Westside Jacksonville native and MOFRO frontman John Grey wallows in Northeast Florida's musical - and natural - landscape

by john e. citrone

"It's like watchin' someone you love die slow
Yeah, they killin' her one piece at a time
I know some fools who think I should let go
But they've never seen Florida through my eyes"
- "Florida," by MOFRO

Traveling west on Normandy Boulevard from the heart of Jacksonville's Westside, things slowly change. Garish strip malls and convenience stores fade to specks in the rearview mirror. Radio Shacks and Burger Kings shrink under the weight of a heavy blue horizon. Everything slows down. Everything turns green.

The senses awaken the farther west you go. Colors, scents and sounds come alive. Hand-painted plywood signs replace filthy gas station marquees. Weather-beaten tractors take up where Dodge Caravans leave off. Subdivisions turn to homesteads, tract housing to trailer parks.

Jaded city dwellers hate places like this - all leafy and mosquitoey, so few cell phone towers. This is where hicks dwell, ornery bastards with pickups the size of elementary schools. But these forests and swamps are also home to native Floridians - a dying breed of farmers, timber workers and ranchers who maintain a tenuous grasp on what little is left of their home.

John Grey lives here among abundant pecan trees and tall pines, just beyond the old Cecil Field Naval Air Station. Grey was raised in these woods, where he learned to harvest chicken eggs and slaughter pigs on his grandparents' farm. This is where he played in the creeks that meander through acres and acres of largely untouched land, where he grew to love indigenous creatures.

Grey learned about music here, too, from the swamp-stomp and boogie-woogie blues tossed around a Baldwin corner jukehouse to the bluegrass standards played by his friends and neighbors. "To me music can sound like a place," says Grey. "You can go drive around out here and, when you look around, the blues makes sense."

Grey's band MOFRO celebrates the old-Florida lifestyle, digging into the roots beneath the theme parks and golf courses. The band, though commercially viable, is less concerned with hitting the charts, though it must be said that MOFRO could - SHOULD - achieve the success of their predecessors Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band. But for Grey and his musical companions, the music is about keeping alive tradition and passing it along to a generation bent on high-tech self-immolation.

"When these old-timers like [my grandparents] die, there's nobody left that knows anything about [the area's history]," says Grey. "I certainly don't know what my grandfather knew. I feel like that's sort of a scary proposition. It's not just Florida, it's the whole world over. Think, in another 40 years, kids aren't gonna know anything about anything. Everything gets piped in through a TV. They learn about nature through the television set."

"Not everyone can be Grizzly Adams," he concedes. "I ain't sayin' that. I'm just sayin', keep some piece of it alive."

An empty faux-patchwork chair sits midstage at the Freebird Cafe in Jacksonville Beach. It's the epicenter of a half-circle of modest instruments - electric keyboards stage right, bass rig stage left, small drum kit upstage center. The club has fallen into a quiet murmur following a too-loud opening band, and the empty chair seems almost forlorn. Glasses clink, folks chatter and cigarette smoke lifts into a thick cloud. Strains of piped-in whitebread rock are barely audible above the rumble of Saturday night conversation. The chair remains empty.

Backstage, in a claustrophobic green room, MOFRO bassist Fabrice Quentin raps with the band's new keyboard player, Mike Shapiro. Quentin's voice is soft and so ... French. Quentin hails from Friville-Escarbotin, France, and his native accent typifies the contradictions that fill the nightclub: the highbrow yuppies mingling with redneck beachfolk, the steel drum band that just banged out a fiery opening set surrounded by Lynyrd Skynyrd memorabilia, the clean-cut suburbanites standing in line to watch a grubby-ass swamp-funk band from the sticks.

Soon drummer Craig Barnette enters the room and talk turns to MOFRO's upcoming road dates. Barnette recently became MOFRO's fourth or fifth (who's counting?) drummer and is hungry to tour. Shapiro is quick with a smile and Quentin is friendly but aloof. MOFRO's founding members, John "J.J." Grey and Daryl Hance, are nowhere to be found.

