Jimbo Mathus’ Fresh Batch of Catfish
Seasoned Hill Country troubadour lets loose and gets weird on mesmerizing new album, White Buffalo.
It scarcely takes a moment into a conversation with Jimbo Mathus before it feels like you’ve known him forever. The chat with the Mississippi musician, on a self-pronounced mission of bringing “catfish music to the masses,” flows with an easy grace and open exchange. Perhaps familiarity is bred in Mathus’ disarming Southern drawl and quick wit, or maybe it comes from name recognition over the past 20-or-so years with some of the best in Southern boogie and blues music. Yet, you have reached Mathus at home in his native north Mississippi hill country as a new day dawns in his always unique musical trajectory. “It feels almost like I’m starting over,” Mathus says.
Born in the Summer of Love (August 1967), Mathus first ventured into a studio setting and made his first professional records in 1983 at Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Studios, before finding early found success with North Carolina-based swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers. But reality’s disillusionment soon followed. “It got to just be too much BS,” he explains of his departure from the band 15 years ago. “Some of the people involved … success went to some of their heads, [they] started gettin’ all crazy.” Yet, any lingering bitterness is diffused by Mathus’ reflection that his formative years in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, chiefly in terms of deep roots music scholarship and exploration with the band, “put me [Mathus] on my natural course, that track I’ve always been on, of trying to discover what makes music what it is today.”
The split begat Mathus’ move back home to Mississippi. In addition to soaking in the fertile soil of Magnolia State musical traditions (this time from an adult’s wizened perspective), he toured for five years starting in 2000 with blues legend Buddy Guy as well as performing and recording in various projects – including several highly-acclaimed solo efforts – as well as playing with the South Memphis String band with buddies Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart. Even given this solid track record, it’s the here and now that has Mathus most excited. “I have a great bunch behind me and we’ve made a great record,” he says of the Tri-State Coalition, with whom he shares a debut release on the highly regarded Mississippi-based label, Fat Possum, on January 22 with White Buffalo.
“It’s taken me five years to get this band to where I wanted it be, and now it’s here,” Mathus, 45, explains. “We can go from honky-tonk to heavy blues to rock ‘n’ roll. To do that, you gotta know a lot of styles. You can’t be a purist; but rather have a certain knowledge, a big-picture awareness.”
Proof of Mathus’ relatively small but devoted and connected fan base is in the pudding that is $16,000 raised via a Kickstarter campaign to record what would become White Buffalo. The album, in a one-word summation, is masterful. Mathus’ creation of this latest masterful album was aided by the expert production of Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Steve Earle). Cooking up a batch of what he labeled “a big ol’ stew of Southern music,” White Buffalo is a departure for Mathus, as the songs veer from raging rockers to quaint country/folk tunes. Joined by the expert musicianship of the Tri-State Coalition — Matt Pierce (a rippin’ Telecaster guitar), Eric Carlton (keys), Ryan Rogers (drums), Terrence Bishop (bass) —Mathus takes the listener on one hell of a ride. “Run Devil Run” taps into a surreal hoodoo groove a la Night Tripper-era Dr. John. The title track is a full-on rager, with gritty lyrics delivered with both a debauched and desperate flair delivered under booming guitar wails that soar with Hendrix-esque psychedelic flourishes. The narrative yarn spun in “Hatchie Bottom” befits a place in the long, proud Southern storyteller tradition. “Useless Heart” imparts a tender, time-weary truth to the listener, while “Fake Hex,” another pure gem from the album shuffles along to a Rolling Stones boogie.
This frenetic, free-wheeling artistic approach parallels that of Mathus’ other creative ventures. With coloring work done by wife Jennifer, his visual art sparkles with some sort of crude, redneck genius (see: Confederate Buddha). Videos from White Buffalo tracks “In the Garden” (out now) and “(I Wanna Be Your) Satellite” are experimental to a trippy, Southern Gothic extreme, with imagery ranging from marionettes to snake-handling services. “Getting lost in time, engaging in the process, works for physical art and music the exact same,” Mathus says.
“I’d be happy to just do my jukin’ around in the South, jus’ making my change and doin’ my thang,” he says of the plans for extensive touring behind White Buffalo. “This is more of a challenge. Which is great, it’s a chance to see if we can expand what it is that we do.”