Sounds of the South
September 14, 2005
If there is one obvious element of the South that makes its way into the music of northern Florida-based Mofro, it is the deliberate pace. Mofro’s songs, which mix blues, rock and gospel, are in no hurry to get to their destination. “Blackwater,” the first track from the band’s 2001 debut, also called “Blackwater,” doesn’t really end, but takes several minutes fading away on a combination of harmonica and piano. Lead-singer JJ Grey doesn’t even seem to care if he gets to the end of a word, his drawl is so thick and slow.The 37-year-old Grey remembers that when he was a kid, in what he calls “extreme” west Jacksonville, it could take two weeks to get from Florida’s east coast to its west coast. “Now, you can do it in a few hours,” he said. “But I remember hearing an old guy say, ‘Well, what’s the big damn hurry?'”And that’s the way I feel about music. I’ve always been a fan of that. The frantic thing – maybe I was more frantic when I was younger. But I’m in no hurry to burn up the road, just to get to the same place.”The other thing that brands Mofro’s music as Southern is tougher to pin down. It has more to do with the nexus between the sounds – the accent, the slide guitars, the rhythms, lyrics like “nare sugar” and “gal youngin” and “how junior got his head put out” – and the emotions and visions they conjure. Grey has a sense that it has much to do with the lay of the Southeast: the lakes, trees and empty spaces. Beyond that sense, he can’t say for sure, except that Mofro sounds unmistakably Southern.”I believe the land has something to do with that in some way, shape or form,” said Grey, who now lives another 15 miles west of Whitehouse, the Jacksonville area where he was raised. “But it’s like, why is a woman’s form attractive to a man? And why does reggae sound like the islands? It’s the same with bluegrass, which sounds like the mountains. For whatever reason, it just really feels like it.”Ultimately, everything starts with the land, and how you live off that. That’s what creates culture – being linked to a place. That’s what makes a way of life, and not just a 15-minute fad.”As to why the South has been the source of so much of America’s culture, Grey says it has to do with the space between towns, between houses, between people. “There’s a book by [Florida novelist] J.T. Glisson, and he said it best: ‘Everybody’s a character, given enough room to be one.’ And music comes from all that. One thing the South could afford is that it’s not super-crowded. There’s a lot of separation, a lot of isolation. So there’s a history of storytelling. There are a lot of mouth-runners.”Grey’s musings on Southern music are not just theoretical. Mofro’s latest CD is last year’s “Lochloosa.” The recording is named for the lake some 55 miles from he where now lives, and that was the center of his childhood. The song “Lochloosa,” even slower paced than most of Mofro’s tunes, envisions Lake Lochloosa as not just a symbol, but the center of all things for Grey: home and family, love and a sense of belonging. “All we need is one more damn developer tearing her heart out /… Lord I need her and she’s slippin’ away.” The cover of “Lochloosa” features the trees that could be found around the area.Maybe it’s that strength of pride in the land that connects Southern music so tightly to the South.
“It’s one of my favorite places on Earth,” Grey said of Lake Lochloosa. “Something about it is so hard-core Florida, the Florida that I know. Small, natural pasturelands with palm trees, cyprus trees and huge old live oaks everywhere, palmetto trees. I don’t think you see that anywhere else. There’s something about it that makes it look just a little different here at home.”Grey, who brings Mofro to its Aspen debut tonight, Sept. 16, at the Belly Up, wasn’t on the fast track to a music career. He had been a good singer from the time he was a kid, soaking up everything from the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts that his parents favored, to early AC/DC, which his parents forbid. He recalls fondly how the radio of the ’70s still spoke with a regional dialect, and a Jacksonville band could be a local sensation through the radio waves.But Grey wasn’t driven to be one of those local heroes. He bought a guitar at 17, and for years spent much of his time looking at it, too lazy to learn to play. Instead he sang in a series of cover bands that came and went, and went virtually anywhere, literally. One band toured New York in the early ’90s – “if you can call it a tour,” said Grey. Apart from that, it was all local gigs. Grey had never even been on an airplane until 1998.The one thing Grey did have was a running partner. For a short period in 1986, Grey and Daryl Hance worked together for Jacksonville’s Sawyer Air Conditioning Company. While sweating through their days, they talked of playing music.”It’s tough doing that, climbing into an attic that’s 108 degrees,” said Grey. “We talked about music. He had just started playing guitar and I liked his attitude.”Hance lasted four months doing A/C work, and after he left, Grey lost touch with him. But when Grey split with a guitarist who only wanted to do cover tunes, he remembered Hance’s desire, like his own, to make original music. He got Hance’s phone number from the A/C company’s records. Writing songs, putting together a series of bands, and refining their sound, Grey grew to appreciate Hance’s approach.
“I wanted someone who plays for the song,” explained Grey, who, with Hance, makes up the official membership of Mofro. (For their current tour, the two are backed by drummer George Sluppick, who has appeared on Mofro’s CDs, and organist Adam Scone, who also provides bass with his left hand.) “Other than Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was totally burned out on guitar-slingers. To me, Daryl played like Peter Tosh, Curtis Mayfield. He could rock it out when he needed, but I like the older players who didn’t think they needed to play more. You just be yourself and that’s it.”Even having found his guitar player, Grey didn’t go anywhere fast. Through most of the ’90s, he and Hance continued the routine of forming a band, only to have members drop out and find themselves forming another band.In 1998, Grey had an idea that was about as foreign as could be imagined. He and Hance, then performing as Mofro, would relocate to London. Grey’s thinking was that “the music scene would be bigger there. I knew nothing about the music scene in the U.S., other than the west side of Jacksonville, which had no scene at all.” Grey also knew people in London who would put him up.The move put some uncommon bug in Grey. “We adopted a little bit of a can-do attitude,” said Grey, who took up guitar seriously for the first time then. He and Hance did a bunch of recording, placed an ad in Melody Maker magazine calling for additional players, and scored a bunch of gigs. Over their year in England, Mofro drew the interest of several record labels.The one label that most interested Grey was Fog City, run by Dan Prothero, who had produced the first CD by New Orleans groove band Galactic. Mofro sent a demo CD to Prothero, who called Grey and Hance back to the States.At St. Augustine’s Retrophonics Studios, Grey discovered how little he knew about making a record. Fortunately, he also found how much Prothero knew.”I was surprised by what Dan got,” said Grey. “I was pretty green in the studio. When we got done, I thought, ‘You call that a record?’ And when Dan came back with it, I though, ‘OK, that’s a record.'”You expect to go into a studio and play like you do on stage, all bombastic. Then you listen to it and it sounds like crap. You’ve got to sit back in the pocket and sing quiet. Dan pushed it that way, and it was way better than I dreamed it would be.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org