Dirt Devils

With 'Orange Blossoms,' JJ Grey and Mofro step up and dig deep

The magnetism. The chemistry. You can feel the electricity. JJ Grey was born, and remains, a true Southern gentleman whose passion is rooted with a certain intensity, whose passion stems from a certain soil.

This passion translates from soil to song and stage as “front porch Soul, gritty Funk and juke joint romps to contemplative Country Soul and blistering (Rock),” according to mofro.net. As Grey mans the mic, guitar, harmonica and keys, his mates in Mofro hold nothing back. Longtime comrade Daryl slides the guitar; the Italian Scone masters the Hammond; Art and Dennis lay down the horn licks and, the latest addition, Anthony Cole beats out a percussive pocket.

Grey and Mofro embarked on a three-month tour in late August across the U.S. promoting their latest release, Orange Blossoms. Turns out, a tour bus can set Florida’s state flower blooming countrywide in the spring and fall. Word got out quick, much to the efforts of juggernaut Blues label Alligator Records, and the people have been anxiously awaiting their turn to catch a whiff of these intoxicating blossoms.

“Alligator is the reason we moved things up to the next step,” says Grey. “With previous albums, it took a minute before people got hip to the songs before yelling (them) out. With Orange Blossoms, it really shot forward.”

The widespread success of Country Ghetto last year (also released on Alligator) nourished old and new fans alike and didn’t leave them hem hawin’ for long. Orange Blossoms was released on Aug. 28 and seeped straight into the ears and hearts of the fans.

“(They) seem to know the words already to Orange Blossoms and that’s shocked me into disbelief and motivated me so much on stage — motivated all of us,” Grey says. “People know the material, know the music, and (we) ain’t never played but a few of the cuts on Orange Blossoms in the past. Most of them haven’t been played live in front of these people and they already know all the words, hell, better than me! I still struggle to know all the words to these songs.”

No worries. His fans have his back, like the 12th player on the field. So how does Cincinnati stack up to the rest of the country in terms of fan response?

“To me, (Cincinnati) has always been crazy … what I mean by crazy is very enthusiastic,” Grey explains. “The audience becomes another member of the band, the music. They’re a part of the show, a big part of the show. People just going crazy and dancing and pushing you to another level.”

It’s an unspoken exchange, one that flows between Grey and his audience. He is a poet by nature, a storyteller by culture and a philosopher by evolution. It is at his core and shapes his soul; it is the constant commodity in his music that reaches people without effort or intent. It is the underlying essence of his persona.

“I try to treat it like conversation, just like me and you talking right now,” Grey elaborates. “You asking me questions, we both have an idea of what the conversation is going to be about but try to let it happen and let it be spontaneous, just like a show or anything. That’s the thing to me in common with all four records. Lyrically, I feel like every album is sort of the same way.”

Grey’s songs are stories reflecting the Florida he grew up in and still resides today. These stories of family and friends, observations and experiences are the foundation of his music, as they keep him connected to his roots.

“As a kid, I didn’t even stop to give a damn about the stories my grandfather was telling me, him trying to connect me to the dirt,” he says. “His family connected him by default because that’s how you had to live and the way you survived. That dirt, when you’re connected to it, you have a better grasp of the world around you. You gotta tend to some of your own dirty work, you can’t pay someone to do all your dirty work. I was content to let everybody do my dirty work. I was content to be lazy, to not be a grown man. Thank God my dad wouldn’t settle for that. I was content to do all these things so these are the reasons I write these songs. To preach to me.”

More from my interview with JJ Grey:
“There’s nothing wrong with the term originality. I just think that somehow or another, the concept of originality started stealing or robbing, the spirit and the soul of music. Not just Soul music. I mean the soul of all music, that thing that’s in all of it. Music from the heart, music that is connected to something. All that is soul music. Sometimes I think people get hung up on the concept of originality (where) originality becomes the word for soul.

"I guess I’m just intrigued by the whole concept of originality on planet Earth. If there is such a thing. And what is it? What is original? … or is it just different from what you’ve heard before? I’ve had people come up to me before and say, 'Man, you blended Soul and Blues and Rock and R&B and it makes it so original.' I’m like, 'Shit, Tony Joe White did that. Jerry Reed done that. Donny Hathaway done that.' There’s people all around the world doing it right now. I don’t want to belittle someone’s view of something but originality … if somebody comes out dressed up like a samurai warrior playing bass guitar and someone ain’t never seen samurai dress before then call it totally original.

