This isn’t the story of an up-and-coming artist who’s automatically found himself on a tour bus. This also isn’t about a musical epiphany or recognition from the press. For J.J. Grey and his blues band Mofro, it’s just about keepin’ on keeping on. Now if only he can convince the media of that.
“I had a writer say I really went ‘Memphis’ on the newest record and added all these horns and strings, and veered away from the swamp rock, Tony Joe White roots,” Grey told Pollstar. “The irony of it all is Tony Joe White was the very person, his records were the very records, that influenced me to have strings and horns. … I feel like nothing’s changed.”
J.J. Grey & Mofro can’t claim much in the way of “big moments” other than an NPR feature. But the band suffered through enough tours to reach the point where it has its own festival in the Blackwater Sol Revue in Florida, with the third installment due this fall.
“Slow and steady wins the race, so to speak,” Grey said. “When others are struggling, this thing just keeps moving forward little bit by little bit.”
Grey has fronted the band for a decade while taking care of his 20-acre farm near Jacksonville. As the seasons go by, the tours start and end, the farm is attended to and each year gets better than the last.
“We just played at Fillmore Denver with Galactic as a co-bill and it was great; Denver really came around big for us,” Grey said. “This last tour has had the biggest amount of sellouts we’ve ever had. Even at the House of Blues Orlando, I think we did 1,350 paid, then we went on to Detroit to sell out the Magic Bag.
“But there are still plenty of places where, on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, it’s a work-in-progress.”
Places like Grand Rapids or Santa Fe or Tulsa or Manhattan, Kan. – all new markets for the band, with more on the way. Still, Mofro reached the point in 2007 where it could lease a Prevost, although Grey keeps the old 44-foot RV on his farm “just in case.”
Grey already counts himself as an old dog, too tired to learn new tricks. He was in his mid-’30s when this project began around the turn of this century, spending a lot of time on the cell phone while working at a lumberyard, acting as his own agent and racking up a $600 monthly phone bill.
“All the guys at the lumberyard, they worked with me and helped me out by letting me work on that all day. Then I’d get on the road. I’d be tour managing, writing new material, figuring out shows, fixing the RV. So I lived on three hours a night’s sleep for three years. I just had enough. There were several agents interested and I made that move and was glad I did.”
He’d been known since he was a child for his ability to imitate singers and, as a teenager, played in local bars as a sideman for a lot of bands. He eventually hooked up with his buddy Daryl Hance and started Mofro – based on a term of affection used at the lumberyard (“How’s it goin’ mofro?”).
“Dan Prothero, who produced the first Blackwater album, was adamant that I play on stage,” Grey said. “So I just grabbed a guitar and I didn’t have time to practice. I was too busy making sure posters got made or booking shows and stuff. Over a period of time I learned how to play keyboards and guitar onstage. I had already learned how to play harmonica.”
Around 2001, Grey, his wife and some friends were in a terrible car collision that, besides racking up huge medical bills, especially for his wife, brought Madison House to the scene to help book a tour. He didn’t forget that.
“I went back to work and when the time came, I gave them a call and they became my management,” Grey said. “I was totally overwhelmed with everything. … I hate to name drop but I had a conversation with Bill Withers once and he laid it on the line and put me in my place. ‘You think you can do everything but you can’t,’ he said. And it was all aspects, not just booking and managing.”
Madison House’s Jesse Aratow became Grey’s manager. He recently set up Mofro with its agent, Joshua Knight at Monterey International. Aratow is manager in every traditional sense of the word, but he’s got help.
“J.J. comes from this tradition of people who don’t call the repairman when something breaks. They fix it themselves,” Aratow told Pollstar. “I have an artist that’s pretty opinionated about things and it actually makes my job really easy – but, trust me, there’s plenty of work to be done.”
Every year sees a 10 percent to 20 percent growth in audience size, Aratow said. He also insisted on throwing a shout-out to his people at Monterey International and Alligator Records for Grey’s success, while noting the band has been getting progressively better as a live act.
“A lot of times you fall in love with an artist but you may not ever work with them because you love their first record and with the next record it’s like, ‘Uh, you know, it’s pretty good. I don’t know if I like it as much.’ By record three, it’s ‘I’m over this,’” Aratow said.
“But for me, with J.J. Grey & Mofro, each record keeps getting better, not worse. It’s interesting to see an artist work in the opposite direction.”