What springs to mind when you're presented with the term "Georgia warhorse"?
A purse-winning Thoroughbred? A legislator running for re-election? An antique piece of farm machinery still carrying a workload?
How about a grasshopper? Seriously. Down South lurks a breed of grasshopper that is a mighty beast, indeed. It's a large, durable critter that takes the worst that nature and man throw at it and lives to leap another day.
Southern soul and funk stylist JJ Grey is well-versed when it comes to Georgia warhorses. He has known them all his life, even though he's a lifelong Floridian. The grasshopper has come to embody the latest in a series of Southern inspirations that figure into the swampy groove music that he creates with his band, Mofro. It's now the title to his fifth album, which hit stores last week.
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You can't miss the recording. It's the one with the grasshopper colossus on the cover.
"The Georgia warhorse is what we call these big ol' yellow-and-black grasshoppers," Grey said. "It's gotten to where I can see attributes in them that remind me of some of my relatives and some of the people I grew up with."
We're not talking bug-like attributes, but rather the resiliency and tenacity that the grasshoppers possess.
"My shell is hard, my hoofs like steel, my wings are fire and you cannot break my will," sings Grey in the album's title tune over a thick, humid groove. "All these years you tried to kill me. Boy, you have not made a dent."
"I see some of the Georgia warhorse in my dad, my grandmother, my mom, all of them. Specifically, I see it in my grandmother. At 90 years of age, she doesn't get bothered by much. It was the same with my grandfather. He would be staring into the face of disaster and never seem to be bothered."
"Things like the Georgia warhorse, ... honestly, they're a reflection of life itself down here. You know what I mean? I grew up in Florida around some serious characters. But then again, I think everybody probably does. Give people enough room and they all become characters. I've been lucky, I suppose, to have been around a bunch of real characters."
Grey and Mofro have been favorites on the jam-band circuit for much of the past decade. But such an endorsement tends to water down the depth and distinction of the music itself. Grey's songs are rooted in Southern soul, often working around wiry, sweaty rhythms that groove at a loose, churchy pace. You hear it in the mixture of steel guitar and Rhodes piano on the Georgia Warhorse's track Slow, Hot and Sweaty and the near-psychedelic solemnity colored by guest guitarist Derek Trucks on the album-closing Lullaby.
But Grey's lyrics and singing, both of which recall the great Southern songsmith Randall Bramblett, add an almost scholarly, literate depth to the music. Truth to tell, though, all kinds of similarly literate inspirations helped Grey create his unique Southern voice.
"There were people like Van Morrison, too. There's so many people that I've drawn off of, whether I've realized it or not. When you start out, you're basically the sum total of those influences without a whole lot of yourself showing through. But later, you drop the desire to sound like someone else."
Perhaps the tune from Georgia Warhorse that best reflects Grey's new Southern vision is The Sweetest Thing. It starts off with a Muscle Shoals-like R&B accent that unwinds with limber horns and the kind of joyous longing that would do Otis Redding proud. Then comes the curve ball. Grey enlists a duet partner for the song that is far removed from the school of obvious Southern inspiration: reggae giant Toots Hibbert. Yet the tune is anything but reggae. It instead offers a slice of regal, uncompromising soul.
"That song was like a dream come true," Grey said. "Well, actually it was a lot more than that. A dream means you actually thought something could happen. I never in a million years thought that one day I would have one of my biggest musical heroes singing with me. But it was wonderful. It was so much fun to have that happen."
With Georgia Warhorse now out, the next step for Grey and Mofro is touring. But that's pretty much their game plan year in and year out. They remain working musicians who promote their music through rigorous tour schedules.
In many cities, they do double duty, with Grey performing an unaccompanied acoustic set at a record store or radio station ahead of Mofro's full-length electric performances that evening. Such will be the case Friday, when Grey kicks off Labor Day weekend with a solo set at CD Central before heading to Bar Lexington with his band.
That's just the kind of work ethic you would expect from a warhorse.
"We get our music across by staying out there and touring, by hitting the road relentlessly. I'm really pleased with the results, but I try not to think too much about the details. The longer my career goes, the less and less I think about it. We just go out, do a show and hope people will be there. We just do what we do."