by Jessica Giles | July 17, 2020

How 3 Florida Musicians Keep a Sunshine State of Mind

Why Rita Coolidge burst into tears, what Cassadee Pope has to do every day and how JJ Grey keeps a Sunshine State of Mind

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Music has long been used to make sense of the world. And in a world that is increasingly harder to make sense of, we find ourselves clinging to every word. Whether this pandemic has you wondering if this is the real life or just fantasy, we can find solace in lyrics and melodies.

In our second installment of the Sunshine State of Mind series, three famous Florida musicians, JJ Grey, Rita Coolidge and Cassadee Pope, share how they’ve made the most of their time at home and how this strange moment has influenced their work and creativity.


RITA COOLIDGE

Rita Coolidge has been enjoying this new stage of life with her college sweetheart, Joe Hutto. Photography by Matt Beard

Two Grammy Awards and 18 solo albums later, Rita Coolidge is one of the most acclaimed musicians to rise from the Sunshine State. The Delta Lady’s career spanned more than 40 years, and now she’s enjoying the sweet slow pace of retirement with her FSU college sweetheart, Joe Hutto. She told us all about her days of easy living on her sprawling North Florida property and how she’s filling her time in the COVID-19 world.

How Joe keeps her entertained: We’re sitting on our screen porch about a week ago, and I look down at the lake, and I said “Honey, is that a young alligator?” and he goes “Yes!” Before I could get my phone—because I try to film him doing this crazy stuff that people shouldn’t do—he ran in and got his shoes and shot out the back door and ran toward the alligator. I’m like, “What are you going to do?” And he’s like, “I want to show him to you!” He took his shirt off and tried to throw it over the alligator’s head. This young alligator, which was probably 5 feet long, was airborne, lunged at Joe. And Joe is running backward, just barely faster than the alligator is chasing him. Finally, the alligator turned around and ran to the lake, and Joe got his shirt back. Joe calls it “stupid stuff people shouldn’t do.”

Rita Coolidge spends her days enjoying her North Florida property and watching Joe’s antics. Photography by Gabriel Hanway

What made her burst into tears during quarantine: I gave Joe a haircut today. He wasn’t nearly as worried about it as I was. I was just all but in tears, and when I finished it, and he went in the bathroom and looked, he said “That’s one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had.” I burst into tears.

How music is helping people through the pandemic: I think for everybody on the planet, music has been such a gift during this time, such a good friend. Especially for people who are isolated by themselves, and they really can’t get a hug from anybody. I think music wraps its arms around people and speaks to them in a way that is so comforting.

Why North Florida was the right place to retire: I just love being back in the South with the warmth and hospitality of Southern people. I find it to be so unique. It’s not pretend. There’s nothing phony about what goes on in Florida. People are just so authentic and nice and would do anything for you. And I hear it all the time, but I really do feel like we, as a community, are in this together. Globally we’re in this together, but I feel it in my heart in Tallahassee.


CASSADEE POPE

Cassadee Pope decided to release an acoustic album in the beginning of August to reflect this unique time. Photography by Chance Edwards

Since we last spoke with Cassadee fresh off her 30th birthday, the country music singer-songwriter has been creating an intimate new album and raising her voice for more than just chart-topping hits. Pope has been wielding her Instagram clout to facilitate conversations about race and racism in America, holding Instagram Lives with activists and sharing educational resources with her followers. She phoned in from her Nashville home to talk about creativity in quarantine, using her newfound free time to become a social justice advocate and her latest acoustic album dropping August 7.

How her upcoming album Rise and Shine reflects our lives in quarantine: The reason I wanted to make it acoustic was to reflect the time we’re in, and I feel like a lot of the distractions of going out and filling our time with things are stripped away. I thought, well maybe I could do that with the music. There’s definitely songs that are more moody and more emotional, and I think it’s a time where we’re all feeling those things. My hope is that these songs help people get into that space of feeling all the feelings and letting it out. It’s an emotional journey, which I think is definitely what’s been happening for everybody during this quarantine.

Why she’s using her platform to have conversations about racism: I didn’t see a choice really. I just was sitting back really thinking about the things that I’ve said in the past that are racist and the thoughts that I’ve had in the past that are racist, but I’ve never identified as a racist. I’ve always felt like an ally to the Black community. I started to really strip back and unpack all that stuff that I’ve been taught over the years, not just by my parents, but by society and policies that are in place that aren’t looking out for the best interests of our Black and brown communities. I just felt tugged, and the only reason why there was any resistance at first to say anything was because I was afraid that I would get backlash from people that might not have the same views, and that to me was just not a good enough excuse to not say anything.

The one thing she needs to do every day: If I miss the sunset, because we have a rooftop view here in Nashville, which is great, and if I miss the sunset, I get a little sad. I think because I had access to sunsets in Florida—the best ones. There’s just all those things that stick with you and never leave you.

The significance of her new album’s first two singles: They’re the bookends of the album. “Let Me Go” is first and “Built This House” is last on the tracklisting. They’re also just complete opposites. I love that they’re both talking about different times in my life. “Let Me Go” is about a time where I felt like I wasn’t being understood, and I was sort of trapped in a situation that wasn’t good for me. It’s just a song about being desperate for freedom from that situation. Then “Built This House” is really relevant to where I am now. I didn’t write that too long ago. It’s just about how I had to sort of tear down my life before this and build a new one and put in a foundation that’s strong.


JJ GREY

Don’t expect to find any Coronavirus songs on JJ Grey’s next album. Photography by Jeremiah Stanley

You’d never think the sounds of the swamp could be so enchanting until you hear a JJ Grey song. Bubbling with soul, wrought with raw storytelling and tied to the land he sprung from, Grey has been crooning the songs of the Sunshine State since the early 2000s. The last time we caught up with the Southern rocker, he was on a dizzying schedule of touring, recording and chasing around his chickens, but when we chatted on this late April afternoon, he was living at an unprecedented pace of life.

On creating music during a pandemic: I’ve been finally getting closer and closer to finishing another record. It’s one of those things where I don’t know exactly what all I need but I’ll know when it’s there. You know kind of like going and buying furniture. You kind of know what you want to get but chances are, when you go out to buy a coffee table, you wind up buying something else. But it’s the same way with me with music and songs. I’ll know it when it happens.

On whether or not you’ll hear any coronavirus-influenced songs on his new album: Definitely not. I mean, it won’t be any different because of that, but it might be different. To me, the music is less about how it turns out and more about the process, meaning that the process stays the same for me. The process is to let it just happen and just go with it, like conversations. The more organic, the more fulfilling it is, at least in my experience. It’s just like every record I’ve done. To some people, they all sound the same; To other people, they sound completely different. I’m sure it will be different. I just know my process won’t be any different.

On what the pandemic has taught him about himself: It’s not stuff that I’ve learned, it’s just stuff that I’m reminded of. Sometimes it feels like you already knew that, like the old saying “stop and smell roses.” We’ve been hearing that all our lives; we know that. But I guess you learn to pay attention to what you tend to get lost in. So stopping and smelling the roses has been around a long time. It’s not that you had to learn that but you have to remember it, which I guess in its own way is learning.

What a Sunshine State of Mind means to him: It all starts with the sunshine. Just walking outside, looking up and realizing that there’s something about that sunshine that just puts things in perspective. Sunshine state of mind is focusing on what’s good. Find what’s good and be thankful for that, and that’s enough to get the ball rolling in the other direction.

Like Grey sings in his hit, “Everything is a Song,” we hope that the many voices shared in this series over the next few months arrange into one big Floridian harmony. Read more installments here.

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