For Mofro's third album, lead singer JJ Grey made the decision to put his name in front of the band's, a move that screams of inflated ego. But the Florida-born soul man insists there's a much plainer reason.
"It's kind of a long story but I'll say this much: If anybody's ever read the credits, they know there's never been a band. There's me," Grey says, his Southern accent coming in thick via cell phone from a tour stop in Colorado. "This wasn't a band of high-school buddies that got together, wrote all the songs together, toured together, pitched in all their money to make it happen, devoted their lives to it. That's not how we got here."
After a pair of albums heralded on MTV and NPR, Grey took a new direction on Country Ghetto. The 40-year-old still lives in his native Jacksonville, on a farm with his grandma nearby and his parents 15 miles away. His longtime musical companion Daryl Hance—the only consistent member of Mofro besides Grey—still lays down the slide guitar that gives the music its languid Southern grit.
But this time around, Mofro's funky gutbucket soul is brassed up with huge Memphis-style horns, adding vintage luster and majesty to the music. And most significantly, Grey's words deal less with the place of his upbringing—as on 2004's Lochloosa and 2001's Blackwater—than with the culture of it. With his name before the band's, with the music hung on the lyrical peg of his conflicts and observations, Grey's storytelling is simultaneously more personal and more universal than ever.
"I've been asked questions before in interviews, 'How do people relate to what you're singing about? You're singing about Florida.' Uh-uh, I'm singing about life," he says. That Florida, that life—one of close-knit families and backwater swamplands and hunting and surfing—is being swallowed by heedless development. After years of traveling the world with his band, Grey's found that it's not only his backyard that's disappearing. "At the end of the day, my life is no different than anybody else's, in that one respect for sure," he says. "We've all got one thing in common and that's watching the world grow smaller and smaller and smaller."
The phrase Country Ghetto is as loaded as the "Don't Tread on Me" coiled-rattler image on the album's cover. It contains elements of pride, shame, poverty, and family, and Grey is characteristically conflicted about its meaning and characteristically unashamed to talk about the conflict. "It's not something that's been forced on me," he says, implying that the title is more a state of mind than a place. "Most of the time, what's depicted about 'country'—it's always ignorance, it's country people are stupid, they're cross-eyed and they marry their sisters, they're racist. It's kinda like a thing that's been going on forever."
A fan of Charles Pellegrino's anthropological bestseller Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, Grey means forever.
"Always under this banner of civilization, the more advanced, more intellectualized, more technologically advanced society rolls in over whoever's there," he says. "If you don't roll with it, if you draw a line in the sand, you get crushed, and that's it. That's what's going on in the Middle East, in Central and South America, in Canada between companies that wanna build huge golf courses on Indian land. It's happening everywhere and we're all part of it, I guess. I reckon I'm guilty as anybody of supporting it and being a part of it. Comfort, convenience, civilization exact a terrible price out of the rest of the world that isn't a part of it, and that's just the way it is."
As an artist, as a human, Grey is unable to separate his bad habits from his good intentions, an essential fallibility that makes his music and his persona magnetic beyond his ability to articulate them.
"The more I let go, the more I get out of my own way, the more these things slip out of me, the more truthful I am," he says. "I think the world as we're part of it now, we're all part of a bad situation, but it's destined to happen. Nothing lasts forever, especially complacency and overindulgence. It's so wild how we're all sort of hardwired—at least I am—in opposition to what's good for us in a lot of ways. If it grows fast, it dies fast. If it's easy, it's fleeting. If it's hard, it endures a lot more."