"The element I think people hear and feel that they call original is people being honest and being themselves. That’s original. The most beautiful thing in the world is to let go and to truly be yourself and to be free. It’s the easiest thing in the world when it happens, but it's hard getting to that point sometimes. I try not to think about it, I try to put it out of my mind. I try to live life. I try not to think too much about music unless I’m going to sit down and practice some.

"Practice is a great thing, it’s just like language. The whole thing is tied to the concept of originality. The idea is to practice and you get enough licks and you can creatively put these different elements together without thinking about it. That’s where originality comes from. Not from notes, not from technical ability and not from playing. Originality comes from when you let go, that’s it, nothing else. The beauty of it is when somebody can truly play an instrument and can sing really well and can let go. That combination is just deadly. Those are the moments that are just mind-blowing.

"The world is seeking out this goofy thing called originality that doesn’t exist. In my world, it’s when people let go and be themselves. We are all human when we let go. I can’t let go and be an alien from the planet Zebulon.

"I don’t know why we’re here. I’m pretty sure I’m not here to be what other people think I am. The same as you or anybody else. That’s all part of the human struggle. Especially in our society … to try to remain you while other people try to make you into what they think you should be. Everybody is quick to build a box for everybody to live in but nobody likes to have a box built for themselves to live in. We’re all guilty of it. I’m as guilty as anybody.

"I’ll see a band and they put out a couple of records. Then they bob when I was expecting them to weave, and I get mad about it. It’s like, "Wait a minute, who am I to tell them what to do?' It’s a struggle.

"The box that early fans have built, if a band steps out of that box, the fans want to whip them back into the box. “They’re not who I think they should be on the next record”. What I’ve learned is that there are the same amount built for me that I’ve built for others (Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers). Time to eat a little crow and get realistic with yourself.

"It’s not just about music; it’s at every level of life. What friends expect from each other. What family expects from each other. The whole concept of expectation is what it’s all about. You can be in heaven and expectation can make you feel like you’re in hell. You were in heaven and you kicked yourself outta heaven by going and trying to find it. Expectation is a part of that process.

"Boxes are being built at all levels of life all the time. I’ve got just as many hammers and nails and wood in my hands to built a box for everybody else that anybody has for me. Oh, I was gonna say this too: Athletes have it worse than anybody. They come on television with legions of football analysis dudes. I feel bad for them. How do they even go out there and perform? I guess they turn their televisions off. Because people will come up and say, 'This guy is terrible, he’s not playing well, he can’t get it done, he doesn’t belong in that position’. Whatever (game), how can he or she go out there the next game and perform with the whole legion of fans ready to boo them? Like Vince Young playing for Tennessee. All the fans booing him, all these people saying he can’t get the job done. How do they deal? You just gotta tune it out and go get it done, I guess.

"Luckily no one in the music world, except for Milli Vanilli, will have to deal with shit like that. Man, when they get busted, shew, I feel bad for them. They’re not doing anything nobody else wouldn’t do if put in the same position. Vanilla Ice said, 'If someone offers you millions of dollars to rap and dance, you gonna say you ain’t gonna do it because you got integrity? Besides that, I love rapping and I love dancing, so that’s what I went and did.’ I kinda liked his interview. I respected him a whole lot more by the end of it."

Which lyrics belong to which Orange Blossoms track?

1. Everything Good Is Bad A. "magnetism chemistry feel the electricity"

2. WYLF (What You’re Lookin’ For)
B. "she had an ass as thick as an army mule’s"

3. On Fire C. "the memory of one moment is the beginning and the end of who I am"

4. Higher You Climb
D. "if there’s a choice between silk and satin they both feel good to me"

5. I Believe (in Everything) E. "now you say they got you pimping for the DEA"

(Answers below)

A 2007 performance from Headliners in Louisville, KYThe Justice Files Presents: The Orange Blossom Connection
The Rise & Fall of of Talmidge “Sweet Thang” Davis
Directed by Spookie Daly
WNKU performance of "I Believe"
Answer key: 1 D, 2 A, 3 B, 4 D, 5 E

JJ GREY AND MOFRO play a free show Thursday at Southgate House. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here. Score tickets to the show at www.camelsmokes.com, where you can register for an invitation, or find one of the Camel marketing reps out and about. Tune in to WNKU (89.7 FM) Thursday at 4:30 p.m. for an in-studio segment with JJ Grey.