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Early Blues Interview
Jimbo Mathus

© Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.


"The late Memphis producer Jim Dickinson once called Jimbo Mathus “the singing voice of Huck Finn.” Outside the South, Mathus is likely known as the ringleader of the hyper-ragtime outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers. In his native Mississippi and throughout the South, however, Mathus is the prolific songwriter of born-in-the-bone Southern music, the torchbearer for Deep South mythology and culture. Think Delta highways, bowling-pin Budweisers and “innerplanetary honky-tonk” for the masses.

Jimbo Mathus remains a rising-star powerhouse that feeds the soul. His latest band, The Tri-State Coalition, features solid talent cut from the same Delta cloth. Mathus describes Tri-State’s sound as “...a true Southern amalgam of blues, white country, soul and rock-n-roll. As Dickinson would say, ‘If you don’t like this, there is seriously something wrong with you.’”

  -  Source: Jimbo's Facebook

I caught up with Jimbo Mathus at Carlisle Rock n'Blues Festival when he was on tour with Ian Siegal.

Alan:      I understand you were born in Oxford, Mississippi.  Did you grow up there and what were your first musical memories?

Jimbo:   Well, I was born in Oxford but I grew up in two towns, Corinth, Mississippi which is up on the Tennessee / Alabama line, in the north-east part of the state, and that's a foothills of the Appalachians type of region.  My mother's family is from Coahoma County, the Delta so those are the two towns I grew up in.  My father's side were all musicians so I grew up in music my whole life.  My first musical memories are in-utero!  I have literally been hearing it, being around it, learning from it my whole life and so from my Dad's side I got the white music, the hillbilly music, the gospel and from my mum's side, the Clarksdale side, I got the blues and the black music.  I learned first hand from relatives, professionals and juke joint entertainers. 

Alan:      Did you always want to become a musician?

Jimbo:   It never occurred to me to not do that.  My first memory was crawling up on a shelf to get one of the harmonicas and trying the harmonica and then the first proper instrument was a mandolin.  I started on the mandolin when I was six.  The kids would be out doing things and I would be in there with the grown-ups just listening and hearing everything.  It just never occurred to me to do anything else.

© Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Alan:      How did you get started professionally?

Jimbo:   It started with Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band I started and that was the first time I really started getting paid or even imagining that money would be involved, it just wasn't a part of my plan.  Music was something I did and was passionate about but it never occurred to me that I would ever make money at it and I never tried to get a record deal.  I worked my whole life, I was a deckhand, like Alvin [Youngblood Heart], we worked on the boats, same as Alvin, he was on the coastguard and I worked for a barge company so I was a deckhand and could have become a riverboat pilot, but at that time I was about 21 I decided I was gonna get off the boats and I'm gonna try to find a place to move where I can find more people like me, you know, that are wanting to do original music.  I wanted to write, I wanted to do my own thing, and so I was in my mid 20s before I was able to realise that I might have a career in my music.

Alan:      Who were your major musical influences?

Jimbo:   If you take a map of the US and put a nickel on Memphis and you'll see them all right there between Clarksdale and Jackson, Tennessee and Memphis and Tupelo.  You know, just the canon of everything from Sam Philips studio, Charlie Patton who is really my bedrock on the blues, all the Delta musicians, and of course the hillbilly musicians like Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Carter family.  These were the things that I played with my father, my uncles and all that. 

Alan:      You are a multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, bass, drums, piano, trombone, mandolin and harmonica.  Which is your favourite instrument?

Jimbo:   My favourite to play is drums, that's the most fun.  As you're engaged with a lot of limbs.  I like to sing harmony, harmony singing is really fun for me, I really enjoy that but they are all great.  The guitar is the thing I've most stayed on and had the most time on.

Alan:      Getting back to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, that took you through the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Jimbo:   Yes, mid, 90s to 2000, about 5 years.

Alan:      That took you to the second inauguration of Bill Clinton.  How did that come about?

Jimbo:   Well we were a huge band, we were very popular and we were very quirky and there were multi-generations that liked us, it was for everybody. Parents could bring their kids, they could bring their parents and their grandkids.  We were just timeless, entertaining, we had a lot of comedy in there, some cabaret, it was just a nice act.  Bill Clinton liked us and wanted us there.  We performed on Sesame Street, we performed at the Olympics in Atlanta, all the TV shows, David Letterman, etc.  We were quite popular.

Alan:      And after the Squirrel Nut Zippers you disbanded and joined forces with Buddy Guy for a while.

Jimbo:   That was the next move.  I was called to do that.  The whole while I'm doing the Squirrel Nut Zippers and of course studying all the jazz and swing and early American music, Stephen Foster, also studying Robert Johnson and learning Charlie Patton licks, continuing my blues and country education. While not being with the Zippers I had people I would pick with and we would just do the stuff I liked and grew up with.  I was recommended for the job to do the 'Sweet Tea' album [see note (1) below] and so I had no official history in the blues but it was just a producer who had worked with me, maybe he'd heard me practicing or knew me and said "Jimbo would be perfect for this job" to basically translate the primitive hill country blues sound, be the translator and the formulator of the music to Buddy which was not his thing.  He had the show bands and the Chicago sound with the horn sections and keyboards and big bands so they knew I could communicate with older musicians, with black, white, anything, you know. Well, Dennis Herring, the producer, called me the 'spark plug', but I  had experience with the older black cats, I knew how they worked and just from being around them, from taking T Model Ford on tour with the Squirrels for a year so he was our opening act for a year.  I knew Spam (T Model Ford’s long-time percussionist), I knew Robert Belfour and being around all these guys on the road, I would just ride in the van with them.  Spam was part of the key of Sweet Tea with his beats. He was a special dude, you know man, not everybody can talk to Spam, or not everybody could understand him, but I could and so he hired me for different reasons and then it ended up being one of the most phenomenal records.

