Over the course of seven studio albums, Jacksonville, Fla.'s JJ Grey, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist for the band Mofro, has explored a variety of styles. The band started out playing a languid, knee-deep-in-swamp water brand of funk (2001's Blackwater and 2004's Lochloosa). Over time, they moved towards rough-hewn R&B (Orange Blossoms) and even made room for some soul balladry (Georgia Warhorse and This River). But with 2015's Ol' Glory, there's an unmistakable debt to country music on the album.
"Country was definitely one of my influences growing up, especially older country," Grey says. "Jerry Reed was and is one of my heroes and influences. I wish that influence showed more in my guitar playing. He was a monster on guitar, one of the nastiest guitar players around, especially in Nashville. His playing, his singing, everything he did was great."
Perhaps this new aspect of Mofro's sound came to the fore because Grey took his time with the songs on Ol' Glory, living with them for far longer than most of his other compositions. "I definitely want to keep doing that in the future," Grey says. "I've noticed that the songs that have resonated with my audience the most always seem to be songs that I kicked around a lot longer. Whether it's "Brighter Day" or "Lochloosa" or any of them, I just kind of played and sang those for years. I've noticed that the more time I spend with them, this natural evolution happens, and I think it gives the songs time to breathe and percolate, so to speak."
Grey is quick to praise his bandmates in Mofro (drummer Anthony Cole, guitarist Andrew Trube, organist Anthony Farrell, bassist Todd Smallie, trumpet player Dennis Marion and Jeff Dazey) for being a tight, versatile outfit that makes much of his job easier. "They allow me to not worry about whether or not they're going to be able to cop something, especially live," Grey says. "They allow me to relax, because I don't have to worry about things like, 'OK, they need to tighten up. We've got to get this fixed, this wasn't loud enough or quiet enough.' All that stuff is out the door, because the guys know the material and they know the intent, and they bring that to life."
In the past, Grey says that he was a bit of a micromanager, bringing in fully produced demos and asking the band to play as closely to his arrangements as possible. But he's since abandoned that approach and gone in the opposite direction. "I keep everything as vague as possible at rehearsals and at soundchecks, because it allows people to find their way into the parts," he says. "I've gone that route before, where when I did the demos, I'd play all the different parts and then have the guys play those parts close or identical to what I did, then try to let it transition without them even realizing it. Now I just skip that first part and say, 'OK, it's G-A-G here,' and then maybe I'll hum a bass line or a guitar line. And they go off memory and play it in their kind of way without even realizing it, and it settles into its own thing."
In addition to his own stellar band, Mofro's albums have featured heavy-hitting guests from various genres, including guitarist Derek Trucks, soul singer Solomon Burke, and Toots Hibbert from Toots & The Maytals. But despite that star-power, Grey says he never has a guest performer in mind when he's writing a song. "That comes later," he says. "I never know what the song is going to turn out like in the studio. And then in the studio, once we've got the tune down, I'll listen to it and think, 'Man, this would be great for Derek to play on,' or 'This would be great for Luther [Dickinson, of North Mississippi AllStars] to play on,' or 'I'd love to sing this with Toots.' It happens once the song is fleshed out."
Perhaps working with all those star artists has given Grey a complex; he says he's hard on himself in the studio. "I'm my own worst critic," he says. "I'll always get hung up on some ridiculous thing, like I won't like the way I sang one word, and I'll want to scrap the whole thing and do it again. And then I'll take a break and come back to it a couple of days later and forget that it even happened. Someone will say, "Remember the other day? You didn't like that word,' and I'll say, 'Well, I don't know what I was talking about, because it sounds fine.'"