JJ Grey has a prominent Southern accent. Nothing that would surprise someone in Savannah, but listeners frequently grab hold of his Southernness, identifying his music by that trait alone. Reviews of JJ Grey and Mofro's albums invariably include the words "Southern" or "swamp," and quite often both.
"I didn't make it a point to be Southern," Grey says. "I'm just always writing songs and singing about where I live, so it happened more by default than by decision."
Specifically, where he lives isn't "the South" or a swamp. When I speak to him on the phone, he's sitting on his front porch, looking out over the land that surrounds his Jacksonville, Fla., home. That's the real geography of Grey, his own front yard, and that is what lets his music transcend the simple labels people are so quick to apply.
"It's popped into songs that are clearly about this place, and in songs that aren't, without me even knowing it," he says. "Sometimes it's a centerpiece, sometimes brews in the background."
The background is where the best things happen in each of Grey's songs. The surface can rightly be called swamp rock, but his personality lies underneath, thoughtful and introspective. His lyrics reveal him as the kind of guy who spends a decent amount of time ruminating in a rocking chair.
"One day I just started writing about what was in front of me. There is a beauty in this place," Grey says.
Savannah is only a couple of hours' drive away from his porch, and the show here will be the first stop on the national tour for JJ Grey & Mofro's new album, "This River."
While the band can legitimately rock or lay down a heavy groove when they need to, they're content on much of this album to perform with a quiet urgency. The songs possess the quality of exploration, Grey searching both within his own mind and through the geographies of the South.
On the track "Florabama," he makes a thesis statement of sorts:
"I can feel a breeze from the Gulf of Mexico. Something in that salty air feels just right."
"This River" is an album that's comfortable with itself, working within the natural limits of the music, subtly rising above external expectations.
Can party music be introspective? Can a jam band philosophize and improvise at the same time? Can songs mostly written on a rural front porch churn and burn?
The answer to each of these is yes, and the music that results is accessible to diverse audiences: rockers, hippies, hipsters, stoners, frat boys, funketeers. There's even a good bit of country thrown in the mix.
Grey has a sort of Zen outlook when it comes to what he does.
"I don't believe there's nothing really new," he says.
He's happy to attribute the basic blues, funk and soul riffs that make up many of his songs to the musicians who invented them decades ago. While listening to the new album, plenty of possible influences jump out: Ry Cooder, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I could probably list off any singer of the Delta blues, any classic New Orleans funk band or any Southern rock outfit and find a lick that they and Grey share.
This isn't to say the music is not original. Grey just demonstrates more awareness than most that a songwriter is often, in part, a collagist.
"The stuff that's new, I wouldn't know it was new. Every moment is new, and I just try to keep that mindset," Grey says. "You can't do this again, but you can do something similar."
So Grey will leave the comfort of his front porch and hit the road to seek out the next new thing. Don't be surprised if it sounds pleasantly familiar.