JJ Greys Country Ghetto
JJ Grey is a soul storyteller. His band ,a href="http://www.mofro.net/"target=m>MOFRO is a mix of blues, soul, funk, and country that provides a vehicle for Grey’s evocative voice to tell the story of his life. Listen to any of MOFRO’s three albums, and it doesn’t take long to learn what it is that Grey values. History, nature, and culture are themes that run rampant in all of his songs and while at times it might appear that his music is his soapbox, after talking with him, one realizes that he isn’t any closer to answering his own questions than anyone else. He is simply telling the story. With the release of Country Ghetto, MOFRO’s third studio album and first on Alligator Records, Grey finds himself turning a new corner with the band’s most diverse collection of songs, and it’s fullest sound to date.
JB: Country Ghetto is your first record on Alligator Records. That’s a big step for you guys. How did that come about?
JJ: A guy named Sam Veal puts on a festival in Jacksonville called Springing The Blues and we played it a few times. He put a bug in Bruce Iglauer’s, the founder of Alligator, ear a long time ago before Lochloosa came out. Dan Prothero, who runs Fog City Records, and has been our producer, said that he had sold as many copies of our first album Blackwater, as he could, and that we needed to find a new home for the next record. It didn’t work out to go on Alligator back then for whatever reason, and it was certainly a mistake. For Country Ghetto, Bruce knew that no one owned the record, so he put up some money and we started recording. After visiting Alligator’s offices I was really down with the label, because to see a label that has been around for 30 years and has employees that have been there as long as they have- that shit should be a world record. You just don’t see that kind of loyalty anymore in this business. People in that business turn over faster than french fry cooks at Burger King. But Daryl (Hance) and I have been at it along time, so this is a new direction for us and for Bruce and Alligator too.
I also liked that Bruce was real straight up with me. He told me that no one is going to come along and fire him and leave us out there with a bunch of new people who want to take things in new directions, leaving us out there on our own. He said that he ain’t going nowhere, and that when he makes a deal, it’s forever, and so he told us that our music isn’t blues by genre definition, but it has the spirit of the blues and that was good enough for me.
JB: This is also the first time that you have put your name in front of MOFRO on an album. What was the reasoning behind that?
JJ: Well people ask me all the time on the road, when are you going to release a solo record. Or maybe I’ll do a solo acoustic show, and guys are coming up asking why I didn’t play my own songs, opposed to me playing all the MOFRO tunes. And it occurred to me that people don’t realize that this is my “solo project”. The things and the people I am writing about couldn’t be more personal. This is the story of my life and so I talked with the guys and they agreed that it was the right thing to do.
JB: Country Ghetto is a powerful term. Those aren’t words you normally see together. How did those words find themselves together in your mind?
JJ: Well a lot of it is just how I grew up. But a lot of it would seem foreign, like those words don’t belong, but hell, Mississippi got hit a helluva lot harder than Louisiana did by Katrina, but the country ghetto don’t get the help like the city ghetto does. And you can say this across the board for people anywhere. The city dweller vs. the nomad, and it’s the mentality of country people being less sophisticated. And funny enough, most of the people that have that attitude are country sons-a-bitches that have moved to the city. They are the ones that want to appear refined and the people that were born and raised there couldn’t care less about all that.
People think I’m singing about Yankees coming down here, but hell no. Most of the people that I run into from the North, moved here because it was charming. The last thing they wanted to do is move here and then see everything around them knocked down. It’s the people, especially after that Superbowl was here, that are trying to shed that accent and drink expensive coffee, trying to appear more sophisticated. And shit man, I’m as guilty of that as anybody. I have been there, I know. And so sometimes I am writing songs, screaming at myself because I’m the pot calling the kettle black for sure.
JB: Country Ghetto’s subject matter goes into some broader directions than your previous albums. Was that a conscious decision or a natural evolution?
JJ: It was natural. This is the first collection of songs for me that kind of happened on its own. The further I go, I realize that life is filled with a lot of the same equations. It’s the variables that are a little different. And I’m not trying to reduce life to math by no stretch, but this album is me diggin’ in culturally, trying to assess some of the things that are going on around me and around the country. But then songs like “War” are my own personal conflict going on in my own head. I can’t agree to disagree with myself, so how in the hell do I expect nations to do it. You know, I can’t make sense of what I do day to day, so how can I make sense of politics and international relations, you know? And then there are songs about drugs and about relationships, but I have touched on those things before.
But songs like “Country Ghetto” are still about the annexing of a culture. I touched on this same idea on Lochloosa on the song “Dirtfloorcracka”, but “Country Ghetto” is taking that idea and running with it a little deeper. Everywhere you look it’s like people are taking scissors and cutting these connections that we have and once they are gone, they ain’t coming back. And that’s true in nature as well as culture and tradition. I mean, the natural world is the natural world. You can’t get that back once it’s gone, so that is obviously a travesty. But culturally it’s the same idea. And there are things about tradition and history and nature that are worth remembering.
JB: Well I like the balance of historical story songs, like “On Palestine” and “Turpentine” with the positive songs like “The Sun Is Shining Down” and “Mississippi.”
