There's nobody who can speak about the land as a Southerner can. Though I'm not from the swamps or pine forests of Florida, but the isolated hollers of the foothills of the Smokey Mountains, I know exactly what JJ Grey means when he says, "After being away on the road for weeks at a time, there is no way to describe the joy it brings me when I catch my first homeward glimpse of them [the pines of his homeland]."
Like me, JJ Grey comes from a long line of astute Southern observers and storytellers. In my case, though, my people were more likely to just plainly call themselves liars. I owe a great debt to my Uncle Clarence, a mountain of a man, who shared with me a rich turn of phrase and embellishment that can only be found in the Southernmost parts of this great land. Every time, I hear young JJ Grey sing about his beloved Lake Loochloosa or about the proud people living in the country who won't take government handouts or about the turpentine workers who were kept as poor by land barons as the coal miners in my family were by the coal company, I hear my uncle's voice.
I first saw JJ Grey live three years ago at the 10,000 Lakes Festival in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. He sat on a stool, talking to the young men in the audience about not beating on their women. It was a preface to his song, "That Boy," which is as much about the male in the title as it is about the woman who is locked into an abusive relationship with him. In only a few short words, Grey was able to reduce her plight to what it is. It is a persuasive bit of music that isn't heard enough today, that reaches across the hurting and reduces it to a common sense observation.
Grey was a young man, too, at the time, just 37 then, talking like a worldly cousin to the boys back home. But here in this jam setting, he was addressing a college-educated crowd that he knew could still benefit from the power of one of his songs. It is this ability to capture the quirks and follies of folks, even those who are deluding themselves that makes his writing so skillful.
"Loochloosa," the title track for MOFRO's last album before he signed with Alligator Records, not only is a yearning for his home turf but a lament that it will all be gone if the developers have their way. I, too, have seen what progress has done, but it my case it was to the southern Appalachians. What were once wild places are now mountainsides built of condos and high-end A frames with hotels charging $400 a night and more, something nobody from my family ever could afford. Fortunately, the places where my father and his grandmother went wildcrafting for medicinal herbs and food for the table are protected as part of a national recreation area, the South Fork of the Cumberland, where outboard motors are even restricted.
Older and road-wiser, Grey and his band MOFRO will make their second appearance at the 10,000 Lakes Festival in a couple of weeks. He will be playing songs he's developed over the years, including crowd favorites from his CDs: Blackwater, Loochloosa, Country Ghetto, his debut album on Alligator Records, and Orange Blossoms, which will be released at the end of next month.
As you would expect under the guidance of the new label, Country Ghetto came out a lot bluesier and more produced than the last CD. There are times when Grey rips the emotion from deep inside him either in a rocking tune or a gospel croon. There are echoes of Jonny Lang's or Joe Cocker's deep belting there, depending on what generation you relate more to. But with Grey, sometimes it feels like a brand new hurt, open and raw, and we just have to feel it with him, beyond the words, as just something that can only be sensed.
His "The Sun Is Shinning Down" is an ode to beauty, to a perfect moment in nature, but it is felt more than heard as the emotion groans out of him like my deep water Baptist cousin trying to pray through a wayward sinner. Those of us with deep Southern roots feel that tangibly. And though it resembles the pain of heartache (and it is to some extent because the pureness of that beauty rips deep into us), it is cathartic as the release comes, as you can't help put sing along and follow those final chords to the amen.
Grey has been writing songs, playing his music, and touring for almost twenty years. He and Daryl Hance, guitarist with Grey's band MOFRO, met while working at an air conditioning company in 1989. "A couple of years later, I was part of a band that needed a new guitar player," Grey said. "We've been playing together ever since....It's been easy for us to work together. I don't think we ever get in the way of each other. We each bring something to the music." Today, that band has expanded to a full six-piecer. Adam Stone, the organ player, was there at 10KLF in 2005 with Hance and Grey. "The drummer just started. He's probably played about eight or nine gigs with us. He's awesome," Grey said this past June. "The two horn players have been with us since last February, just over a year."
In his new material, Grey sings about strong women, about hate and violence, and always about home, either in a place remembered or in a person loved. He wrote "A Woman" for jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, but she didn't record it. Grey changed the wording so he could sing it, and in his hands it's becoming the "Try a Little Tenderness "of the twenty-first century. "Tragic" deals with the slow spiral of friend's addiction to painkillers. Even a fun tune about the good things happening in the state of Mississippi turns into a veiled statement against the ignorance and prejudice non-Southerners have about the state. Them, "By My Side" lifts up the need to have a kindred soul who understands what we feel when civilization tries to define who we are. Anyone who feels on the outside can relate to this, especially young people who are trying to find themselves. But for poor white southerners, this little tune speaks volumes.
Grey explained this sense of isolation when he said, "The way I grew up is a lot different. It's a small minority that isn't part of the rest of the world.....It's great that people are aware of me singing about stuff and talking about stuff that's real to me....But sometimes the outside world needs to understand that these people here live their lives the best way they can. Years ago, everybody used to grow a little bit of everything and sort of live off it and trade off with each other and help each other out....In north Florida, people started growing tobacco. If you had a crop fail, then you about starved because you didn't have anything else to back it up. Growing one crop for money has just about put the old-school truck farmer out of business. You either grow 5,000 acres in soy beans or something or you just about don't grow anything at all because you can't make a living at it." These are the people he still writes about, and the people we can all learn from. "Culture is created by the land, not by people," Grey insisted. "If you destroy the land, then you can't make that connection."
But Grey admits that today as a full grown man he doesn't remember a lot of the old ways. "You would be hard pressed to get me to butcher a chicken right now. I wouldn't even know how to do it. But I'll help you eat one," he said. "But the thing is we're all spoiled. That's the nature of civilization. You pay other people to do the dirty work. We're protected and spoiled by society at large, I guess....At least for me, for people my age, we can't remember some of those things. What do kids now know? They think that a chicken is something that talks on a cartoon. They don't even know that that's what they're eating."
Still, Grey keeps uplifting this way of life, this way of understanding the world by seeing it with feet firmly planted in soil and looking toward the pines forests and the fields. He insists that the songs come from someplace other than hammering them out of his brain. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, a song just floats in off the breeze. It just comes. It just happens," he said. "Then, sometimes, I hammer, but I try not to hammer too much. Because I don't have a scalpel. I haven't learned the craft of music like some people have. For me, I'm pretty much dealing with a blunt instrument. It's best to let it come in off the breeze. I just let it happen."
We are all blessed by that creative breeze that JJ Grey has been snatching songs from. For me, it's that same mountain air that used to blow off the ridges and down through the hollers where once mine tipples stood like tall pines. When JJ Grey comes to the 10,000 Lakes Festival this month, I look forward to catching whispers of that breeze once more and let it sweep through my Southern heart that has lingered far too long in these Northern Plains. I'm going to groan with it and let it do its work on me.