As people file into the club, the crowd grows more diverse. The MOFRO merchandise booth offers mason jar mugs emblazoned with the words FRONT PORCH SOUL along with simple T-shirts stamped with the same logo and the band's debut CD, "Blackwater." The curious paw the mugs and scan the CDs, but few drop change. And though a hundred or so people now crowd the dance floor in front of the stage, the air lacks that palpable vibe one might expect before a big rock show.

Somewhere in the shadows, John Grey leans against a wall smiling, observing, taking swigs from a bottle of Corona. His smile is broad and sincere, darkened by the brim of his camouflage "Double WW Ranch" cap. His shoulders sag lazily. He is "no worries" personified.

As with all Northeast Florida concerts, walk-up attendance confounds those who monitor early ticket sales. Though club owners know better than to rely on advance numbers, it's encouraging to ring in a few hundred dollars in pre-show sales. But the turnout for this show is unpredictable. MOFRO has only been around for little more than a year and has spent most of that time in every city in the U.S. except Jacksonville. (Grey later confides he was concerned few would attend the Freebird concert.) But locals keep pouring in. Before long, the Freebird is packed, sweaty and anxious.

With little fanfare, John Grey and friends trudge onstage. Grey's medium-size frame supports a big plaid shirt and baggy pants. Toes poke through the front of his sandals. He circles the chair, adjusts his microphone, nods to his bandmates and sits. Then, with a simple lift of his bearded chin, the beat drops, hard and mellow. There is nothing anyone can do but groove.

The slow harmonica-laden jam builds into the rolling cadence of "Blackwater," the CD's title track and one of many tributes to Grey's Northeast Florida home. Grey doubles over when he makes his harmonica scream. Cupping the microphone, he sends distorted wails into the carcinogenic haze above the crowd. Barnette's below-the-belt slamming drives the band like the conductor of a determined locomotive. Grey springs from his seat.

He doesn't dance, he stomps. Stomps like an angry child, stomps like he wants to put his foot straight through the earth, stomps like an American Indian in the throes of a war dance.

Without a pause, the band leans into the spare Southern slide of "Free." Grey digs into the hardy melody like a gospel singer. He's been schooled by Muddy Waters, whipped into submission by Otis Redding. He's functioning on another plane altogether, hovering somewhere up there above the cigarette smoke.

By the time MOFRO is kicking out the infectious chorus of the destined-to-be-a-hit-single "Air," the crowd is singing along, moving in its own strange way to music born out of Delta blues and straight-up, no-nonsense funk.

Grey sits and stands throughout the set, gabbing with the audience between songs - praising Lynyrd Skynyrd and his favorite places in Florida. The quintet is on fire, launching into funk- and blues-based improvisations that blend into one churning wave of music. Genre melts away, and all is energy, flowing from the stage to the audience and back again.

This is the real thing - organic, gritty and nasty - the way they used to do it, with guitar, amp and maybe a stomp box to kick that guitar into overdrive. No technological sleight of hand, no strobe lights, no video screens or flashpots. This is serious front porch soul.

The car was traveling about 100 mph when it clobbered the Suzuki Samurai carrying John Grey, his wife Simonne, former MOFRO keyboard player Nathan Shepherd and tour manager Ken Parker. It came from behind, like a phantom from the darkness, and blasted Grey's vehicle into oblivion. The Samurai rolled several times, scattering bodies every which way. Grey came to rest in a muddy pit some 50 feet from the crumpled Samurai. He was banged up pretty good, but OK.

Simonne was not as fortunate. Grey ticks off her injuries like a morbid grocery list: "busted-up hip, broken ribs, punctured lung, lacerated liver, broken fibula, broke her leg in half, major gash in her head."

Shepherd also sustained broken bones, Parker only bruises.

