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JJ Grey: Southern Fried Rock with a whole
lot of Soul and a dash of Grit

Story: Alan Sculley

Photos: steve Rapport

Perhaps you remember the old Paul Masson wine advertisements built around the line “We will sell no wine before its time.” JJ Grey, quite unintentionally, followed a variation on that philosophy in making his new album Olustee.


Over a career that was launched with the 2001 album Backwater, Grey had delivered his six most recent studio albums over an eight-year span, with “Ol’ Glory” culminating that prolific run with its release in 2015. It took Grey that same amount of time to finish Olustee


Ironically, the project actually got off to a fast start, and for a time, it looked like Grey might have a quick follow-up album to Ol’ Glory.


 “After Ol' Glory came out, it probably wasn’t even 18 months, a year and a half or whatever, that I was back in the studio and had recorded the basic tracks for a song called ‘Free High.’ That was recorded then. ‘Starry Night,’ that was recorded then. And there was one other one, ‘Top of the World.’ Those three songs were recorded, the music, immediately after Ol' Glory coming out,” Grey said in an early February phone interview. “And I had placeholder kind of singing, sometimes with words, sometimes it just sounded like words. I was struggling, let me back up, I wasn’t struggling because if there’s a struggle, you have to actually try. This one, I was just not writing the lyrics and not singing it.”


Grey kept waiting for inspiration to strike – all the way until spring of 2023. That’s when a friend who worked in real estate showed Grey a building along the St. Marys River in north Florida. Grey immediately saw this unique structure would work as a studio/rehearsal space. 


“It was incredible. It used to be a boys home and it was a crazy three-story octagon building,” Grey said. “In March I made an offer and in April, they handed me the keys.”

Grey put his new acquisition to immediate use and tackled the lyrics and vocal melodies he needed to finish the Olustee album.


 “I moved a temporary control room in overlooking the downstairs and I set my gear up,” he said. “I sat down and went in there and within a week I had everything written, recorded and done. It didn’t even take a week to do it. And when I say a week, I don’t mean a week’s worth of recording. Hell, I wasn’t in there a couple of hours each day. It took me four or five days, a couple of hours each day.”

While that burst of writing at the octagon building brought the Olustee album together, the bulk of recording was done well before then at the studio where Grey has always recorded – Retrophonics in Saint Augustine, Florida.

There Grey, who was producing the album himself, brought in his demos and turned his studio musicians loose to bring a more human and organic feel to the basic tracks of the songs.


“The demos sound really good, honestly, for one listen or a couple of listenings,” Grey said. “But over time it’s kind of flat. It doesn’t dynamically move with a demo done on a keyboard. When these guys played it, it just really came to life.”


Before putting the Olustee project to bed, Grey went one step further and had a full orchestra add strings and other orchestration to the album’s four ballads, rather than settling for faux-strings keyboard parts or samples to try to achieve the effect.


Listeners will likely agree that Grey’s was right not to cut corners with Olustee. Like his other albums, it presents a varied gumbo of rock, soul, country, with horn-spiced uptempo tracks like the edgy and funky “Rooster” and the driving, rocking soul tune “Wonderland” sitting comfortably alongside the downright pretty “The Sea” and the gently swaying “Starry Night.”  


Grey isn’t skimping either when it comes to his first extensive run of tour dates in support of Olustee.


“Instead of this being a full-band tour, it’s a fuller-band tour. We’re going out as a 11-piece,” Grey said, noting that most of the musicians on the tour played on Olustee, and have performed with him at various shows near his North Florida home. “I just never could afford (to take them on tour) because I’d need a second bus. And so I was like you know what, whether or not I can afford it, I want to figure it out.”


Fans can expect to hear a wide-ranging song set from Grey and his band.


“We’ll be playing tracks, obviously, off of every record. You’ll want the staples, so to speak, for the people. Lochloosa (Grey’s 2004 album) will definitely get its run throughs in the set, and (core songs like) ‘Brighter Days’ and ‘The Sun Is Shining Down,’ and definitely it’s going to be new album heavy. I don’t mean we’re going to play the whole entire new album. That’s not going to happen,” Grey said. “But usually (we play) 16 to 18 songs. I’m thinking (we’ll play) maybe six songs off of the new album each night, at least six, I would say. That leaves plenty of room to play other tunes.”


Instead of this being a full-band tour, it’s a fuller-band tour. We’re going out as a 11-piece.

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