One of the Mississippi Deltaâ€™s premiere musical ambassadors is making his way to the ESho. Jimbo Mathus has made a career out of harnessing the sounds of the past and recreating those for the modern age.
This Grammy winner began his career with the big band revival outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers. Mathus then started focusing on the blues and working with acts such as Buddy Guy and the North Mississippi All-Stars. With his band Knockdown South, Mathus took the Delta sound to the next level.
Now, this accomplished artist is back with a new band and album ("Confederate Buddhaâ€ť) that is quite a departure from his previous material. This Mississippi patriot recently chatted with Lagniappe about his new sound and (of course) his home state.
SC: You hail from the Mississippi Delta. When Iâ€™ve been up there in recent years, Iâ€™ve noticed that there is a big drive in that area to promote Mississippi culture ranging from art to music. Itâ€™s like a mini Southern Renaissance of sorts. How would you describe modern Mississippi Delta culture?
JM: Artistically, thereâ€™s artists here that I admire. I guess the Hill Country Blues opened up a lot of doors. R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough opened up a lot of peopleâ€™s ears to a blues sound, but I think the story is yet to be told. With the North Mississippi All-Stars, you got a good influence out there in the world. Iâ€™m just proud to be a part of the heritage and being affected by the white and black side of music. I get a kick out of it every day being from here and learning more every day, but I think the whole story is yet to be told musically. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to do.
SC: You have always been a musician displaced in time. You started out with Squirrel Nut Zippers with the ragtime/big band sound, then it was Knockdown South with the dirty old school Delta blues. Now with Tri-State Coalition, youâ€™re doing an extremely nostalgic country rock thing. What is it about those older sounds?
JM: I donâ€™t know. I guess it started out even before the Zippers. I learned music from my dad, my uncles and my cousins. Iâ€™ve got musicians all over my family. So, I just grew up in that Southern social music vibe. You play music just for fun and for the family, because you can. I came from it from that angle to start with. I was always interested in history and family genealogy and the history of my state. I just always was interested in that. Being wired that way, I actually went through musical history, and Iâ€™ve been trying to thread it together ever since I got started. Then, I also want to put my own twist on it. Iâ€™ve never been happy or totally satisfied playing other peopleâ€™s music. I always wanted to be a writer, too. So, I always put my own twist on it and continued to tie it together.
SC: Your latest offering is "Confederate Buddha.â€ť From the way you talk online and the liner notes from Chris Robinson (Black Crowes), it seems as if there is a concept of the Confederate Buddha. How would you define the Confederate Buddha?
JM: In the South, our strength is the union of these polar opposites. Itâ€™s about deciding which way you want to go. With the Buddha, you have a symbol of peace and contentment. Itâ€™s an eastern concept. Itâ€™s not an American concept. Then, you have the image of the Confederate, which is rebellion and uprising. You put those two things together, and youâ€™re joining the opposites. Thatâ€™s whatâ€™s going to ultimately be our strength â€“ is how we can combine our polar opposites. Black or white, rich or poor, itâ€™s how we combine these opposites. I try to do the same thing with the music. I try to combine the blues, the gospel, the honky-tonk, the singer-songwriter and all these different things we have in Mississippi. I try to tie them all together and make a new Mississippi music. So, itâ€™s sort of a conundrum wrapped in an enigma (laughing).
SC: I listen to your new album, and I get these impressions of Jerry Jeff Walker and the Grateful Deadâ€™s "Workingmanâ€™s Deadâ€ť album. What was it about this style or genre that begged for you to put your touch on it?
JM: Well, Iâ€™d say itâ€™s not so much about any genre, but just more of digesting enough roots music and being an original writer to finally come to the same kind of conclusion as a lot of the other people you just mentioned. So, if youâ€™re talking about the (Rolling) Stones and the Grateful Dead, they were both listening to Deep South roots music to create their form of rock & roll or their own modern music. With the Tri-State Coalition, itâ€™s a rock band. It was time to go that route and put all this folk music and all this heritage into the form of a rock band, a Southern rock band and go forward with original stuff. Weâ€™re not so much copying the copiers. Iâ€™m just putting my own stamp on the originators, be it Jimmy Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Elvis Presley or Charley Patton.
SC: You recorded this at your studio, Delta Recording Service, which is not a typical studio. How does it feel to have your own fully stocked studio to lay down tracks? What are the benefits?
JM: Iâ€™ve been making my own records in my own studios for the last 15 years. The recording and the writing and the performing all go hand-in-hand with me. Iâ€™ve been involved with recording ever since the early days. Even in the Squirrel Nut Zipper days, we were doing our own recording. So, this one wasnâ€™t any different than anything else. Producing in the studio environment goes hand-in-hand with the writing and live environment, and Iâ€™ve also got my own technique. So, Iâ€™m happy with that and content with that.
SC: On the track "Aces and Eights,â€ť you have a ton of guest stars including Luther and Cody Dickinson (N. Miss. All-Stars) and Lightninâ€™ Malcolm, and itâ€™s a Western ballad, which is totally different from their typical styles. How did you sell them on it? Were you like, "Hey, Iâ€™m doing this old school Western song. Come lay down a trackâ€ť?
JM: All those cats, man, Iâ€™ve been working for years with Luther and the Dickinson family, Lightninâ€™, Paul Taylor, the Selvidge family and all these Mississippi artists. These are just my people. I donâ€™t have to sell them on anything. We co-collaborate on stuff all the time. Iâ€™ve got either a song that Iâ€™ve written or co-written on all the All-Stars records. On any record to come out of Mississippi in the past 15 years, youâ€™ll see my name attached to it. Iâ€™m not bragging, but itâ€™s like family sh*t. Itâ€™s like inviting the boys over. So, it wasnâ€™t anything outlandish.
SC: A lot of people are used to seeing you with Knockdown South. So, what can people expect from Tri-State Coalition?
JM: Man, Iâ€™d just say that this one is more personal. Itâ€™s a bigger band, and weâ€™re focusing on the songs. You can expect old Knockdown blues stuff for anybody who was down with that, but youâ€™ll also get a lot of new songs from "Confederate Buddhaâ€ť and songs that are coming out behind that. Iâ€™m leading up to something. Iâ€™ve got a whole new batch of songs that I want people to listen to. Itâ€™ll be a blending. Weâ€™ve tested our sound throughout the Southeast, so I think people will be real happy whether they like the new Southern sound or the classic rock or the classic blues of the South.