main influences. And it shows. His voice, however, is really just a vessel for conveying the heartfelt, historically-based lyrics of his songs.
Grey wrote the new song “Turpentine” in response to old-timers’ stories about “working that sticky gold” on the many “camps” that once existed in north Florida. “The men that stayed out of debt and didn’t do business with the company got away from them,” he explains.
Work camps and company stores weren’t exclusive to California pickers or Kentucky coal mines, and Grey talks about their persistence today in Florida’s fruit-picking industry. “Slavery’s still going on, right down the road,” he says. “Migrant workers, Mexican, black, or white people, down on their luck. You build up credit with your employer, and they make you believe you can’t pay it off. Then they can sell off your debt to another foreman and you’ve got to go work for them. That’s been the story around Florida for a long time.”
Having driven a truck and worked in lumber yards before he took up music full-time in 2001, Grey is no stranger to hard work. “When we put out Blackwater in 2000, the whole first set of tours I still worked a full-time job,” he says. “We’d play in Savannah, then I’d drive home and go straight to work, then get off, go home and take a shower, and drive straight to Orlando. I did that until I was almost dead.”
Grey’s work ethic and sense of right and wrong lends a heavy realism to all of his lyrics. “Lochloosa,” the title track of Mofro’s 2004 release, reflects on the beauty of the small Florida town: “Every mosquito/every rattlesnake/every canebrake/every alligator/every blackwater swamp/every freshwater spring/everything,” then cries, “All we need is one more damn developer/tearing her heart out/All we need is one more Mickey Mouse/country club/another gated community/Lochloosa is on my mind.”
“It’s a balancing act,” says Grey. “That’s all I’ve ever sang about, and that’s all I’m ever thinking about.”
The name “Mofro” almost sounds like some young, Southern kids’ joke, and it’s not too far off from the truth. “We used to say it all the time at the lumberyard,” says Grey. “‘What’s up, mofro?’ and all that. It didn’t say exactly what we were as a band, but it didn’t say exactly what we weren’t. I figured it was as good a name as any.”
His songwriting process is equally laid-back. “I compare it to anything in life,” he says. “You go out on a date with some lady, and you let go and she lets go, and you have the time of your life. But if either one of you is trying to impress the other or trying to dictate the flow of the evening, it can be okay, or it can suck. With songs, I try to let go and not think about it.”
Lest anyone question Florida’s stature as a Southern state, Jacksonville has produced Lynyrd Skynyrd, Derek Trucks, and now, Mofro. JJ Grey is blue-collar and proud, but he’s no ignorant redneck. “I was brought up to earn it and not waste it, to respect and protect womanhood and promote manhood, and to be thankful for what you got,” says Grey. “At the end of the day I’m just ranting about the stuff I hate and remembering the stuff I love.”