RATHER THAN HEAD OUT TO HIS Maxville farm, this time we meet at Chowder Ted’s, a freestanding seafood shack situated on an inlet near Fort George Island on Jacksonville’s northeast side, where local fishermen go to chat and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Grey is sporting the same kind of plaid work shirt and grubby John Deere–style baseball cap he favored the last time we met, eight years ago — though the hat conceals a few more gray hairs today.
“Hey, John!” shouts a dark-haired woman behind the counter. Grey barks a quick “hello” back and makes his way through the crowded main seating area past a signed Mofro poster to the enclosed back porch. We settle into a picnic bench and order lunch.
Grey tells me Ted’s was an old moonshine drop back in the day and says he used to surf about 20 minutes north of here. That was before he and Hance, who met while working together at a local air-conditioning company, founded a modern-funk outfit called Alma Zuma. Between 1993 and 1997, the band earned a following around Jacksonville and was romanced by a London-based record label, but after that deal fell through, Alma Zuma imploded. From the remains, Grey and Hance built Mofro. With songs he had written for Alma Zuma, Grey started shopping his new band to major-label artists and repertoire (A&R) representatives, people he soon grew to despise for their wheeling-and-dealing attitudes. In retaliation, Grey contacted a number of independent labels, one of which was Fog City.
With help from Fog City producer Dan Prothero (with whom Grey still works), Grey was able to keep the music rootsy, steeped in the raw-blues and Southern-rock tradition of Florida brethren like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band. It was the perfect fit.
The band’s debut, Blackwater, landed Grey a spot on National Public Radio and an appearance on ANIMAL PLANET. Orders for CDs rolled in, and it looked like Mofro was on its way up. Then the band suffered a major setback on the way home from a gig in Jacksonville’s Five Points arts district. A car traveling 100 miles per hour slammed into the Suzuki Samurai carrying Grey; his wife, Simonne; a band member; and their tour manager. Simonne was nearly killed; the others sustained a range of injuries.
After a lengthy emotional and physical recovery period, Grey somehow pulled it back together. It’s a testament to his Zen-level focus and warriorlike determination. “I’m sort of waking up to life for the first time,” says Grey, now 42. “That car crash changed something with me. For 45 minutes [following the crash], there was no such thing as time. It was weird, getting shocked into waking up — actually being there instead of thinking about some stupid [stuff], thinking about the past or thinking about the future. I was there — and nowhere else.”
Grey says in the aftermath of the accident, he realized that what he was writing was actually the deeper part of himself singing to the shallow part, forcing himself to “wake up and let go.” He now spends his time trying to get back to that feeling, the moments during which he is fully present, not worrying about the past, not planning for the future.
As paradoxical as it sounds, “not planning for the future” means getting the new record out, heading up to Canada for a three-week tour with George Thorogood and keeping his family together through it all. His goal, at this point, is just to get out of his own way. “Stuff that’s meant the most or lasted with me has always been the stuff that requires no effort on my part,” he says. “When you’re driving along, and suddenly an idea pops into your head, it’s because you are there, and it happens. If you’re off thinking about other things, nothing creative will happen. If you’re watching Law & Order on TV, nothing creative is gonna happen.”
What is certain is that Grey will continue to build on Mofro’s long-running environmental narrative. He feels it’s part of his personal — and professional — duty. Grey is currently a board member of the Snook Foundation, a South Florida organization dedicated to preserving the snook, a Florida game fish, and its natural habitat. But he never forces his agenda. For Grey, it’s about being present and allowing the universe to do its thing.
As we finish our lunch and walk out to our respective vehicles, Grey waves me over before saying a final goodbye. He pauses for a moment, gathering his thoughts about his life and career. “For me, it’s all about power versus force,” he says, peering out over the inlet. “Force is any time you try to do something, and power is when you let it happen.”
JOHN E. CITRONE is a writer and a musician living in Jacksonville, Fla. His work has appeared in The New York Times and Modern Drummer magazine. His last story for American Way, “Crossover King,” appeared in the July 15, 2010, issue.