September 23, 2009

Tampa Tribune: JJ Grey rolls Southern soul into his country-rock


JJ Grey rolls Southern soul into his country-rock
by Curtis Ross

JJ Grey & Mofro will perform Thursday night at The Ritz Ybor. Shooter Jennings and Earl Greyhound open.

JJ Grey knows it's the heat and the humidity. And the South in general.

The conversation has traveled from music, Southern music in particular, into the murkier tributaries of race and culture.

Grey's the modern incarnation of the region's musical miscegenation, a white player who soaked up the sounds of John Fogarty, Donny Hathaway, Jerry Reed and Stevie Wonder to create his own funky rock-soul mix.

It's a step his predecessors took at some peril.

"White players were shunned for playing black music," says the keyboardist and guitarist who leads Mofro. "Europeans didn't have to suffer that stigma. People would generalize, like, 'I don't like black music, but the Rolling Stones are different.'"

Tony Joe White's name has come up as a Mofro antecedent, someone whose music was as much soul as country and couldn't be pigeonholed as either.

"People don't realize how that stigma kept that sort of music in check," Grey says, noting that in an era that produced Southern classics such as White's "Polk Salad Annie," hits by the similarly-inclined Joe South and those from Elvis Presley's "From Elvis in Memphis" were short-lived.

Still, the music of White and others made an impression on Grey.

"It inspired me that it (music) can be country and funky and it can be the blues," Grey says. "There are all walks of life in the South."

Grey hails from outside Jacksonville, a Floridian by several generations. His grandfather's tales of the state in the early 20th century have provided inspiration for several of Grey's songs, including "Ybor City" on the latest JJ Grey & Mofro disc, and last year's "Orange Blossoms."

Besides music, his other passion is fishing.

"I love fishing, and I've got a bunch of friends who love it more than me," he says. "I'm pretty set with fresh fish."

He's fished his way "from Fort Myers over to the Atlantic side, all the way up to South Carolina," he says, calling the creeks around Nassau Sound near Jacksonville his favorite spots.

Grey's music reflects his upbringing. It's a funky, swampy, dirt-real sound that's got a particularly Southern mixture of menace and mirth.

The Mofro lineup shifted enough over the years that Grey finally put his name up front. "Orange Blossoms" is Grey and Mofro's fourth album, preceded by 2007's "Country Ghetto," 2004's "Lochloosa" and 2001's "Blackwater."

ON TOUR JJ Grey & Mofro
WITH: Shooter Jennings and Earl Greyhound
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: The Ritz Ybor, 1503 E. Seventh Ave., Tampa; (813) 247-2555
COST: $20 advance, $22 day of show

Music critic Curtis Ross can be reached at (813) 259-7568

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