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Everything's Coming Up Roses for JJ Grey, the Constant Gardener

JJ Grey
JJ Grey Photo by Jay Simon, courtesy of All Eyes Media

JJ Grey’s passed a couple of career and personal milestones recently. He’s been crafting his distinguishable brand of soulful southern rock/rhythm and blues for better than 20 years now, for instance. He celebrated a 50th birthday not that long ago. But, he said, he’s not given to filling scrapbooks with remembrances of these past glories.

“The old saying’s stop and smell the roses and it means to appreciate where you are right at this second. It’s so easy in life to constantly try to better-deal yourself so you never realize where you’re at or what you’ve got at all because you’re so busy trying to better-deal it,” said Grey. “I’ve heard people way smarter than me say, biologically, just about every living thing is wired to move forward. I was a person, if you will, addicted to future. I’ve never spent much time in the past. I’m not much of a photo collector or memorabilia collector.

“All that said, that still doesn’t stop me from every now and again looking where I’m at,” he continued. “You know, everything that I’ve really wanted to happen has happened and is happening. To take the time to envision it and see it and then follow the path that takes you there, that’s where I’m at.”

Grey notes it’s a good place to be. He’s still riding a wave of acclaim for his last album, 2015’s Ol’ Glory, and begins a 25-city tour with his band Mofro this Wednesday in Pensacola, just down the interstate from home in Jacksonville. The second show of the tour is Thursday’s date here at House of Blues. Grey’s performed all over the globe, but Houston might be a favorite tour stop because of what it’s usually represented on tour.

“Houston is the gateway back to the south for me, so to speak,” he said. “I’ll go out west and we go on tour up in the mountains, whether it’s Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and even West Texas. Houston is always the first place that looks like home to me. I start seeing palm trees mixed in with pine trees and oak trees and cypress trees, especially as you start to get in towards Beaumont. It’s the first place after making these big long loops out west that would take more than a month where I’d finally know, ‘Okay, we’re getting close to home when we get to Houston.’”

It’s not just the familiar look of the terrain he appreciates. He senses something familiar in the region's art, music that seems to uniquely spring from the southeastern soil.

“That I-10 corridor, all the way across, there’s this common thread. Maybe it’s just the land itself,” he noted. “The land has an effect on people, especially had an effect on my grandparents and my parents – they derived how they lived straight from it. There weren’t airplanes to fly in food every day and everything else that’s going on now. So, the culture used to be tied – and the music was tied – to the land itself.”

Grey’s proudly followed that blueprint from those who came before him. You can hear how waterways sustain life in songs like “This River,” or how the fading glow of an evening sunset creates the mood of a tune like, “The Sun is Shining Down.”  You hear the area’s geography sonically in the songs, too, some Muscle Shoals here and a heap of Memphis funk there. If you listen closely enough, you might even catch some punk rock from a Florida skatepark.

“I was a big Dead Kennedys fan,” Grey said, recalling his teen-aged days as a skater. “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables and Plastic Surgery Disasters. They’ve got a bunch of records I like. I listen to all kinds of stuff like that because I used to skate a lot. I rode in a place called Kona Skateboard Park in Jacksonville. That’s where I got hip to a lot of that kind of stuff at first. But, I love all kind of stuff, you know. Music is music.”

How does that amalgam of musical influences come together for fans? Are more folks in the audience there to hear the blues or gospel influences in the work? Or, the nods to southern rock acts like Jacksonville’s own Lynard Skynard? Or something that sounds like it’s straight from the Stax factory?

“It’s a big, diverse thing. There’s 75-year-old retirees and there’s 16-year-old punk rockers. It’s pretty widespread,” he said. “Somehow or another I just kind of lucked up and it just became that. Some of them are people now, they’re 18- or 19-years-old, that are fans because their parents took ‘em to a festival when they were six. Now, getting in their late teens or early adulthood, they were fans as kids.”

Those fans and lots of listeners loved Ol’ Glory, so they’ll be excited to hear Grey’s got a backlog of new songs he’s beginning to develop. He said the new music is “just in the periphery of my life,” as he's spent the last two years rebuilding his home after it was damaged by Hurricane Matthew.

“At the end of the day, I’ve got more music ideas and more little demo things down and ready to start working on a record now than even when I made the first record. I probably had, when I did the first record, about 25 or 30 songs ready to go. It’s what you’ve kind of accumulated in your life up to that point – it’s your first record,” he said. “Now I’ve got probably 60-odd. I usually never have more than about 10 or 12, so I’m feeling pretty good about that.”

Grey said he’s learned to allow the work to grow naturally and just facilitate that growth. He sees his role in the process as a gardener of sorts, someone with a deft green thumb who loves what they do and allows the fruit to blossom on its own.

“If you fall in love with what you do, first off, you don’t ever have to retire; but, second off, to me, even more importantly, at that point you’re growing the tree. Really, we don’t grow anything — it grows. We just plant a seed and it grows,” he said. “Most people, when it comes to a music career or any kind of career, they’re trying to grow fruit and you can’t really grow fruit, all you can do is grow the tree and the tree produces the fruit. The way to grow the tree is fall in love with what you do and then the rest will happen by itself.”

JJ Grey & Mofro plays Thursday, January 17 at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. With The Commonheart. Doors at 7 p.m., $30.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.