J.J. Grey sings of a new South at Hotel Cafe on Friday night
On “Lullaby,” the last song on J.J. Grey’s new album, “Georgia Warhorse,” he’s taking a girl to bed. “Oh pretty girl, when I look down at you, I see all I need to see to be a man,” he swears in a bleary soul-man lament atop a distant, reverby slide guitar. It’s a hell of a love ballad, but do take note -– that’s his daughter he’s talking about there.
“I can see where people think it’s about something else, though,” Grey said, laughing. “The first time I demoed that song, I played it for my wife and she was like, ‘You know what that sounds like, right?' But that’s why I love music, I’ll go my whole life mishearing lyrics and realize I like the ones I came up with better.”
For casual fans who think Lady Antebellum is the face of Southern music today, “Georgia Warhorse” will likely introduce a little mystery as well. Grey, who hails from Jacksonville, Fla., (like a certain Pop & Hiss contributor, holla) and has shared stages with Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones and Ben Harper, looks like a Field & Stream cover model, sounds like Otis Redding after a breakfast of cigarettes and Jim Beam and writes songs funky enough to put hair on George Clinton’s chest.
It’s the latest in a string of very well-regarded albums with his revolving backing band Mofro (Rolling Stone put 2004’s “Lochloosa” in its year-end top 10) that simply refuse to abide by stereotypes about the South, about soul or about the divide between retro and contemporary. In a time when R&B has become synonymous with sleek digital production and airtight melisma, simmering tracks like “Gotta Know” have wide-open spaces and let the live performances speak for themselves. But unlike the recent crop of young revivalists, this isn’t a museum-piece throwback. “Warhorse” is polyglot music from a part of the country often mistaken as anything but worldly.
Take, for instance, “The Sweetest Thing,” an uptempo bit of Muscle Shoals sunshine with an unlikely duet partner –- reggae icon Toots Hibbert. The latter makes any list of pop’s greatest voices, but the two spar ably over Sunday-morning horns and it sounds completely classic and current all at once. “Slow Hot & Sweaty” is a minimal drum vamp topped with little more than a Stevie Wonder clavichord and some atonal slide-guitar squeals in the margins -– and it clearly owes something genetically to the Neptunes' productions. But it all comes back to Grey’s voice, which begs for adjectives such as “smoky” and “gritty,” but they don’t do justice to his range and sensitivity behind a mike.
It might disabuse listeners of what Florida (and the South) sound like today, a task Grey used to pursue overtly but that he now takes as implicit.
“I definitely did that at first, but now I just try to tell deeper stories," he said. “Yes, it is true that just like how California isn’t all Hollywood and [plastic surgery] and San Francisco isn’t all zany politics, Florida isn’t Mickey Mouse and winter transplants. But every place has a side others don’t see, and that’s what I’ve learned from touring –- the world knocks you on your ass and reminds you that everybody has so much in common.”
The other big part of Grey’s life occupies a similar place of dialogue. He’s an avid naturalist and an outspoken member of the Snook Foundation, a group promoting responsible marine management and environmental preservation, and supporter of the St. Johns River Keepers in his hometown. But Grey comes at it as a Southern local, and understands the seemingly opposed logic where a community can be distrustful of federal environmental legislation but wholeheartedly support local conservation. Like in his music, he wants to consider many different perspectives, and work to arrive at a better place for it.
“Most people I know of back home are ‘conservative,’ but all of them are for protecting wetlands,” Grey said. “These people will get together and lease land in big groups for 20 years so they can hunt and fish on it without development. There’s a certain amount of skepticism when someone from Washignton, D.C., comes in with new rules about catches and then sees a red snapper and asks ‘What kind of fish is that?’ But then there are plenty of idiots who want come in and build on everything and cash out. It’s like fixing a flat tire –- if everyone stands around arguing about the right way to do it, it’s never gonna get fixed.”
-- August Brown
J.J. Grey plays Hotel Cafe in Hollywood on Friday night at 8 p.m. $20. www.hotelcafe.com.