The Oct. 20, 2001 accident couldn't have happened at a worse time. MOFRO was returning from a concert at The Marquee Theatre in Five Points, where the band played the first gig of its second national tour. Being on the road would have kept the band in front of eager audiences, opened the door for new fans and generated some much-needed income. Instead, the tour was scrapped. The band was saddled with astronomical medical bills - the two medical airlifts alone cost $10,000 - and with the emotional heft of injured friends and loved ones. Even the band's future seemed in doubt.

But John Grey isn't easily defeated.

MOFRO was built from the ruins of modern funk outfit Alma Zuma, which was founded by buddies Grey and guitarist Daryl Hance, who met while working at a local air conditioning company. Between 1993 and 97, the band garnered a following around Jacksonville and even drew the attention of a London-based record label. But a rotating lineup of weekend warriors meant Alma Zuma's days were numbered.

Grey decided to pursue a record deal with old Alma Zuma material. He and Hance moved to London, only to find the label owner embroiled in a legal battle. He could do nothing for the boys from Northeast Florida. The duo started writing new songs anyway, and soon had a demo in hand. It was the beginning of what would eventually become "Blackwater."

While in London, the newly renamed MOFRO became the focus of major-label interest, but Grey became frustrated with the hordes of wheeling-and-dealing twenty something A&R reps - guys known for paying lip service rather than royalties. Grey decided to hit up a few independent U.S. labels he thought would be more apt to give MOFRO the push it needed. Among Grey's top choices were Fog City Records, the now-defunct Desco Records and Fat Possum. Fog City's Dan Prothero responded.

"He was more about keepin' it down home," says Grey. "Them other people were kind of tryin' to push that out of you. He was trying to encourage it more. So it was a no-brainer. ... We flew home."

"Blackwater" is a satisfying collection of Southern gutbucket funk drenched in slide guitars, fat organs and distorted harmonica. At once mournful and celebratory, "Blackwater" weeps for Old Florida - the one trampled by voracious development - while it rejoices in what precious little is left.

"As long as developers run with it, and as long as there's a whole massive chain of industry based upon it, it's just gonna win out," says Grey, scorning developments like Nocatee and polluters like Georgia Pacific. "It's rough, and there's nothin' you can do about it."

Though Grey hates to leave his farm and family, he wanted to get out and promote the new record, so he fashioned two national tours, one for the summer before "Blackwater" hit stores and one to coincide with its release last fall. Though the tour was a financial strain - Quentin flew in from France, Shepherd from Australia - it was necessary to expose the band on a national level before the record came out.

Things happened quickly. Though "Blackwater" had not been officially released, word got around. National Public Radio featured MOFRO on its Southern Artist Series in July, and Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin visited Grey on his farm to flesh out some hardcore water moccasins for a segment on Florida wildlife.

"I started getting inundated with stuff," says Grey. "CD orders, we had 9,000 hits on our Website in two days, and the record went to number two on Amazon's best seller list - behind O Brother, Where Art Thou?' [soundtrack]."

Then the world turned upside down.

Getting cracked up in a car crash is never good for a rock band, and the recovery period for MOFRO was long and troublesome. Simonne spent months in a wheelchair, and Grey wondered how the band would pay the hospital bills. Graciously, 20th Congress' Robert Walter came to the band's aid and set up a tribute concert on the West Coast, featuring players from the funk underground. Though MOFRO fragmented in the aftermath of the wreck - Shepherd left to pursue his own music and the band has been through a number of drummers - they managed to pull it together.

Still burdened with debt and way behind schedule, MOFRO is preparing for another national tour.

Wading through the knee-high grass that stretches from his trailer to his grandma's house, 34-year-old John Grey is nostalgic. It hasn't been the best day - a large tree branch penetrated the roof of his trailer, his son, Rommy, managed to bog down his pickup truck in a muddy section of the yard and Grey's father chopped up a Glass snake while mowing the expansive front lawn. But Grey is at peace. This 20-acre farm, in his family for generations, is his first love. As a child, he saw a rare Florida panther just a stone's throw from his front porch. He also watched his father snap the necks of chickens before telling little Buckshot (Grey's boyhood nickname) to dip them in boiling water to loosen their feathers. Momma did the gutting.

