In a short video documentary posted on his Web site, musician JJ Grey notes that he’s still settling into the themes of his newest album, “Georgia Warhorse.”
“I’m still figuring out what it’s about,” he says. “It’s about a lot of stuff, and I might not know what it’s about for a couple of years now.”
Maybe so. But for his growing base of fans around the country, the new album just goes to confirm what people have been saying about Grey and his band, Mofro, for years: There’s a new king of the swamp.
A former air conditioning repairman from the marshy morass of northern Florida, Grey has emerged in recent years as a distinctly 21st Century breed of southern blues-rock hero: A backwoods crooner whose boogie and bluster blend seamlessly with an unflinching environmental message and a tender heart.
“James Brown meets, like, Skynerd meets, like, the Band,” stammers Grey’s producer, Dan Prothero, in the same documentary – expressing about as clear a recipe for Grey’s music as one could concoct.
Grey is no newbie to scene; he’s been touring the country relentlessly for more than a decade now, stopping off in Missoula a couple of times along the way (most recently as opener for Galactic at the Wilma Theatre early last year). Though he’s never scored anything resembling a hit single, that hasn’t stopped him from earning coveted slots at major festivals such as Bonnaroo, the Austin City Limits Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as opening gigs for the likes of Ben Harper and Jeff Beck.
The essence of his music is, in a way, Grey’s own worst enemy, when it comes to breaking out of cult status. “Grey’s music is far too real; too poetically, sonically, and atmospherically rooted in vintage Southern soul, rock and blues traditions to translate readily into radio fodder,” noted AllMusic critic Mark Deming.
But those same qualities make his shows a guaranteed party, with his tasteful backing band supplying party grooves and power anthems that breathe new life into blues forms.
Like his rural backyard, Grey’s new album, “Georgia Warhorse,” is populated by an ark of animal life – rattlesnakes, hummingbirds, and the large breed of grasshopper after which the album is named. The title track of the album, a slippery. brooding groove sung from the grasshopper’s perspective, gives a taste of Grey’s defiant pride and environmental bent: “Well I’d like to take this time to say / Its been a pleasure but I must be on my way / Cause man ain’t built any jail, lord he can keep me in / See I’m a Georgia warhorse and I ain’t easy to kill.” (There’s a player with samples from the entire album at Grey’s Web site.)
Grey’s skills as a balladeer may not be initially evident in his hard-driving boogie-rock; but like many of his Southern Rock forebears, he’s not afraid to pick up an acoustic guitar and bare his soul through touching, at times vulnerable songs.
It all stews together into a style that’s at once identifiable and pleasingly diverse.
“I think JJ is one of those guys that, he knows what he wants to do,” says guitar phenom Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band, in an interview included in the documentary. “He’s definitely developed his own sound, his own style…I think he does that as good as anybody.”
Here’s the whole documentary:
JJ Grey and Mofro will appear live in concert at the Wilma Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 9. The Hot Buttered String Band Acoustic Trio will perform an opening set. Tickets are $20 in advance ($22 on the day of the show), available at Rockin Rudy’s, online at www.TicketFly.com, or by calling 877-4FLY-TIX. Doors open at 7 p.m.; show starts at 8.