Raising pecans is not as difficult as it might seem, to hear Florida-Based songwriter and bandleader JJ Grey tell it. “There’s not much to do except mow,” he says. “Pecan season comes in late summer. They fall and you just pick ’em up.” The trees were already on Grey’s Florida farm when his grandparents purchased the property in the 1960s; the musician maintains the land in addition to keeping up a busy touring schedule with his band, Mofro. JJ Grey & Mofro return to Pisgah Brewing Co.’s outdoor stage on Friday, Aug. 19.
The musician’s songwriting has some similarities with his relaxed approach to Pecan farming. Here, he talks to Xpress about where songs come from, how he balances tour and family life, how he feels about his latest album, Ol’ Glory (which came out last spring) and his memories of Asheville shows in the distant past.
Mountain Xpress: The feel of your music is steeped in place, especially in Florida. Is that something you cultivate?
JJ Grey: For me, the words just kind of come. If I try to get clever and figure all that out, it’s usually to disastrous effect. It just gets thrown away or moved on. It’s one of those things that sounds brilliant at 11:30 at night, but the next day you wake up and say, “What the hell was I thinking?”
I don’t have a love-hate relationship with it, but I don’t always like to do it. I wish [songs] always wrote themselves, and I didn’t have to think about it. It’s like working out — at times it’s wonderful, and other times you’re like, “God, I wish I didn’t have to do sh*t, and I’d just wake up and be in great shape every day.” It’s the same with every other factor of my life. … The yard looks great, I wish I didn’t have to keep mowing it all the time.
Do you have a ritual around or schedule for working on music?
Sometimes I think it might be a little bit to my detriment, but I don’t sit around and write songs all the time. I don’t practice. This past year I’ve worked on my voice in terms of improving my ability to survive touring. After so many years it builds up. It’s like playing basketball — you beat yourself up, but you can do it for a long time. If you do it right, you can do it indefinitely, until you don’t want to anymore. It’s the same way with singing. I want to have that luxury. I don’t want to stop because I didn’t take care of myself. But my voice now is the best it’s ever been. I have the biggest range and can do it with the least amount of effort.
I’m gone on the road so much, the last thing I want to do when I get home is play music straight away. I’d rather take the family to the beach or ride bikes. I’d rather be a jack of all trades then a full-time master of none. What would you sing about? It’s like watching somebody who locks themselves in their bedroom for 20 years so they can play something with blinding speed. They come out on stage and at first you’re like, “Oh my God!” But it doesn’t even take 10 minutes. If that’s all you’re going to hear, you hear their story is, “I practice a lot.” That’s not enough to even carry a five-minute conversation. … You gotta stop and go to Pizza Hut, see something go down so you can write a song about it.
Now that you’ve toured Ol’ Glory for a year, has your relationship to that group of sounds changed?
I always mess with arranging a little bit. Some things just shift live. I always like to leave parts open. The song “Ol’ Glory” itself can be eight or nine minutes long, or it can be 12 or 15 minutes long. … If this thing is really happening, time just goes away. We spent a lot more time on Ol’ Glory playing the material before we hit the studio. That way the material felt a little more lived in, especially from the singing standpoint. All the records, the guys who played on them played great. I didn’t always feel great about the singing. I always felt, after I sang it live for a year, like, “Damn, I really wish I could re-record that, now that I’ve found a groove, with an audience participating and the band playing and doing this thing.” I felt better about this record.
You’ve been coming to Asheville for a long time. Any memories of past shows in the area that you can share?
Asheville is one of our favorite places. I remember the first time I played in Asheville — it was along time ago, before it became a hippy-esque place. It was a place called The Squashpile [a punk club opened by Pattiy Torno in the late 1980s]. I got that gig through a famous little club here in Jacksonville called Einstein a Go-Go. … [The owners] knew the people at The Squashpile. It was probably around 1990. I’ll never forget — some cats drove by and threw beer bottles at the place. … I wasn’t calling what I did Mofro yet.
I’ve known the area for a long, long time. I’ve been coming there, playing Stella Blue [now Asheville Music Hall] for years, then up to The Orange Peel and now Pisgah. I tell you what, I love playing Asheville — it’s one of the better places we get to play. The audience there is into it in a way I wish I could take as a training video to train audiences in other parts of the country: “Check this out: They’re into it, but in the meantime they’re listening to it.”