By Brent Thompson
Photo Credit: Jay Simon
JJ Grey cites Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jerry Reed, Otis Redding and Run-D.M.C. as musical influences. Anyone who is familiar with Grey’s body of work won’t be surprised by such a diverse list as the singer/songwriter’s sound pulls from a bevy of styles. Wrapped in a distinctly Southern ethos, Grey’s songs pay tribute to his heroes but remain uniquely his when performed through his musical filter. Ol’ Glory [Provogue Records] – Grey’s latest release with his backing band, Mofro – finds the self-described “lived-in feel” that Grey was seeking when recording the album. On Saturday, June 30, JJ Grey & Mofro will perform at Avondale Brewing Co. Great Peacock will open the 8 p.m. show. Recently, Grey spoke with us by phone about Ol’ Glory, life at home in Jacksonville, Fla. and his approach to performing live.
Birmingham Stages: JJ, thanks for your time. How is the tour going so far?
JJ Grey: Last night was the first night. We’ve been hitting 10 to 14 days and then 10 to 14 days off and doing it like that.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk abut the body of material for Ol’ Glory.
Grey: Some of it was new, but a song like “Turn Loose” is probably from 20 years ago. In fact, after 20 years I still didn’t have the lyrics the way I wanted them. The music track was recorded when we did [2013 release] This River and we still had it, but lyrically I hadn’t finished the tune. That song was written when I was living in London in ’97 or ’98.
Birmingham Stages: Did you feel that “Turn Loose” would eventually resurface and appear on an album?
Grey: You never know. What happens is I forgot about it and stumbled across a demo of it. It popped back up again and we found it on tape and in a short time I had the lyrics and had everything worked out. I recorded the vocals at my home studio.
Birmingham Stages: The press release for Ol’ Glory states that you wanted the album to have a “lived-in feel.” To that end, how did you approach the recording?
Grey: All the other records, progressively, aside from from the first record – from [previous releases] Lochloosa to Georgia Warhorse – most of the music the band had never heard until we got into the studio and I played them a demo. We’d play in the studio, then we’d go rehearse it and play it live. I just didn’t want that to happen for Ol’ Glory. I used to wish I could re-record things, but I don’t have that feeling now because we played in Europe and really started settling into it. It’s been around the block a few times. In a show, you find out real quick where the weak spots are and what needs to work. You’ll hear it real quick.
Birmingham Stages: From what I understand, you live on a property that includes farmland and a recording studio in addition to your house.
Grey: Yeah, I love it. I wouldn’t ever leave permanently, but if I did leave I’d go to the West Indies to get warmer [laughs]. I live in Florida and people laugh when I say that. The studio I have now is a writing studio and I’m going to build one where I can put the whole band in there and rehearse and double as a recording space.
Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?
Grey: It shows up when it shows up. Right now, my house flooded from Hurricane Matthew two years ago and I’m still not back in it. We just wound up lifting the house five feet in the air and redoing everything. It’s tough – I have to finish the house and I want to work on music and I have to go on the road. It’s a crazy time, but I’ve got a bunch of stuff and we’ll see where it lands.
Birmingham Stages: What is the makeup of your live shows these days? Do you comprise your set lists from all points of your career?
Grey: It just kind of happens that way. I never sit down to make sure I include songs off every record – I just wind up doing a “best of” all the records. We bring out a light engineer now and he’s only done a dozen shows with us. I won’t vary it too much until he really learns it and then we’ll rotate in other songs. When we put out the next record, we’re going to rotate through some more songs.
The band I have now – these guys are phenomenal and they’ll write out charts. The first time they play it in a rehearsal is like they’ve been playing it for years. It’s really cool to have that, but I like a little bit of fast and loose, too. We keep sections of the show like that, but it’s also great to have some consistency. You have your anchor points and then we let go again. I think of it like climbing up a cliff when you hold on and have that exhilarating feel of letting go – it can be the same way.
Birmingham Stages: You have a large catalog of material now that spans nearly 20 years. How do songs – particularly older ones – stay fresh to you?
Grey: Every time I play it is the first time I’ve played it in that moment. I haven’t gotten tired of any of them. I still watch Gilligan’s Island reruns and I don’t get tired of them when they’re on TV [laughs]. The music is almost in the periphery – the thing taking center stage is being locked into the moment with the people onstage and the people in the audience.
Emporium Presents: JJ Grey & Mofro at Avondale Brewing Co. on Saturday, June 30. Great Peacock will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $30 and can be purchased at www.avondalebrewing.com.