JJ: Yeah, well songs like “On Palestine” are stories that my Grandparents used to tell me. And it reflects that idea of nature and history, with the timber barons coming in and moving the people out. They took over Lake Palestine and there are tons of stories like that, which not only have to do with my family, but also can be very moving. But a song like “Mississippi” is basically me trying to pay tribute to a part of the country that gets nothing but a bad rap all the time. But that’s typical in a lot of ways of people. A lot of people want to talk about only the bad and they leave the good. People don’t realize that if it weren’t for a lot of the music that came from Mississippi, so many artists they love today wouldn’t exist. There are so many positive parts of our culture that come from that area, but no one pays any attention to that.
JB: How much has being on the road affected your growth as a musician and a songwriter, and also MOFRO in general?
JJ: Daryl and I have gone through a lot of musicians. But when you get a group of guys together where you don’t have to direct the music all the time, it’s just nice to find guys that support the vision and go with it. It’s very hard to find musicians that listen and can hear sentiment and stay true to themselves but also stay true to someone else’s vision and be sympathetic to that feel. It’s like if you found this guy who is really a heavy metal player, and every now and then, if you don’t remind him of what feel you are going for, that heavy metal comes out, then that’s going to be a problem. So it’s nice when you find guys who are coming from a familiar place in their influences, so you don’t have to direct them constantly.
But being on the road has made me a better player, cause all I wanted to do was sing. Dan Prothero kept telling me that if I wanted the other musicians to get the feel right, then I needed to play an instrument on stage too. So, putting myself in that position has made me better all around and I definitely don’t have problems with feel anymore, because the guys know what we’re going for. And as far as writing goes, it’s always been tricky for me because songs write themselves and it usually happens to me when I am by myself and I get lost. When I just let go and get out of my own way, that’s when more of my true self comes through in writing, or playing live, or anything.
JB: This record has a bigger sound than your previous albums. It has horns, strings, and background vocals. Was this a conceptual idea before recording or was this something that seemed to fit these songs in particular?
JJ: When I made a demo of these songs I put everything on it except the strings and horns. But I left space for them because I knew I wanted them on it. I’ve wanted strings and horns on every record, but logistically it never made sense until this one, but I definitely knew beforehand where I wanted them. This record took a while to finish. It didn’t take a long time to actually record. It took a long time to find the time to record. We’ve been on the road so much over the last few years, that it took some time to get into the studio. And on certain tunes, I had to travel to get the people I wanted to play on the album. So some things were done on the run.
JB: Was that the case on “The Sun Is Shining Down”? That features members of your family singing background vocals right?
JJ: Yeah, that was my aunt and uncle and cousin singing on that one and I was really excited to get them on a track. I have wanted to get them on a song, but I just wanted to wait until it was the right song that sounded like what they do. I didn’t want to force it. They have their own gospel group and they all play and sing and not too long ago we were at my Grandmother’s house down in Florida, and they were in the front room by the porch, doing their thing, and it just shot right through me. And so that song just seemed like it made sense for them to be on.
JB: Another thing that separates MOFRO from a lot of bands in the jamband scene is your heavy emphasis on the Wurlitzer, Hammond organs, and other keyboard instruments. How do you go about choosing what instruments go with what songs?
JJ: Just like I said that songs write themselves, I feel like songs also lend themselves to certain instrumentation. The guitar is convenient, but each song is so different and so it deserves to be handled differently. You know, a lot of pop culture wants to talk about new music and new sounds and they are so quick to say that bands aren’t new if they have a rootsy feel or if they record on vintage instruments. But you know to me, they ain’t made a better sounding keyboard or a better sounding amp. The older stuff sounds the best to me, and all they have done is made the instruments more convenient.
JB: Well have you guys been given the notorious “retro” label yet?
JJ: That’s always been tricky to me because yeah, some guy will write that he likes our music but that it ain’t nothin’ new. But in the same breath, he’ll say that some indie rock band that is trying to sound like The Stones is doing something new. I never could figure that out. I mean, would these guys get on a plane and go down to South America and find some tribe in the Amazon that is beating on drums and singing songs and tell them that that music ain’t new? Well it dawned on me that all people mean when they say that it ain’t new is, bullshit technology that ain’t got a thing to do with music, or it’s just a fad that a group isn’t a part of. And if that’s what being new means, I’ll be more than happy to live in the retro world.
JB: Sometimes it seems like people think that when a style of music ceases to be popular in the mainstream, then that music just ends. But that music doesn’t stop, it continues to grow, it’s just not on MTV.
JJ: A classic example of what we’re talking about is Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was phenomenal, but he is Buddy Guy with a wah-wah pedal, beads, and a crazy hairdo. It wasn’t like he invented all that shit out of thin air. And the great thing about him was, he never claimed to have invented it. He was always talking about his Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and Albert King influences. See, to me their ain’t one iota of difference between the baddest jazz band in the world, and some kid out in the Kalahari bush twangin’ on a fishin’ line between two sticks. One ain’t fresher than the other to me. Music is music man.
JB: Well what seems to get overlooked is that the jazz band you are talking about and that kid out in the bush are human beings, conveying the exact same emotions, just using different ways to do so.
