Southern-fried sounds

JJ Grey and his band, Mofro, celebrate the singer-songwriter's Florida roots on the raw `Country Ghetto'

February 22, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

It's an old stereotype, but it still grates the nerves of JJ Grey.

"There's always been this myth about the South that everybody's married to their sister, cross-eyed and racist," says the Florida-born, funk-blues musician. "I keep seeing this ignorant portrayal of the people I grew up around. But at the end of the day, I feel blessed to be raised around people who loved people and stood on their own two feet."

On his just-released album, Country Ghetto, Grey celebrates the earthy community of Jacksonville, Fla., the place where the singer-songwriter grew up and still calls home.

He and his band, Mofro, will bring Southern-fried sounds to the Recher Theatre on Wednesday night. "People live side by side down here, not in gated communities where you have some folks who don't see black folks until they drive to work in the morning," quips Grey, who last week was rehearsing in a studio outside of Jacksonville.

Growing up in his integrated neighborhood, the artist, 39, absorbed music from the black churches and juke joints nearby. He vividly remembers falling in love with the Isley Brothers' 1973 funk-rock take of "Summer Breeze." Grey knew then that he wanted to spend his life making music. Those early influences - gospel, funk, Otis Redding - have been synthesized on Country Ghetto, a gritty, raw album and Grey's third overall. It's his first for the blues-based Alligator label.

"I always wanted horns and strings on my record," Grey says. "We finally got that. And this is the first label that could get passionate and behind what we do. We were hoping they could get us to the blues fans, 'cause we do a lot based on the blues."

The grooves running through Country Ghetto recall, at times, vintage Sly Stone and the strings-shaded country-soul that emanated from Stax in the 1970s. Lyrically, Grey delves into jilted love ("Circles"), crazy politics ("War") and, of course, those antiquated exaggerations of Southern folks. Here's a verse from the snarling title track: A country boy can't survive/Too many ways in your game/So you can say what you will/About your helpin' hand/I know I'll never be more/Than just your dumb white trash.

"There's bad and there's good where I come from," Grey says. "Not everything's rosy. It's not just one thing. But the country isn't as bad as what you see on TV. That's what I'm talking about on `Country Ghetto.' It's life to the 10th power."

Although vocally Grey is limited (his hoarse wails grow tiresome after a while), he definitely knows his way around a tight groove. For proof, just check the tough, wah-wah guitar-laced "By My Side." Ably supported by a crack band, Grey often flies even if his vocals aren't always convincing.

But on stage, he says, it's a different feel.

"The human ear and the human soul can take in only so much in the studio," Grey explains. "The tape can't soak it all up, all that energy. Playing live, you get into it with the audience - just hang with the flow of it. It's time to tell the story, get on into it, and however the chips may fall, let 'em fall."

See JJ Grey and Mofro at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, Wednesday night at 7. Tickets are $15 and available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com.

To hear clips from "Country Ghetto," go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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