Brighter days

It was the land immortalized in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Now it’s a land increasingly overrun with skyscraper condos and superhighways headed south.

“Florida, I know you’re out there hiding from me/You get harder and harder to find. Everyday she keeps slippin’ away/Florida, please don’t fade on me now,” singer John “J.J.” Grey of MoFro croons in “Florida,” a song that pays homage to the little-lauded north-central region of that state, far from the beaches but no less exotic in its swampy, prehistoric stillness.

If you thought regionalism was dead, you need only listen to MoFro’s Blackwater (Fog City Records, 2001). Named one of amazon.com’s top-10 R&B/soul records last year, the disc oozes Southern spirit — Grey’s voice is so immediate you could be hearing him over the radio as you cruised the flat two-lanes of backwoods Florida.

Picture a place and time that’s slipping away on the slow pulse of blackwater swamps: Laughter, blues guitar and Grey’s chameleonic voice — which manages to invoke a young James Brown on some tracks — wafts across the sultry North Florida air. Water laps against the knobbly knees of cypress stumps; a hint of wind rustles the palmettos and tall Southern pines; Spanish moss droops from the limbs of live oaks.

“Autumn sun sets morning skies ablaze/The oaks and the pines turn their palms up to the sun/The kind of beauty that hits down in the soul/And still we’re hell-bent to destroy it all,” the singer laments. The slow-drawl pace kicks into a space-age rap as the singer continues, “Now skyscrapers and superhighways/Are carved through the heart of Florida/Building subdivisions while the swamps are drained/Makin’ room for people and amusement parks.”

Grey grew up outside Jacksonville, Fla., and went with his grandfather to fish the not-so-far-away Cross Creek area described so memorably in The Yearling and Rawlings’ other works. “This music,” remarked MoFro guitarist/dobroist Daryl Hance in a press statement, “comes from the Blackwater region of North Florida and is about remembering, about paying respect, and about giving thanks.”

Hance is a lifelong friend of Grey’s; the latter once commented, “One of the regular haunts … was a little juke house/barbecue joint called K-D’s Nite Limit. That’s where I got my first taste of soul, blues and funk music. Everybody up there would be hangin’ out playin’ cards. They’d [give us] a plate of ‘Q and let me take a swig of beer or two. I remember everybody up there would be listening to the Isley Brothers or somebody like that on the stereo.”

The memory of such times powers “Whitehouse,” with Grey singing, “I got a lot of memories of growing up in the South … living childhood dreams and fantasies … kissing girls at the playground … Show me the way back to those days.” Childhood memories take on a different flavor in the hyperactive “Ho Cake” — the song is an ode to turnip greens and piping hot cornbread.

MoFro’s unique achievement may be that they sound like a lot of other Southern rock while somehow eliciting the lakes, swamps, alligators, hot sun, pines and palmettos of North Florida like no other band. It’s the kind of country that exists just off the beaten path, just an oyster shell’s throw from saltwater, all the way from Jacksonville to New Orleans.

You can hear the sense of place in the throaty sax of “Nare Sugar,” and in the echo of laughter and camaraderie of “Jookhouse.” The band likes to call what it does “North Florida front-porch funk” … and the legacy of Southern storytelling is humorously apparent in the improvised tune, “Cracka Break,” a sort of redneck rap about a bank robber whose misadventure begins with the security guard that “kabongs him on the head” with his pistol butt.

Grey recalls the days when his grandfather and Daryl’s daddy carried them over to Lake Lochloosa and Lake Orange near Cross Creek to go fishing: “I loved it there and still do, but the last time I went down there, they was building a bunch of new houses. I guess time, progress and money have all caught with old-school Florida. I’m sure Daryl and me goin’ fishin’ down there helped shape our lives and music beyond our knowledge of it.”

Nostalgia takes a grand final bow in the CD’s emotional, Allman Brothers-esque last track; the chorus, building in intensity, keeps wondering: “Brighter days/Where did they go?”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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