JJ: Yeah, and both are legitimate. People refer to the 60’s as a golden era for music, but that’s because back then, record labels had to pan for gold. They went out and found artists and nurtured their growth and they dug deep to find true talent. Nowadays record labels don’t pan for gold, they invent gold. But back in the day, there were great A&R cats that would hear someone sing or play, and it would touch them and they would say, “Goddamn, we need to get Aretha Franklin in a studio”. And there was a real focus on actual talent, because the people in the record business were reacting to how it moved them. It wasn’t about just making money. Now, it’s all manufactured but that’s how the business world works I guess.
JB: I understand that you were asked to write songs for Cassandra Wilson, and “A Woman” was one of the songs that was left over from that writing session. It has a real Otis Redding feel to it.
JJ: Yeah that was a song I wrote for her that didn’t make her album, so I decided to kind of change it around a little and make it fit for me and for Country Ghetto. You know, I love Otis Redding. The first time I heard the man, he sounded like home to me. So that was an easy connection for me to make and that song just has that feel.
JB: What has been the biggest challenge for you as a vocalist, singing at the level you sing at, night after night?
JJ: Well in 2004 I damn near had pneumonia and I tried to keep singing and do the shows anyway and basically what happened is, I hurt myself to the point where my vocal chord wouldn’t close. It’s like if you took a coke bottle and blew across the top of it, you’ll get it to whistle, but if you try to blow across it from 4 inches up, nothing’s gonna come out. Well, that’s basically what was happening to me. I couldn’t get sounds to come out of my mouth that I was used to getting out and so I had to completely change how I handled things. I had to eat crow because for years I talked shit about anybody who lost their voice being a sissy and then it happened to me. And I had been singing for 20 years, some of that in smoky bars doing 4 sets a night, singing covers songs like Journey, which was way out of my range and I was having to scream to hit the notes. And I never lost my voice doing all that. So I had to withdraw myself. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t do interviews, it was awful. I used to hope that gigs would get cancelled because I knew I was gonna suck and the more I thought that way, the more I did suck.
But I started to heal and I started to have fun again on stage and I found that when I was having fun, it didn’t matter what kind of shape my voice was in, I could do it. And then I would find myself hitting notes I hadn’t hit in a while and things started to get better and better. So I realized how much of a mental thing it all is. If I’m having a good time then I can sing and while I’m singing, my voice was healing. And so now I’m about 75% home and everyday on tour my voice is getting stronger instead of weaker and that makes me feel excited to get on stage and play. I can’t wait to play tonight.
JB: So it’s safe to assume that for a lot of the recording of Country Ghetto, you were singing at less than 100%?
JJ: Yeah, but for a lot of it I was healing and getting my voice back together. So while it might not be 100%, I felt good enough about it to lay down the songs and I’m happy with the result.
JB: Are you striving to create awareness in your songs?
JJ: If I am it’s accidental. The first thing I try to do is create awareness within myself. And if it makes somebody else aware, then that’s great. But for me, hearing stories and knowing that life was so different than it is now, and realizing that it ain’t always gonna be this way. It’s going to change. Because the world as we know it is finite, and humanity has an infinite appetite. And I think that is worth remembering.
JB: What are you hoping people are going to take away from Country Ghetto?
JJ: I hope that it’s honest and open enough that people can interpret things for themselves. A song like “The Sun is Shining Down”, I wrote it two and a half years ago and I had no idea what it was about. It was not long ago when I finally interpreted that song for myself, kinda like I do with other people’s songs. I just try to get out of my own way and “clock out”, and let things just go. And I don’t know how you do that, that shit just has to happen. You can’t always get out of your own way. Sometimes you bitch about things and make excuses, for the fact that you couldn’t get into the show. Like, “Aw the monitor sucked.” or “Someone was heckling me.” But that’s all bullshit, because I know that I’ve played shows with worse monitors or worse hecklers and the show was amazing. So at the end of the day it falls on yourself to get out of your way and enjoy what you do in music and in anything else. But in regards to this record, if people can interpret their own meanings to these songs than I’m more than satisfied with that.
JB: What’s next- what direction would you like to see you and MOFRO moving in?
JJ: You know, Adam (Scone) and George (Sluppick) play in other bands when we aren’t on the road, and Daryl has some new recording equipment at his house and he is writing material all the time, some of which is bound to end up on the next MOFRO album. But none of us are married to each other. My hat is off to any band that can keep it together like The Stones, or even Galactic. They work so well with each other and they’ve been at it for a long time. I mean it’s hard enough for a man and a woman to be together without getting a divorce. So try and get four or five guys together, be on the road all the time, and have everyone support the vision but still feel like they can be themselves and be creative. That’s hard man. I mean, do you get along with everyone you work with all the time? But we do get along and that’s because we are all grown men that are seasoned musicians. The guys in this band know how to be themselves while bringing someone else’s vision to life. And that is a valuable commodity, so I am really stoked with the way things are going. But we just try to take it one fan at a time. And if I can continue to play, support my family, and make a living, I’ll be happy.