(Soundbite of song, "Georgia Warhorse")
Mr. JJ GREY (Musician): (Singing) She's a rattlesnake, so beware of her fangs. A lightning strike, and it's straight through your veins.
GUY RAZ, host:
This is the sound of the swampy backwoods outside Jacksonville, Florida. It's where JJ Grey writes and records all of his music, including this track off his new record. It's called "Georgia Warhorse."
(Soundbite of song, "Georgia Warhorse")
Mr. GREY: (Singing) Diyo, diyo, dayo, dayo. Diyo, diyo, dayo, dayo.
RAZ: JJ Grey is in the middle of a 51-city tour with his band Mofro, and he joins me now from member station KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah.
JJ Grey, welcome to the program.
Mr. GREY: Hi, thanks. It's good to be here.
RAZ: Your sound has been described as swamp rock. I guess is that because you're from that sort of swampy part of Florida near Georgia?
Mr. GREY: Yeah, I think so. You know, I'm 25 minutes from the Georgia line where I live and surrounded on the southern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. But I just think it makes its way into the music whether I kind of like it or not. It just makes it way in there. I was going to say to a fault, but I guess it couldn't be to a fault because I love where I live but it just creeps into everything.
RAZ: Can you describe the place where you write and record your music?
Mr. GREY: Well, I do most of the stuff. I write and arrange at home, which is in a big pecan grove that was planted, you know, many years ago. It's my grandparents' old place. My grandmother still lives there - 93 years old - and in between mowing and fixing stuff, you know, I run down to this old room. We call it the egg room. It used to be a big egg refrigerator when we were in the egg business. And I just filled it up with equipment and started recording stuff there.
And writing tunes happens anywhere and everywhere. You know, but I try to get them down into some sort of form at home at the egg room before I go down to the studio there in St. Augustine.
RAZ: This is your fifth studio album, and I read that this record is actually a tribute to your grandmother, the woman you just mentioned.
Mr. GREY: Yeah, in a roundabout way, I think. She might take exception to it because a Georgia warhorse is a big grasshopper. But it's a really resilient, tough grasshopper at home that I've noticed my whole life and it just doesn't get riled for any reason. It's not too worried about what's going to happen next.
And at the same time, they're really tough. And my grandmother and my grandfather, both, they sort of epitomize that way of viewing the world. You know, they're their own sages and philosophers in their own way. And I just sort of hope that somehow I'm able to pick all that up and let it come out of me someway somehow.
RAZ: You know, it's hard to pin down your sound. At times, I've read it being described as southern rock. But there's also this kind of like a funky sound and a bluesy sound. And then there's this song that can only be described as soulful.
(Soundbite of song, "The Sweetest Thing")
Mr. GREY: (Singing) Down by the sea, staring at the sunset. All those colors of life like a flame to the heart, oh. But I never saw a sunset woman till I met you, yeah.
RAZ: This song is called "The Sweetest Thing," and it features the reggae roots singer Toots Hibbert, with his incredible voice. How did he influence your sound?
Mr. GREY: You know, I've often told people I always wanted to play and sing how my grandmother lives. And Toots sings, if my grandmother was from Jamaica and was a man, she'd sound like Toots as far as life is concerned, you know what I mean? And Toots sounds like that. And there's been a lot of people in my life that's influenced me in similar fashion, from Jerry Clower, the comedian, to Jerry Reed to, you know, all sorts of people outside of what you would consider, you know, southern rock or soul or those kind of things. But all those people, to me, has soul. But Toots is one of my favorite singers of all time.
RAZ: My guest is the southern rock and soul singer, JJ Grey. His new record is called "Georgia Warhorse." I'm curious to know how you were exposed to the kind of music you ended up listening to. I mean, you grew up in a kind of a rural place. You weren't in the city. You spent a lot of time with your grandparents hunting in the backwoods. How did you get exposed to the music that would eventually influence the way you sound?
Mr. GREY: My father's parents - my other set of grandparents - they lived not too far away in Baldwin, Florida. And I call it, you know, I was raised in White House. My grandparents lived in Maxville and my other grandparents lived in Baldwin. I always called it the redneck triangle.
But there was a little juke joint behind my grandfather's place in Baldwin called KD's Night Limit(ph). And when I was a kid, you used to get bottles and get a nickel for them. I would stop by there and they'd be playing music. You know, of course, as long as your mama and daddy didn't find out it was a juke joint.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GREY: But they would cook barbeque and stuff on Saturday afternoons and they'd play that kind of music. And sometimes there'd be bands there, but I just kind of kept track of that stuff.
RAZ: Did you ever go to church?
Mr. GREY: Oh, I did. In fact, funny enough, I didn't sing in a choir; my brother and my mom did. But our preacher was a big influence on me. He was an entertainer in his own right and a very strong personality. And then after church, daddy would let us listen to Casey Kasem Top 40 on the way home from church. He used to come home Sundays. So we'd listen to all kind of music like during the disco era, so to speak.
RAZ: A lot of this record is loud - and I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean that in a very good way. And then there's this track.
(Soundbite of song, "Lullaby")
Mr. GREY: (Singing) Let me rock you to sleep, oh, pretty girl. When I looked down at you, I see all I need to see, to be a man.
RAZ: This track is called "Lullaby." It's a delicate song. I wouldn't call it a fragile song by any means. What is this about?
Mr. GREY: It's a premonition I had, and I didn't realize at the time I was going to be a father again until I had a daughter. And I was actually sitting in Indianapolis, Indiana. And I just started thinking about the baby coming. And it's a feeling that I guess all fathers go through when they look down at a baby. You sort of not think about the responsibility. You feel the responsibility. And...
RAZ: It's almost like terror.
Mr. GREY: It can be. If you dwell on it too much, if you hang on it too long, it can scare you. But the first thing was, you know, there's a connection here that's deeper than you can think about, and it's just something that - it just wound coming out in song, you know, and something I carry to this day for both my kids, really.
RAZ: JJ Grey, you brought your guitar into the studio for us today. Would you mind playing a track off the record?
Mr. GREY: No, not at all.
RAZ: Before you do that, I will say goodbye. That's JJ Grey. His new record is called "Georgia Warhorse."
JJ Grey, thank you so much.
Mr. GREY: Thank you. This is a song called "Hide and Seek."
(Soundbite of song, "Hide and Seek")
Mr. GREY: (Singing) Devil behind you, run, run away. But you got to turn and fight, to live another day. Whisper in the sawgrass, murmur in the pines. Lift your hands up and away, lift them off your eyes. Playing hide and seek, but my eyes are wide open. Playing hide and seek, but my eyes are wide open. A voice says you're right, another says you're wrong. Well, who speaks and who listens, the weak or the strong. Can you feel the fear, deep within the mind? There's no loss or gain in soul nothing real can ever die. I'm feeling it, playing hide and seek
RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our new podcast. You can find it at npr.org/weekendatc. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.
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