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Entertainment editor John Turnbull chats to blues journeyman and southern gentleman JJ Grey about songwriting, surfing and the value of a $10 guitar.

Independent Australia: Thanks for your time today, JJ. Can you tell me when you got your start in music?

JJ Grey: It’s my pleasure.

My parents bought me a guitar for Christmas when I was a kid, and I was real excited. I had been asking for one of a long time and they finally bought it for me, and I was so excited I ran over to my neighbour’s place to show it to them. After a while we went inside and I leant the guitar on the back of their parents car – I mean this was Christmas Day so nobody was going anywhere – and of course their mother backed over it a few minutes later.

When I went home and told my dad he said he wasn’t buying me another one, so it took years after that before I could save up enough money to afford to buy a guitar for myself. I remember I paid $10 for that guitar and it was beautiful, it had these mean pickups that just sounded great. I’ve only recently retired that guitar from my live shows, so I’ve got it in a room at home.

IA: What sort of music were you listening to at the time?

JJ: Oh, all kinds of stuff, man. A lot of that Grand Ole Opry stuff, Jerry Reed, Otis Redding. That $10 guitar came with an amplifier, but the amplifier didn’t work so I used to plug the guitar into my parent’s stereo, which also had an eight track player in it, so I used to listen to anything I could get my hands on.

IA: Your new album Ol’ Glory comes out on February 25th — can you tell me a little about the writing process?

JJ: Y’know, the process was like it has been on every record. I just mess around with some musical ideas and just let them kind of present themselves, get in my little studio and just jam around and record stuff, and then just let the lyrics sort of come.

I feel like it’s hard for me to take credit at times for the songwriting, ‘cause I feel like the songs write themselves. At least, the songs that I actually like seem to write themselves. I’ve written some songs that I can take full credit for, and you’ll never hear them because they’re terrible.

When it feels like I’m having a conversation with myself lyrically, that’s when it feels real good, when ideas are bouncing back and forth in my head. Once I get all the songs down the way I want them, I get the band hip to the stuff, get them to understand the changes and the spirit of the whole thing, and let who they are come through and shine. The band bring my vision to life and at the same time bring who they are to life as players. I always look forward to that part of the process.

IA: Your songs seem to take a real storytelling approach — where do you find your inspiration?

JJ: I get inspiration from my life, things that happen to me. I rarely get too fictional, so to speak. I mean, I might change the names to protect the innocent, or better yet change the names to protect the guilty [laughs] but for the most part it’s stuff I’ve experienced.

My whole family are storytellers, particularly my dad. At family get-togethers if you wanted to hold the floor and tell a story you better be on par with him or you just get pushed aside. My dad had a bunch of Jerry Clower records and Brother Dave Gardner records. Jerry was a Grand Ole Opry comedian and Dave was a beatnik comedian, a jazz drummer and a preacher from Tennessee and they were both master storytellers. One day I hope to be a storyteller to honour what those guys did.

As a kid I could recite Jerry Clower Live from Picayune, the whole record from start to finish. I listened to those records hundreds of times and they influenced me big time. They challenged you as a human being, and hopefully that kind of thing will show up in my stuff and who I am as a person.

IA: You’re about to embark on a world tour that eventually winds up at Bluesfest in Byron Bay. Will this be your first visit to Australia?

JJ: I’ve been there a couple times before. This will be my second trip actually playing music.

I played at Bluesfest with a different band six years ago, and I’m really looking forward to this year. I guarantee it won’t be another six years before I come back! It was wonderful to get the opportunity to come down there and play six years ago, and I’m so glad that Pete’s bringing us back down to do it again.

We’re going to get to Sydney and play as well, so I’m looking forward to coming down and doing a whole tour.

IA: Reading your bio it seems you’re also a fan of surfing — do you think you’ll have a chance to get amongst the waves while you’re here?

JJ: Yeah, you know, I’m going to try and head up The Pass if there’s a swell. I’ve got a buddy from Byron Bay who actually lives here in St Augustine named Will Connor, he’s got a house in Byron and introduced me to some cool spots.

In the early 90s, I was there for a month, just hanging out surfing in Sydney. You know, Curl Curl, Freshie and the beaches around there and I just fell in love with the place. In fact it inspired me to go home and get serious about music.

IA: What are you listening to at the moment? Anything to recommend?

JJ: I listen to all kinds of stuff, but first off I’d recommend all of my friends [laughs]. These are people I’ve become friends with through mutual endevours, some of them by accident, people I’ve played with on the road for years. Anders Osborne, Marc Broussard, Luther Dickinson; we’re in this thing together that we call the Southern Soul Assembly. All of those guys are phenomenal. Luther played with the Black Crowes for a while and Anders Osborn is just a staple, one of the best songwriters anywhere as far as I’m concerned. Marc Broussard is one of the best singers I’ve ever been on stage with and a hell of a songwriter as well.

I mean, there’s a lot of bands that don’t need my introduction, guys like Galactic and Tedeschi Trucks. I love what Corinne Bailey Rae does, I love the new D’Angelo record. There’s all kinds of stuff that I come across and I like, y’know?

IA: You’ve always taken an independent approach to music — was that a deliberate choice?

JJ: A little bit, I suppose. I didn’t intend for it to be quite as independent as it turned out to be [laughs]. I could have used some serious record label help earlier than it came.

But you know what, man, I grew up in a family where my dad never hired anybody to do anything for him. My dad wanted a concrete driveway, so it seemed like I was out there for months with an axe chopping out roots – it was probably only a week but it seemed like months – and then he got the concrete and poured out a big old long concrete driveway. The house needed to be roofed; we roofed it. I grew up around people who did everything for themselves, so I never believed in getting a big break, you know. 

Even people who seem like overnight successes have probably been working at it for years, even if they’re young. To some people it would seem hard, sleeping three hours a night for years and banging it out on the road, but for me it was fun — I enjoyed it. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by great people along the way and if it wasn’t for them helping me out, I wouldn’t be here.

IA: Talking about big breaks, what do you think of TV talent shows like American Idol?

JJ: Y’know, there’s kind of a physical law, as far as I’m concerned, that spans across all realms – physical, mental, spiritual – and that’s: easy come, easy go. If success comes real easy, real quick, it tends to go the same way. If you’ve got the tenacity and wherewithal to stick with it and its something that affects you at a deep level, then you can probably hang around for as long as you want.

A friend of mine actually won American Idol a few years ago — a guy called Taylor Hicks.

He opened up for us years before he went on Idol, but that exposure really pushed him forward and he’s still doing real well. He might not have turned into a household name or a pop star, but the show put him in a position to be able to do what he wanted. More power to him.

I don’t think I have it in me to do that sort of thing, you know? I’m not very competitive when it comes to music. You put me on television in front of all of those people and I’d probably choke, man [laughs]. 

IA: What’s your opinion of music piracy?

JJ: To be honest I couldn’t really care less. I seem to get enough people buying my album legitimately to make it worthwhile, so if someone downloads a couple of my tracks it doesn’t bother me.

I’m not really a computer guy, so I like to have albums that I can hold in my hand. I mean, I have iTunes and I download tracks that I like the sound of, but if I really like something I’ll go out and buy the album. I love going to record stores, man.

IA: Thanks very much for your time today JJ and good luck with the tour.

JJ: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Ol’ Glory is released on February 25th, and check out JJ Grey at www.jjgrey.com.

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