No one likes to admit to their own prejudices, let's face it who wants to own up how narrow minded they really are? So it's with some chagrin that I have to confess that I've long thought of Florida as being a mixture of plastic tourist traps, right wing money, and conservative Christians who would as soon see me burn in hell as talk to me. Of course I should have realized that the state is made up of more than Miami, Walt Disney World, and Governor Bush, but they're the ones that get most of the attention in the media and they don't exactly paint a pretty picture. So it's easy to forget that outside of places like Miami and the other tourist destinations that there are a lot of poor people down there struggling to get by just like everywhere else in the world.
On top of that they have to watch as one of the great environmental wonders of the world – The Florida Everglades – are gradually being drained and turned into golf courses that most of them aren't allowed into except to wait tables or chase after rich people's golf balls. Even worse is the joke of Disney Land, turning the Everglades into a plastic "Wild Kingdom Safari." Does no one else see how ridiculous it is to destroy a natural environment to build a plastic replica of one that exists thousands of miles from there?
Well I was forcibly reminded that there's a whole world of Florida that exists outside of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach with the introduction into my life of two CDs by JJ Grey & Mofro. Lochloosa, on Fog City Records, and Country Ghetto, on Alligator Records, are as far removed from the neon and plastic of Miami and Disney as you can probably get without leaving the state of Florida. If John Fogerty and Credence Clearwater Revival were Louisiana Swamp Rock, than these boys are the music of the Everglades. You can almost feel the humidity rising off the music and hear the mosquitoes buzzing in the background when you play these discs.
Back in 2004 when Lochloosa was released Mofro was JJ Grey and Daryl Hance and a group of studio musicians. Maybe there are some of you out there familiar enough with Florida to have recognized Lochloosa as a place name, but I sure wasn't one of them. Yet after listening to this disc I not only know the place exists, I have a much better idea of what life and the people who live down there are like. From the title cut, "Lochloosa" on through the other eleven songs, this is a homage to a people and a place that few of us know anything about.
This ain't no sentimental drivel about how pure country life is, or any of that bullshit you hear sung by supposed country musicians who've never been outside of an air conditioned recording studio or a twelve room limousine. "I swear it's 10,000 degrees in the shade/Lord have mercy knows how much I love it" sings Grey on the title track, not attempting to disguise or romanticize anything about his beloved home. This isn't an easy place to live, but its been home to his family and their friends for generations and he loves "Every mosquito, every rattlesnake, every cane break, everything".
The music on this disc is a swampy mix of blues, rock, country and funk. The guitars churn along like old out board motors chugging through swamp waters, with occasional breaks where they take off like those weird boats that look like they have a giant fan mounted on back to propel them through the Everglades. Grey's voice cracks and breaks over top of the music with the strength of his conviction. It's not smooth or polished, but than neither are the land or people around Lochloosa. If you want smooth or polished go to Disney World and watch their latest mouse eared clone singing for Michael Eisner's supper.
By the time 2007 rolled around and Country Ghetto was released the band was known as JJ Grey & Mofro in recognition of the fact that Grey was handling the majority of the song writing credits. On Lochloosa he had written all of the lyrics and most of the music and the same holds true for their most recent release. The band has also expanded now to include a permanent drummer and organ player alongside Daryl Hance on guitars and Grey on bass, guitars, harmonica and vocals. Like the earlier album this one is rooted firmly in the Florida soil and the "land and culture rich and dollar poor" life that Grey was raised on.
Yet this more of a personal disc; while Lochloosa was an avowal of love, Country Ghetto is a declaration of faith. Faith in the people that he grew up with and the knowledge that there's nothing wrong with their way of life no matter what outsiders like me may or may not think about them. Yet this ain't no rabble rousing, Rebel, "The South Will Rise Again" bullshit with it's undertones of racism. It's a genuine heartfelt appreciation for the lessons that the land and the people he's known have taught him.
"Yes we're black and we're white/Out here in the cut/Still living side by side/So never mind what you seen/And just forget what you heard/Another ignorant redneck/Just some Hollywood word" aren't the words of someone whose prepared to roll over and let somebody put down their way of life out of ignorance. If you think those are just words with no meaning, or might be similar to how the segregationists use to claim everybody was happy because they knew their place, you only need listen to the way those lines are delivered and the music on this disc to belay that thought.
Like Lochloosa the music on this disc has been dipped in the blues and funk before the country rock was laid on top of it. Yet that's not what gives this disc it's personality, for lack of a better word. I can't think of any music that works better for a declaration of faith than gospel, especially the gospel that came out of the black Southern Baptist churches, and Country Ghetto rocks and rolls like a church on Sunday. You're not going to hear any Hallelujahs or Amens shouted out, but this is a gospel album in spirit if not in fact.
The background singers, whether the trio of women who do most of the work, or the full chorus of family members who appear on "The Sun Is Shining Down", give the songs the vocal power that is normally associated with gospel. Yet even without them, the strength and conviction of the music and lyrics would convince you that these folk were testifying to an article of faith.
JJ Grey & Mofro play music that's as distinctive as the part of the world they come from and that offers a glimpse into a world that few of us even knew existed let alone know anything about. Even if it doesn't change any of the preconceptions you might have had about Florida and the people who live there, its mighty fine music filled with heart and soul that can't fail to move you.