Q&A: JJ Grey on Bamboo Room, Bullshittin', & Relearning Old Songs

​While Florida's swamplands are dwindling away, the popularity of one of the state's strongest musical advocates for its natural beauty has been growing steadily. Since JJ Grey & Mofro first began dishing out its signature brand of Florida swamp funk over a decade ago, their fan base has spread like wildfire from its hometown of Jacksonville to include jam scene hippies and rootsy blues lovers all across the country. Recently the band has gotten love from NPR's All Songs Considered, and from reggae legend Toots Hibbert, who guests on the bands latest album, 2010's Georgia Warhorse.

For the entirety of the band's existence, JJ Grey has been the primary songwriter and de facto leader. After years of fans asking Grey when he was going to do a solo project, he decided to make clear to the world that Mofro is his solo project by adding his name to the front end of the band's moniker. This week, Grey is coming down to the Bamboo Room in Lake Worth, a spot which he calls one of his favorite venues, to really do some solo work. For three nights, it'll be just Grey, his guitar, some beers, and some friendly fans. Ahead of what is sure to be a special affair, County Grind chatted with Grey about doing the solo thing, and we dug into his bluesy brain for some lesser known rootsy gems that will make fine additions to our steamy summer playlists. He loves talking music!

Hey man, starting to get steamy here in Florida.

Yeah, I love it.

Is it a rare thing that you do solo shows?

I don't do 'em that often, but I wouldn't call it completely rare. Since the Bamboo Room is back open, I've been wantin' to play it. And this is an opportunity to do that. I'm just glad they got it open.

So you're familiar with the venue from back when it used to be around?

Oh yeah, yeah. It's one of my favorite venues anywhere. Anywhere in the world I've ever played. I love it. So do a lot of other people I know that play it.

For you, is there a unique value to the solo performance.

Well anything you do gives you experience, no matter what it is. There is just something a little different [about playing solo], and I enjoy doing it. It's fun.

It seems that there is the potential for something special, something intimate with a solo show.

Oh yeah.

Is there anything you've learned as far as making the solo thing work? It seems that there are challenges for playing minus the big groove that the band brings. 

What it does is, it turns more into a 'sittin' on the front porch drinkin' a beer, bullshittin', and playin some songs.' And that's kind of an intimate thing. You can do that with a big band. The size of the band ain't got nothin' to do with it. It's really more down to an audience's expectations and what the room puts off -- if it's conducive to sittin' down, playin' the guitar, singin' some songs, tellin' some stories, drinkin' a few beers, and laughin' with people.

So you approach it like you approach a hang out with a few friends.

Yeah, I would say that. And I like the live show with the full band to feel that way as well. There are some bigger moments, that's all.

What kind of repetoire do you have in mind for these shows? Anything that you don't typically play with Mofro?

I'm going to try to do just about every song I've ever written that's been recorded.


(laughs) Yeah, I might not be able to pull that off. That would be a lot of stuff that I don't normally do.

Are you having to go back and relearn some stuff?

Oh, yeah. Man, shit, I forgot lyrics and everything! I'm having to go back and really dig in, and that's been fun too.

Are you going to be doing some covers too?

I don't know. I've got so many songs that I want to do that people have been asking about for years, I might not even have no room for a cover. maybe "Tupelo Honey" or something like that, I don't know.

I'm guessing that your knowledge of funk, soul, and blues music is pretty deep. I was hoping you may be willing to turn us on to some lesser known artists from that world that you've been into.

Well, he's pretty well known but I would think that a lot of people wouldn't think of him in the soul way, but Tony Joe White, you know? He's got a lot of soul. He's really laid back, really understated, and live he's that way but there's still a lot of soul coming out, coming across. He wrote "Polk Salad Annie," he wrote "Rainy Night in Georgia," he did a lot of things. He's like a swamp funky guy, Muscle Shoals did a lot of backing him up on a lot of his records. He's part of that whole J. Wexler deep south crew. Tony Joe White, man. Check him out.

Anybody else come to mind?

I'll tell you somebody right now that I think's really good, and I like her records, both her records, the first one, and then the second one is a little darker, but I love 'em both, and that is Corrine Bailey Rae. She's great. And let me think of somebody from the old school days. Umm, there is a record by Sunny Terry and Brownie Mcghee, I think it's called Sunny and Terry, and it's a great record. People think of it as blues, but it's got soul in it as well. And obviously all of the main folks. To me, from the Maytals, Toots is one of the greatest soul singers ever. Obviously people say "well that's reggae," but to me it's all soul.

What's your favorite record from Toots?

Hey, I mean, honestly, just about any of 'em. Of course, for someone who it's their first time listening, they can grab his greatest hits. Then from there you just get into his deeper stuff like Funky Kingston and all that stuff. I like Funky Kingston. That's one of my favorites.

And you've got that Van Morrison cover, "Tupelo Honey", that you do so nice.

Oh yeah, Van Morrison. He's great. I like him because he's Irish, and he sounds like an Irish soul singer. He doesn't just emulate his heroes, who he is and where he is from comes through as well.

What are your standout Van Morrison tunes, besides "Tupelo Honey"?

I love umm...oh man, shit, I'm terrible with the names. Of course I love "Moondance," that's great. But I love (singing) "Half a mile to the county fair...", "Stoned Me." That's one of my favorite songs that he ever did. Stoned me, to my soul.

Well cool, man. We're going to check out all of that music, and our ipods will be a little bit richer.

(laughs) Cool! Listen to Tony Joe White, and check out Jerry Reed. Especially songs like "Amos Moses" and "The Ballad of Gator McKlusky." Jerry Reed. He revolutionized Nashville. I tell you what, you can go online to YouTube and just type in Jerry Reed, and look for him, he's playing on the Porter Wagoner show. You can probably type in 'Jerry Reed Porter Wagoner' and it'll come up. And watch him play "Wabash Cannonball" guitar with the house band. It is insane! He's just nasty, he's funky, and he starts to play a Ray Charles song at the end of it, back before Ray Charles was real big. He kinda saw Ray Charles playin' and he really liked what he was doing. But he revolutionized Nashville. He brought that funkiness, that kinda wam-ba-dam-dam-dam-da-ba-da-da, that poppin' shit on the guitar, you know? He's the cat that brought that to Nashville. Him and Tony Joe White are my two favorite swamp players.

Cool! Well, we appreciate the tips!

No worries, man.

JJ Grey. With Ben Prestage (Thursday only). 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, 9 p.m. Thursday, May 26, and 9 p.m. Friday, May 27 at Bamboo Room, 25 South J Street, Lake Worth. Tickets cost $22 to $30. Click here.

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Travis Newbill