The use of rivers as symbols of life in music and literature isn't lost on JJ Grey, and neither is the very real body of water that runs through his native North Florida. On the newest album with his swamp blues-soul collective Mofro, rivers real and metaphorical crest together.
The album — specifically, This River, its title song — is named for the St. Johns River, which runs near Grey's childhood home outside of Jacksonville. But the song itself isn't that exact. It chronicles a troubled life in search of salvation ("only this river can save me from myself") set against the kind of simmering, churchy soul that befits such master stylists as Otis Redding.
"To me, we are in a river of life and time that is just moving forward," said Grey, who returns to Lexington on Sunday with Mofro for a concert at Buster's. "We've all been rolling down the river. Sometimes we're in the rapids. Sometimes we're in peaceful stretches.
"The song is about an area that's about 3 miles wide there, so it almost looks like a lake. It's moving very slow and easy, not like it is downtown, where it bottlenecks and moves through real fast. Life, to me, is sort of the same way. You can't brace yourself all the time for the rough parts. Life ain't always like that, so you have to learn to relax and enjoy the parts that are slower moving — when life is easy, so to speak. To be honest, you need to learn how to relax when it's going fast, too. The song is just about overcoming fear, I guess, in its own way."
Grey has been fashioning his distinctive Southern soul and groove music with Mofro since the band's self-titled debut album was released in 2001. Since then, his songs and equally expressive vocals have spearheaded blasts of earthy funk, brassy soul and expert R&B balladry. Fans and critics have viewed the swampy textures within that music as a style indigenous to North Florida. Grey said the sounds are the results of more cumulative musical inspirations. The region itself, and the day-to-day culture surrounding it, present the most specific influence.
"All this music is from all over," he said. "It's like Stax in Memphis. Not to take anything away from Memphis. I love the place. But it's not like that music strictly came from Memphis. It came from around the whole region. That was the place where they all went to record. That said, Stax had a distinctive sound. Muscle Shoals had a sound that was Muscle Shoals. For me, the music that got recorded there had roots that spread out all across the South. It's like the blues. There is Piedmont blues in the Carolinas that sounds totally different than Hill Country blues in North Mississippi. But it still has a certain connection. I was influenced by all that stuff.
"I think the lyrics have a lot to do with it for me, because the lyrics are about here. I guess the land affects you whether your realize it or not. It's always affecting you. I don't try to make it sound like North Florida. I just let the music happen and let whatever my passion is come through it.
"Living here, I'm influenced by this land, and I'm not even talking about music. I'm talking about in every aspect. It's in the way people talk, it's the food they eat — the food my mother and grandmother were able to grow in their own back yard.
"Sometimes I tell people that I want to play and sing like I think my grandmother would have if she played and sang."