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 youâ€™ve known him forever. The chat with the Mississippi musician, on a self-pronounced mission of bringing â€œcatfish music to the masses,â€ flows with an easy grace and open exchange. Perhaps familiarity is bred in Mathusâ€™ 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. â€œIt feels almost like Iâ€™m starting over,â€ Mathus says.
Born in the Summer of Love (August 1967), MathusÂ firstÂ ventured into aÂ studio setting and made his first professional records in 1983 at Sam Phillipsâ€™ famous Sun Studios,Â before finding early found success with North Carolina-based swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers. But realityâ€™s disillusionment soon followed. â€œIt got to just be too much BS,â€ he explains of his departure from the band 15 years ago. â€œSome of the people involved â€¦ success went to some of their heads, [they] started gettinâ€™ all crazy.â€ Yet, any lingering bitterness is diffused by Mathusâ€™ reflection that his formative years in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, chiefly in terms of deep roots music scholarship and exploration with the band, â€œput me [Mathus] on my natural course, that track Iâ€™ve always been on, of trying to discover what makes music what it is today.â€
The split begat Mathusâ€™ move back home to Mississippi. In addition to soaking in the fertile soil of Magnolia State musical traditions (this time from an adultâ€™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 â€“ including several highly-acclaimed solo efforts â€“ as well as playing with the South Memphis String band with buddies Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart. Even given this solid track record, itâ€™s the here and now that has Mathus most excited. â€œI have a great bunch behind me and weâ€™ve made a great record,â€ 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.
â€œItâ€™s taken me five years to get this band to where I wanted it be, and now itâ€™s here,â€ Mathus, 45, explains. â€œWe can go from honky-tonk to heavy blues to rock â€˜nâ€™ roll. To do that, you gotta know a lot of styles. You canâ€™t be a purist; but rather have a certain knowledge, a big-picture awareness.â€
Proof of Mathusâ€™ 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. Mathusâ€™ creation of this latest masterful album was aided by the expert production of Eric â€œRoscoeâ€ Ambel (Steve Earle). Cooking up a batch of what he labeled â€œa big olâ€™ stew of Southern music,â€ White BuffaloÂ 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 â€” Matt Pierce (a rippinâ€™ Telecaster guitar), Eric Carlton (keys), Ryan Rogers (drums), Terrence Bishop (bass) â€”Mathus takes the listener on one hell of a ride. â€œRun Devil Runâ€ taps into a surreal hoodoo groove a la Night Tripper-era Dr.Â 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 â€œHatchie Bottomâ€ befits a place in the long, proud Southern storyteller tradition.Â â€œUseless Heartâ€ imparts a tender, time-weary truth to the listener, while â€œFake Hex,â€ another pure gem from the album shuffles along to a Rolling Stones boogie.
This frenetic, free-wheeling artistic approach parallels that of Mathusâ€™ 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 â€œIn the Gardenâ€ (out now) and â€œ(I Wanna Be Your) Satelliteâ€ are experimental to a trippy, Southern Gothic extreme, with imagery ranging from marionettes to snake-handling services. â€œGetting lost in time, engaging in the process, works for physical art and music the exact same,â€ Mathus says.
â€œIâ€™d be happy to just do my jukinâ€™ around in the South, jusâ€™ making my change and doinâ€™ my thang,â€ he says of the plans for extensive touring behind White Buffalo. â€œThis is more of a challenge. Which is great, itâ€™s a chance to see if we can expand what it is that we do.â€