Of course, to a degree, Grey has the makings of a rock star. He's charismatic, witty and talented. He’s at ease in front of a crowd. And he writes music that everyone understands, stuff that could easily be co-opted for commercial radio, though that’s probably not gonna happen. Grey says his involvement in the music business is a long-term commitment, like a body builder who is constantly sculpting and toning. “As long as I can pay bills, which I’ve been able to do for a while,” Grey says, “and eat decent food, I think that’s the most important thing.”
Yes, Grey understands the importance of getting his music out to the people, but he’s not comfortable with compromise. He’s unwilling to relocate to LA, New York or Nashville, and he won’t take expensive trips to world-class studios to cut a new record. He’d rather write on his front porch, record at small, sweaty studios and tour when it’s convenient for him and his growing family. Grey’s partnership with legendary blues label Alligator Records helps push his music to a larger audience, but he’s making records on his own terms. And that’s the way he likes it.
WHEN I CATCH UP WITH GREY ONE recent afternoon, he is standing near the bank of Brown’s Creek, rapping on his cell phone about upcoming dates for the renamed JJ Grey and Mofro. (A few years ago, at the encouragement of his grandmother, Grey made the somewhat controversial decision to expand the band’s name in an effort to more accurately represent the music’s origins, since Grey is the sole songwriter and — aside from guitarist, old friend and Mofro constant Daryl Hance — the “band” consists of a rotating cast of musicians who step in for various recordings and performances.)
It’s been almost a decade since Grey and I have talked at any length. In fact, other than a few phone calls over the years, I haven’t seen him since we spent a couple of days hanging out together in the summer of 2002. I was working on a lengthy feature on his then little-known but promising quintet, and self-proclaimed redneck John Grey welcomed me with chilled lemonade into his modest trailer way out in the sticks.
Tromping through the high grass that surrounds his family farm, kicking back and listening to his favorite CDs, even sitting in with his band on a few songs during rehearsal, I got the sense then that Grey had already surrendered to the idea that his was not destined to be a chart-topping band. There was too much heart to what he was doing, too much mud-covered soul.
Indeed, in the years that followed, Grey would take the slow road to success, initially signing with Fog City Records to release Mofro’s first two albums, Blackwater (2001) and Lochloosa (2004), and touring heavily in their support. After moving to Alligator Records, Grey and the band released Country Ghetto in 2007, Orange Blossoms in 2008 and, last year, a greatest-hits collection on vinyl called The Choice Cuts.
Of his newest release, Georgia Warhorse, Grey says it’s a little darker than previous releases. Then he corrects himself. “Some of this record is a little more angsty,” he says before adjusting his answer again. “Or rebellious.”
Named after a Southern slang term for a “bad, tough grasshopper,” Grey says, Georgia Warhorse features 11 new songs that are thematically similar to older JJ Grey and Mofro albums — environmentally conscious, raw and intensely personal. After all these years, it’s still the way Grey prefers to do things.