J.J. Grey, the Southern soul rocker who brings his band Mofro to The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville this weekend, has learned a valuable lesson over the past couple of years: Putting desires out into the universe sometimes yields unexpected results.
Those desires are partially the reason a new J.J. Grey and Mofro album has been slower to develop than Grey would like. The band’s most recent studio effort, “Ol’ Glory,” was released in 2015, but to be fair, he’s been a little busy, he told The Daily Times recently.
“Where I live at (in north Florida), my house is kind of low, so I wished upon a star that my house would be higher off the ground,” he said. “I drew up plans on how I’d like it to be — and then a hurricane hit and forced me to lift my house up. Then, I wanted to take a year off, no shows, and spend time with my family — and then COVID hit. So I’m going to be careful what I wish for from now on.”
Such is the life of a guy who’s drawn on his Southern roots, from the land beneath his feet to the blood coursing through his veins, to create a sound that has one foot in Lynyrd Skynyrd and another in Booker T. & the MGs. His is a stroll through the fertile Southern soil in which the seeds of his songs are planted, and in every crooning sigh or tortured wail, the ghosts of a thousand juke joint bluesmen and chitlin circuit soul singers nod in approval.
Back when he and fellow Jacksonville, Florida, native Daryl Hance started Mofro, Grey took his influences — Muddy Waters, Sly and the Family Stone, the Allman Brothers Band and Otis Redding among them — and crafted it into a sultry stew of sounds that made a fine debut on 2002’s “Blackwater.” As word began to spread throughout the Southeast, the guys hit the road, and it was a tough row to hoe in those early days, Grey said.
“I remember one time, we were on tour in this 40-foot Holiday Rambler (RV) with a 3208 Caterpillar engine in it, and it blew up at a rest area just north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri,” he said. “At that point, I was just saying out loud that I was going to go home and work for Caterpillar and work on engines, because I was sick of it all. Of course, I knew I was just saying it to say it, because I wasn’t going to stop.
“I’ve always felt compelled to go do music, so I just did it, and sometimes it was hard. And a lot of times, I made it hard on myself. I made things more difficult, and the easiest thing to when something does happen is to skip right by all the good things going on and miss all the little golden nuggets hidden in every problem. When I was younger, I was fixated on building the story that everything was against me, but then I realized, I’m not important enough for life to be against me. It’s just life.”
Such a change in perspective added a complexity to the sound and a simplification to the message: Seize every opportunity to savor a life that’s been given. Whether he’s romancing the smell of orange blossoms on the title track to his 2008 album or wailing like a roadside revival preacher on “Ol’ Glory,” the song, exhorting listeners to join him in the light, he’s a seize-the-moment songwriter these days.
The band’s new album, which he hopes will see the light of day sometime next year, will undoubtedly feature some of the same sounds and themes, but that’s up to the listener, he added. He learned a long time ago, back when “Blackwater” was released, to keep his expectations on how a record will be received moderately low, and the next one will be no different.
“You make your first record, and you combine this and that and the other, and then you put it out and almost nobody that reviews it hears what you hear,” he said. “You wanted them to hear this influence or that influence, and nobody does — they hear something completely different, and you don’t understand at first, but later on, you come back around and hear it, too. For this next one, man, I ain’t got no idea.
“I think it’s going to sound different to a lot of people, but I could be wrong. Some folks might say it’s too far of a departure; others might say I’m plowing the same old dirt. Everybody’s got their own idea of what something is, but me, I’m just doing the same old thing I’ve always done. The songs kind of happen to me, and I try my best to remember them.”