It’s hard to deny the fact that Florida seems to groom raw and raucous roots musicians. Between Ida Goodman’s emergence as a devotional pianist in the 1920s, Tom Petty’s rise to rock n’ roll mega-stardom in the 1960s and 1970s, and Laura Jane Grace’s blistering contributions to punk rock through the 1990s and 2000s, their talent is a testament to the Floridian spirit: unbridled and eager to take on the world. Jacksonville native JJ Grey and his band Mofro have steeped themselves in this tradition, and their devotion to the soul and grit of the American south is unmistakable.
Grey’s heart is clearly rooted in Florida’s soil, and his music is inextricably linked to his family heritage. “Lochloosa,” a song from JJ Grey and Mofro’s 2004 album of the same name, describes Florida’s untamed spaces with reverence: “I swear it’s ten thousand degrees in the shade / Lord have mercy knows how much I love it / Every mosquito, every rattlesnake / every cane break – everything.” The state comes alive in Grey’s visceral description. There’s even a certain mysticism to JJ Grey’s songs and the way he reflects on natural beauty, of his home state, of the south.
“I feel weird taking credit for writing my music and lyrics. I don’t feel like they’re mine,” Grey mused when asked about his songwriting process by CMT Edge’s Brian Atkinson in 2015, adding that his songs often come, “out of thin air.” JJ Grey and Mofro’s most recent record of simmering, country-fried blues, 2015’s Ol’ Glory, is a collection of songs that seem more caught than written. The album’s opening track, “Everything is a Song,” demonstrates how Grey as a songwriter finds inspiration in his surroundings. “I can hear the pine trees sing to the sun / I can hear the birds, they’re all having fun,” Grey sings over a rollicking, E Street-style shuffle before joyously proclaiming: “I’m going to sing along.”
“So many things you’ve seen / So many stories long forgotten / So many deeds between / Shouting out across the bottom,” JJ Grey sings on Ol’ Glory’s ode to Florida’s Amelia Island, “The Island” (which Grey affectionately pronounces as “th’island” in a gruff, southern drawl). “It’s a place I’ve been going to since I was twelve,” Grey said in conversation with NPR’s David Dye in 2015. “I think every place is my favorite place on Earth,” he followed, “but this is definitely one of them.” While Grey’s geographical influences are usually easy to spot in his song titles or lyric sheets, his musical influences aren’t stated so clearly. When asked by NPR who he channels as a vocalist, Grey answers, “Otis [Redding] is my favorite singer of all time,” but admits that, “at some point you just kind of let go of your influences and hope that all of it just simmers into one flavor.”
While it’s clear that Florida is where JJ Grey feels most at home, he and Mofro don’t stay put there for long. The band’s rigorous touring schedule brings them across the country and all over the world. The first three months of 2018 will see the band play everywhere from Virginia to Jamaica, including shows with Govt Mule and Tedeschi Trucks Band, a three-night stand with the Blackwater Sol Review, and a stop at Lancaster’s own Roots and Blues festival in March. No matter where the band plays, though, they always bring a little bit of their iconic home state with them; alongside Grey’s own Floridian anthems, Mofro has worked a cover of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” into their set. As if written by Grey himself, the song’s refrain calls to the south: “So blow, blow Seminole wind, / Blow like you’re never gonna’ blow again / I’m calling you like a long-lost friend / But I know who you are.”
By: Jordan Capizzi