Grey also recalls his grandfather's hard luck stories, when the livestock they raised became their only sustenance.

"When I was a kid, I come out here and worked ... and played," says Grey. "We did it all here. I butchered hogs, chickens. At first, I didn't like it. My grandparents used to keep me in a cowboy hat, with a little drawstring, and the boots and all that. Same thing my granddad wore."

Most of the farm buildings on the Grey property are run-down and unusable - they died with Grey's grandfather in the mid-'80s - but Grey's trailer and his grandmother's house are solid and clean. He has a vision to resurrect the farm, albeit in an altered state. Grey wants to turn the old chicken house into a rehearsal studio. He also hopes, one day, to earn a living with his music so he can quit his job at a local lumber yard and cultivate organic crops in the back field. (Grey's wife, Simonne, is a health food enthusiast, evidenced by the patch of wheat grass growing in a small pallet on the trailer's kitchen counter.) Grey says that if he won the lottery, he would buy a massive swath of land around his farm to prevent development.

Yet with all this talk about saving the family farm, Grey, like his band, is a wheelbarrow of contradictions. As a child, he and his friends were intrigued by the Ku Klux Klan; now he's married to a black woman and father to a black teenager, both of whom have thick British accents. He was taught as a child to hunt, slaughter pigs and cows, and boil chickens; now he is a passionate conservationist who believes in allowing nature to thrive. And although Grey angrily denounces rampant development, he's realistic about the demise of the Florida wilderness. "I don't think you can do anything [to stop it]," says Grey. "I don't feel bad that it's doomed. I reckon everything is doomed, you know? I hate for it to be, but long before we were alive, the Indians, they lived a hell of a lot longer here than anybody else did, and they were doomed, too. "I just think it's part of civilization," Grey concludes. "It's got a one-track mind. It's either you with us or you ain't. It rolls over anybody that ain't. It's just always been that way. And it's not one person's fault or not even a group of people's fault. It's just the nature of the beast."

Simonne's long, dark curls shift around her face as she bustles about the house. She's walking now, with only a slight limp. Grey's son, nephew and niece prepare snacks and pour lemonade in the trailer's comfortable kitchen. British accents fill the air. Framed by a London walk-up, this image would make perfect sense. But the scene plays out in a doublewide off a dirt road on the outskirts of Jacksonville. Surreal is the only word that applies.

Grey, topped by his trusty camouflage hat, sits at the dining room table and sips from a mason jar full of iced tea. He rambles on about greedy developers, racism and preserving wildlife. He talks fondly of his grandfather, and his own father, whom he still calls "sir."

But Grey loves most to talk about music. He bounds from his chair to his office, a stark room housing a computer desk and a few shelves, and rattles off names of his favorite musical groups. Like a boy showing off his Matchbox cars, Grey rifles through CDs, cranking various funk, R&B and gospel artists through his computer speakers. A poster of Muddy Waters looks on.

Bucking adversity, Grey is determined to keep his own music alive. He no longer books MOFRO tours - it's just too demanding. He's hired an agent to cover that end of the business. He wants to get back to writing new material, but the road is where dues get paid. And MOFRO still has dues - and hospital bills - to pay.

A long, yellowish RV sits next to Grey's house. In a month or so, his band will pile into the leviathan and work its way across America, delivering steaming helpings of Southern-fried melodies to a country in dire need of some homespun funk. And all the while - from jazz festivals in New Orleans to the neo-hippie clubs of San Francisco - John Grey will be thinking about Florida.

MOFRO performs on Saturday, Oct. 26 at Freebird Cafe in Jacksonville Beach.

©Copyright Folio Weekly 2002. All rights reserved.