Mississippi-Born Jimbo Mathus – Original & Diverse

An Article by Brenda Germany
Photos by Stephen “Andy” Anderson

If you’ve ever ventured off the beaten path in search of musical experiences beyond the mainstream, Jimbo Mathus is likely just what you were hoping to find.  The primal, earthy and deeply southern, blues-infused rock elements of Mathus’ music irresistibly draw those who possess a hunger to take in the true life force of Mississippi’s multi-layered musical heritage. In late December 2018, just before the New Year emerged, Jimbo Mathus appeared at Jim Pennington’s Listening Room of Mobile to reveal “ The World According to Jimbo Mathus” in a conversation with noted Mississippi author, Frye Gaillard, followed by the truest expression of Jimbo Mathus’ identity…his music. The exposed industrial architecture of steel beams, glass and weathered brick walls lined with paintings, photos and creations by local artists were a fitting backdrop for the standing room only crowd as the evening that included notable audience requests of “In the Garden”, “Blue Light”, “Catahoula”, “Ghost of Stephen Foster”, “Fallen Angel”, “Writing Spider” and “Cling to the Roots” unfolded.

Born in Oxford, MS to Jimmy and Jeanella (Malvezzi) Mathis, James H. Mathis, Jr. entered the world of music long before drawing his first breath in the earthly world.  His mother, father and extended family were skilled instrumentalists and singers who followed the musical paths of their Scottish, Irish and Italian ancestors, incorporating banjos, fiddles, guitars, Dobros, pianos and song into their daily lives. His musical education began early in life and at age six, a mandolin placed in his hands was the beginning of a lifelong passion to change the world with music. Living in North Mississippi, Jimbo had the good fortune to become well indoctrinated by the Blues, bluegrass, country and folk music handed down, not only by his family, but also Mississippians such as Robert Johnson, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, B.B. King and, especially, Charley Patton, who would figure more prominently in his life than he could have guessed. Jimbo’s innate talent was confirmed when he was recorded at age 15 in 1983 at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service in Memphis, TN in a band called The End.

Jimbo Mathus in a conversation with noted Mississippi author, Frye Gaillard (Dec. 22, 2018)

Mathus’ education continued as he graduated from Corinth High School, studied philosophy at MS State University and joined the Merchant Marines in 1987 during which time he used his shore leave to travel the country.  Chapel Hill, NC was his next habitation where he continued to educate himself in the University libraries studying Latin, theater, poetry, first people’s culture, literature and alchemy along with his first love, music. His decision to study Latin was based on a desire to better understand William Faulkner’s writings and inspired him to change the spelling of his last name from Mathis to Mathus to honor his and his mother’s Latin studies.

 Mathus’ outstanding body of musical work includes RIAA Gold (500,000 sales) and Platinum (1,000,000 sales) record album awards for his immensely popular neo-swing/jazz band the Squirrel Nut Zippers which performed during the early 1990’s through 2000 at such notable shows and venues as the 1996 Summer Olympics, The Tonight Show, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rocking Eve 1998 and Sesame Street.  Following the disbanding of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Jimbo gained Grammy recognition for his own work with Buddy Guy (“Blues Singer”), as a member of Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy for the Jim Dickinson memorial album “Onward and Upward”, for his engineering work and studio, Delta Recording Service (Clarksdale, MS), on Elvis Costello’s “The Delivery Man” and vocals on the North Mississippi Allstars’ (Luther Dickinson & Cody Dickinson) “Electric Blues Watermelon”.

Jimbo Mathus at The Shed Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, MS (2014)

In 1997, Mathus, bassist Stu Cole, Mike Napolitano, and pianist Greg Bell formed the Knockdown Society and released “Play Songs for Rosetta”, a collection of bluesman Charley Patton’s songs to benefit Rosetta Brown and her family following her stroke.  Previously unknown to Mathus, Rosetta, who had been his childhood nanny turned out to be the daughter of legendary bluesman Charley Patton. In 2010, Mathus formed the TriState Coalition with fellow Mississippians Justin Showah (bass, vocals) and Eric Carlton (keyboards), Arkansan Matt Pierce (guitar) and drummer Austin Marshall from Missouri thereby creating the “Tri-state” element of the band.

Mathus, describes his musical bent as “Southern Gothic, of course, with a little rock & roll and pyschedelia that all stem from folk music. Southern American music at its best is raw, original and diverse. It’s a little like the ancient practice of ancestor worship. Nothing I do is completely fictional.  I’ve lived a lot of lives, so I don’t have to make up stuff. If you want to see where my ideas really come from, look at Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music, 1952”.

 When accepting the Lifetime Achievement Grammy award for his “Anthology” of eighty-four 1927-1932 American folk, blues and country music recordings, Harry Smith offered these words in gratitude, “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true, that I saw America changed through music.”  At that moment, the wellspring of Mathus’ inspiration aligned conclusively with his own passion to change the world with music.

 Mathus’ most recent solo release is “Band of Storms” (2016, Big Legal Mess Records).  In 2018, he and the Squirrel Nut Zippers reunited in an abandoned New Orleans wine cellar turned studio to record and release their first album in 18 years, “Beasts of Burgundy” on the Southern Broadcasting label.

 When asked to sum up his bond to the music, people and culture of Mississippi Mathus replied, “I’m just more at home in Mississippi than any other place.” In closing the evening, Jimbo left his audience with a New Year’s admonition from his favorite track on the “Confederate Buddha” album, “ ‘Cling to the roots and you won’t wash away when the river is rising.’ But, keep an eye on the horizon to see what’s coming.”

Jimbo Mathus at The Listening Room of Mobile in Mobile, AL (Dec. 22, 2018)

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References:
1.
www.highroadtouring.com/confederate-buddha-from-jimbo-mathus-out-524/ 2011
2. Americana Music Show #249, by Calvin Powers, June 2, 2015

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© The Southland Music Line. 2019. All rights reserved

©The Southland Music Line

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