Along with Mofro, he released his eighth album (and sixth on indie blues label Alligator Records), "This River," last April, giving fans another solid collection of songs featuring that signature, booty-shaking, foot-stomping, soulful sound.
I caught up with JJ by phone in advance of his upcoming appearance with Mofro at the Pageant on October 26, and he chatted with me in a molasses-thick, deep southern drawl about embracing his past, enjoying the present and the place he calls home.
Amy Burger: I'm really looking forward to your show here next weekend.
JJ Grey: Yeah, we're looking forward to it, too. Thanks to St. Louis and KDHX and my friend in the record store there; it's been wonderful to meet the folks there and have everyone support us.
I want to start out with a few questions about your background. How old were you when you first started singing and playing guitar?
I started singing, just messing around the house and stuff probably when I was about eight and I got a guitar when I was about 12, an acoustic guitar; but it got broke on Christmas Day, so I didn't get another guitar until I was about 17 or 18 and I bought one myself. I figured out pretty quick it was a lot harder than singing, because with singing, I didn't have to do anything but open my mouth. Not that I sing great, but the guitar you have to actually learn and practice. So I kind of abandoned the guitar and didn't pick it back up until I was in my upper 20s. By then I had learned chords and a few things, but I didn't really start playing guitar seriously until just before Blackwater [Mofro's first album] came out.
Who were your early influences as a kid and as you started learning to play?
Well, the local radio station we'd sneak off and listen to when I was a kid was WAPE-AM and we listened to the Greaseman and different DJs like that. Back then, the radio DJs played what they wanted to pretty much. And they'd play anything from disco like the Bee Gees all the way to the Rolling Stones and stuff like that. My sister bought me "Gold & Platinum" back then – a Lynyrd Skynyrd double album, and I used to listen to that constantly.
My dad had an 8-track set of Grand Ole Opry greats and I listened to that all the time, too, and that's where I got hip to Jerry Reed and the song "Amos Moses" and stuff like that. All that was a big influence on me. Also listening to Jerry Clower, who was really a comedian – he didn't sing ever – and Brother Dave Gardener, who was a preacher, a comedian and a jazz drummer and my dad had some of his records. I listened to all that stuff, and all of it influenced me one way or another.
When did you know that you wanted music to be your career -- your full time job?
I kind of knew it was gonna be [my career] when I was 16 or 17 years old, but I kind of told myself that I didn't want to be involved in it. It was really weird – I had this conversation with myself like "I don't wanna be famous" or something silly like that. Then after a while, I started playing in bar bands and cover bands and did a couple of original things. Then I went to Australia for a month and visited some people down there and just fell in love with it, and when I came back, I decided I wanted to take music seriously so I could live in Australia some day. I was probably 27 or 28 then, not long before Blackwater came out.
Some artists you can listen to for years and years and never know or really consider where they are from; but your Florida roots are so ingrained in your songs – they are almost synonymous with them, particularly songs like "Lochloosa" and "Florabama." What is it about that place that makes it such a prominent focus of your music?
I'm not quite sure what it is. It's just where I grew up and, in a way, it was beauty that I was ready to abandon. And I did abandon it for the world that I was into for awhile – the world that was on television. As a kid, you just wanna be somebody from somewhere else. You're like a salmon – you spend the first half of your life running from home and the last half running back. It just depends on what your world is. If your world is what you see on TV and on the news and you sing about that world, you can be from anywhere.
For me, I just found it was a lot easier to start singing and telling stories about the places I grew up and things I actually looked at – not what someone is telling me on TV or the world that's being presented to me and debating, arguing about it, supporting it, rallying against it, all of that shit. I wanted to just be a part of the world I'm actually standing in and that world was all those places I sing about. There's nothing wrong with doing the other thing, too – I just wasn't any good at it.
When you write a song, does the subject come first, or the melody or the lyrics? What is your process like?
I don't really sit down and do it; it just kind of does itself. I can be driving along in the car and an idea pops into my head, and then I try to go as long as I can working that idea, until I run out of gas or can get my pocket recorder.
So, which river is "This River?"
It's literally the St. John's River and metaphorically the river of life. It's about my own personal dealing with something I went through a long time ago; a thing of accepting everything in front of you, instead of only what you like, learning to see all the facts of life and appreciate them. To make a long story short, the song is about coming to grips with everything and giving everything its own space to be – the whole universe – and it kind of sets you free, or it does me anyway. I was trying to get away write my paper from my own bullshit.
You sing about your [four-year-old] daughter in "The Sweetest Thing" – how did she change your perspective on your music and on life in general?
My daughter coming along now changed my perspective because I realized that I didn't need to make the same mistakes I made with my [grown] son, although he was strong enough to overcome them. I'm just a different person, I want to take this opportunity to redo it and make sure that I get things right. The main thing was to just be there. When my son came along, when I was with anybody, just talking to them, I wasn't really there. I was off somewhere else thinking about what I was going to do next. I didn't listen and I didn't look and I didn't stop to smell the roses, so to speak. Wherever I was, I was really somewhere else. When my daughter came along, I decided that when I'm there, that's where I'm gonna be. The song is about both things – it's about that being there is the sweetest thing and that my daughter and my wife are both the sweetest things.
I've never seen one of your shows where you weren't full of energy and just seem to be really having a great time on stage. Do you ever have an "off" night where you're just not feeling it, and if so, how do you stay pumped up?
I really haven't had one in four years – and that's also coincidentally that my daughter has been around for four years. When she came along is when I made a decision to enjoy life instead of finding all the things that were wrong with it. Before that, trust me, some of the shows weren't full of energy at all, and there was a time where I may have hoped and prayed a show got canceled way back in the day. I just didn't want to sing. It wasn't the people I was playing with; I just didn't have it. And now it never gets old. I never get tired of it.
I saw on your website that you are entering the Craft Beer game – introducing your first beer, Nare's Sugar Brown Ale with Tampa Bay-based Rock Brothers Brewing Company in November. Have you always been a beer connoisseur? What made you want to get into the beer arena?
[Laughs] The only thing I know about beer is how to open one and drink it. I'm not a connoisseur, but I really was excited when I met with them. They wanted me to do it and to sit down and figure out a beer that tastes great and try to figure out something that tastes like the sound, you know? And that's what we came up with. I wanted to have a beer that tastes like ice cream, all creamy. They got really excited and started working on it and it's awesome. Everyone working on it was really cool and I'm just glad to be a part of it.
So you put out the album this year and have been touring – what's next on your agenda?
Right now I'm working on new music and we're doing a music video for the song "This River" with the actor Danny Aiello, and it's awesome. I've also been working on a story that my buddy Spook is working into a screenplay and we're going to try to do a feature film eventually. And I'll just still keeping on doing music and playing and seeing the world and being a part of it.
JJ Grey & Mofro performs, with the Revivalists opening, on Saturday, October 26 at the Pageant.