JJ Grey’s Big Return

The North Florida blues rocker on his first album in nearly a decade, Olustee, his new tour, and why music is a lot like surfing

A black and white photo of a man on a stage with a microphone

Photo: Steve Rapport

JJ Grey.

If it’s a Wednesday at home in Jacksonville, Florida, JJ Grey might be practicing martial arts. Or surfing. Or fishing. Or tending to a pecan farm that has been in his family for generations. Or re-watching the work of his favorite filmmaker, Terrence Malick. Best known for his swamp funk blues-rock that has earned him a devoted following, Grey maintains a wide range of interests that keep him busy outside of music. Case in point, his new album, Olustee—the title taken from the area of North Florida where his grandfather is from—is his first in nine years. Despite the long break, Olustee is classic JJ Grey, with songs like the epic soul jam “Waiting” and the title track filled with grit, both musically and character-wise, alongside the sun-soaked breezier fare of “Top of the World” and “Wonderland.” He adds sweeping orchestral arrangements on a handful of songs, which makes for a richer listen and inches him closer to what he says is the most complete version of himself and his band, Mofro. 

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Watch JJ Grey performing an acoustic version of “Top of the World”

On March 6, Grey will kick off his longest tour in years, beginning in Augusta, Georgia, and crisscrossing the Eastern half of the U.S. with an eleven-piece band before finishing on May 4 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He’ll close out May with his second annual Blackwater Sol Revue weekender in St. Augustine, Florida, featuring the Allman Betts Band, G Love & Special Sauce, Lucero, and American Aquarium, among others. 

Below, read our interview with Grey about finishing the album, nostalgia (or lack thereof), and what kind of taskmaster he is with the band. Olustee is out this Friday, February 23, and available to order here.

So, nine years. The obvious question is… 

It was just life. I didn’t intend for it to take that long. I started recording in 2016 and probably had 99 percent of all the music recorded apart from the orchestra and a few things by 2019. I want to say I hit a wall lyrically and singing, but the truth was, I wasn’t moving in a direction toward getting it done. I didn’t have writer’s block. I just had a life block. 

How did you push through to finish it?

I’m not a clever person. It just has to happen. I was building a studio here at the house, but then this property popped up on the St. Marys River, and it was a crazy old three-story octagon glass-and-exposed-beam building. I wasn’t interested in going into debt or anything, but I got this feeling that I had to buy it. Everything clicked the minute I plugged into power, sat down, and fired it up. In less than a week, I had the album finished. Maybe it took this long to do the record because I was waiting for this building to show up in my life without knowing it.

For someone who makes a living playing music, you spend a lot of time doing other things.

I’ve never been super busy with music. Because music isn’t my life; it’s just a little teeny piece. It’s like watching television or something, a way to decompress. I spend so little time listening to music, at least critically. I hear stuff my wife puts on in the car. She’s a great DJ and plays things I love, like reggae and old-school country. That’s about the extent of my musical work.

Is there a thread that ties music and your other interests together? 

Yeah, absolutely. It’s all about trying to let go. See, at first, you’ve got a grip on it. And that grip is the learning curve. I’m not a great guitar player, but there have been moments where I’ve played stuff that I’ve never practiced that were beyond my ability. The same goes for surfing. I’ve done things surfing before that I didn’t know I could do. The thread is to figure out how to balance working on technique and just doing it. Because it’s a game of minute things. Music is the same way; you develop enough, and it starts to get into your body. 

You cut your teeth playing behind chicken wire in juke joints around Jacksonville. Do you get nostalgic for those days?

No. Because I can hardly remember my past [laughs]. But there’s this club I came up in, Jack Rabbits, that was having its twenty-fifth anniversary last month. The owner is a friend of mine, and he asked me to play. So, there were eleven of us, and we got on that little punk rock stage, which I played on a million times. We played for three hundred people, and it was so fun.

You’re bringing Cedric Burnside out with you on tour. Have you met him before?

I have not. I’ve met a bunch of his family members over the years. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. I can’t wait to jam with him. The first night, everybody’s trying to figure everything out, but by the second night, it’ll just happen.

This tour is almost two months straight, longer than you’ve been doing in previous years. 

I always wanted a show that felt like the Jerry Reed variety show. I want it swampy, funky, and nasty but with huge arrangements. And that means taking eighteen people and two buses to make it work. I can’t just go out for three weeks and come home like I’m used to doing. Frankly, I couldn’t afford to do it that way. But it’s not all about the money; it’s about me being able to bring out the kind of ensemble I always wanted.

What kind of bandleader are you?

I think I’m pretty chill. I don’t know, maybe too cheerful [laughs]. Everybody knows what they’re doing. I don’t want to work every arrangement to death so that it becomes an exact science. I like to sing it street style, and we’ll all figure it out. I trust how great they all are. They will crush it, and all I gotta do is show up.