JJ Grey has been a working musician for more than 12 years, first as the founding member of Mofro, then as the frontman for JJ Grey & Mofro. In those 12 years, he has released four albums, two on the tiny Fog City label and two more, including 2009’s “Orange Blossoms,” on the stalwart blues label Alligator Records.
Grey grew up near Jacksonville, Fla., and his music bears its Southern influences and some references to the blues. A live review in the New York Times recently described the band’s sound as “a loose derivation of Southern swamp rock, with undercurrents of Memphis soul.” There’s funk in its water, too, and some R&B and blues, and his music’s cosmic groove has made JJ Grey & Mofro a favorite among the jam-band favorites.
His evolution and journey from small clubs and small label to bigger venues and festivals and a well-known label has been arduous. More than two dozen supporting musicians have come and gone over those 12 years, and at least once, he considered throwing in the towel. Friday night, JJ Grey & Mofro headline a show at Crossroads KC at Grinders. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band opens.
Monday afternoon, Grey talked about the calling that delivered him from a working-class job in a lumberyard in Florida to leader of a band that tours the world.
Q.: Was there ever a moment over the past 12 years when you thought, “I can’t do this any more”?
A.: I never felt like I wanted to get out of it or like I even had an option to get out. There were times when I had to make myself do it. Like when the RV I’d been driving around for years blew its engine outside St. Louis back in 2003. It was going to cost something like $15 grand to fix it.
At that point, I was ready to stop. I was beat down, tired living on three hours of sleep and working a day job and doing everything. I was tour manager, booking agent, RV driver, mechanic, loader – everything. That was one point where I felt like I’d hit the end of the road and like I was going to find something else to do. I figured I’d always love music but I couldn’t deal with the lifestyle anymore.
But like all things, a couple of days later I started thinking about it and dealing with it and instead of making it something huge to worry about, I was like, “I can’t continue what? Living? Shut up and get the RV fixed and move on.”
I eventually reached the point where I was able to hire some good people to come in and help me and I’ve got a great manager and booking agent and the guys in the band are great. Touring became easy and I thought I could do it indefinitely. But I have a family now.
How does that affect road life?
I limit the number of days I’ll spend on the road. You can go out for three and a half weeks and get four weekends into it. That’s about my limit on it. The road can be rough enough on people who are single. It’s tough playing night after night. It burns bands out. I’ve had more than 30 different guys – and one girl – in the band since 1998. They get to the point where it’s like, “This has been fun and great, but I want to be back home now.” The road isn’t for everyone.
How long has the current lineup been together?
“Our bass player (Andrew Trube) just joined us. He’s about to do his fourth gig tomorrow in (Davenport) Iowa. Our guitar player (Daryl Hance) and keyboard player (Anthony Farrell) have been with us for about a year, our drummer (Anthony Cole) about two years and our horn players (Art Edmaiston and Dennis Marion) about three years.”
The road is where bands make a living. Where do records fit in to your career and business?
Records will always be important. Everything starts with the record. You put it out and that’s how people hear you and find out about you and talk about you. When you start at the level we started at, you build things slowly. You go to a town and play to maybe 20 people, then 25 then maybe 50 and you keep working it up. Records help speed up that process. That’s the practical side. But it’s also fun and very rewarding. The process of writing and arranging and recording hasn’t really changed much since the beginning.
Talk about the move to Alligator Records. What has it meant to you?
It has been great. They really work their records. Dan (Prothero) was the producer and label owner at Fog City Records and he did a great job for one man. Alligator is a full-blown record label with a staff that works night and day. It has a great history. You can’t do what Bruce Iglaur (Alligator’s founder) has done for 30 years and not be real good at it – or be a jerk about it. It just wouldn’t work. The bulk of his staff has been around for more than five years, some for 12 years or more. It’s impressive. I mean, record labels turn over people faster than McDonald’s.
How has your songwriting changed over 12 years?I feel like when I started I had a style. I don’t feel that way anymore. Other people interpret my music and pick out styles and similarities, but I usually don’t hear it.
I can’t describe my style or what my motivation is or anything about songwriting. I just do it. It just happens and I’m not sure how or way. It has become my nature. Asking me to describe how or why I write the way I do is like, I don’t know, asking the salmon why it leaves the ocean and goes back up river to spawn and die. They don’t know why.
Songwriting has become part of my nature. I could make a list today of certain things that describe it but something always happens that busts that list up. Life throws things at you and makes you something else and then you’re not who you thought you were anymore. You can have a concept of yourself but that isn’t necessarily who you are.
I figured out that the songs write themselves. I compare it to basketball players: Even bad ones have days were all their shots go in and they don’t know why. They’re in a zone. Michael Jordan, he lived in a zone, maybe even off the court, too.
For me, that’s how songs get written. I’ve learned to get out of my own way more and more and let myself get to that place.
I think of it as a journey, but I’m not necessarily trying to find anything or get to a place. I’m just letting life unfold in front of me and songs are a big part of that journey.
JJ Grey & Mofro perform Friday night at Crossroads KC at Grinders, 417 E. 18th St. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band opens. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 and $30. VIP tickets are available for $61.50.