Alan:      Talking of records, back in 1997 you recorded the album 'Play Songs for Rosetta' [see note (2) below] in aid of your childhood nanny Rosetta Patton [see note (3) below].  The daughter of Charlie Patton?  Tell me more.

Jimbo:   Yes, the only child of Charlie Patton.  She was my nanny in the Delta, she worked for my family.

Alan:      Did she talk about him?

Jimbo:   Nooooo, noooo, noooo.  She would have been the opposite.  She was a church-going woman you know, she would never brag about her father who was a musician, gambling houses, whore houses, alcohol, bootlegging places, died early.  She would never, ever have thought to mention that ever because it was literally the devil's music and she goes to the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Duncan, Mississippi, so it wasn't until the mid 1990s, well right before the Rosetta record came out that it was disclosed and it was found out that Rosetta was Charlie Patton's daughter. The way that happened was that a small Japanese record label had tracked her down and brought her a little royalty cheque from some Charlie Patton records that they were selling in Japan.  So these Japanese people came to her house, which is as big as this room with a little fence and a little clothes line. This bus of Japanese people come up and knock on her door, little Rosetta is in her house coat and house shoes and they give her a cheque because of her Dad's music.  Well of course the word got around and then it got back to me and I was just stunned.  So it just really turned my world around, it gave me courage.  I don't think I would ever have had the courage to  publicly perform any blues music, I didn't go to jam sessions, that was a private thing for me because I always thought that was a black culture and I don't wanna not do it right.  You know?  I don't want to tamper with that, it's perfect, I can listen to it, I can practice it and enjoy it but I was emboldened by that revelation to realise that I was this close to Charlie Patton my whole life.  She was in the family, she had a stroke and then I thought I'm having some success, at about the same time I met Luther and Jim Dickinson.  They heard me playing, heard the songs I was writing and said, "Man, you've got to do this.  You've got to play these types of songs" and so it gave me a good excuse to do it, a good reason, and then being emboldened by the whole revelation it just took off from there and I thought, this is a good time for me to go ahead and stake out my territory because I may be known for Squirrel Nut Zippers the rest of my life but I'm gonna let people know right now, in 1996, this is where I'm at and I'm glad that I ended up doing that. 

Rosetta Patton Brown, holding a copy of the only known photo of her famous father,
standing in the front yard of her home in Duncan, Mississippi, 1996

Jimbo with Rosetta

Alan:      How did you first come across the Dickinsons and Alvin Youngblood Heart?

Jimbo:   'Gutbucket', the Dickinsons had a jug band when they were teenagers in High School and they opened for the Squirrel Nut Zippers in Memphis when we were travelling through, so there's Luther on slide guitar, Cody on washboard and he blows a jug too, and Paul Taylor on string bass, a tub bass.  I met em there and Luther and I just fired up a friendship on the spot and we've been collaborators ever since.  That was about '95 I think.

© Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.Alan:      So in 2010 you helped form the South Memphis String Band with Luther and Alvin.

Jimbo:   Yes, I met Alvin through Jim Dickinson because I was going back to Memphis a lot to record with Jim and to visit Luther and to do festivals and do my Catfish Mississippi music.   Jim produced Alvin's 'Start with The Soul' album and that's how I met Alvin.  So we'd play the same festivals and we'd talk about fishing and stuff and we're both from the country, we have similar backgrounds on the boats and with hunting, fishing so we never talk about music!

Alan:      Tell me about your current band, Tri-State Coalition.

Jimbo:   Yeah man, that's my band in the States and it's just a good versatile band that we can do everything; they can handle my original stuff that I write and other stuff. I like to do a lot of covers when I'm playing around the South; I play a lot of dances and a lot of social events and so we need to play Little Richard and dance music, Johnny Cash, play stuff people like and I really enjoy that so it's not always about my songs.  We just do the canon and it's just good cats I keep around me.  They are really good cats.

Alan:      Tell me about your new album, 'Dark Night of the Soul' with the Tri-State Coalition.  Are all the tracks originals?

Jimbo:   Oh yes, all originals.  All the records I do, because I'm a writer first and foremost, I'm not a flashy cat man you know what I'm saying, I'm a journeyman musician.  The guitar's like a hammer, the banjo's like a level, it's a way to build things but writing is what I am, I'm writing constantly.  I'm a poet, a writer, I've done just as much time on literature and on poetry and history as I have on music.  They are equal to me.

Alan:      Are there any particular songs you have written that have special meaning to you?

Jimbo:   Oh my God, yes.  Every one!  Even going back to the Squirrel Nut Zippers I had one 'If it's good enough for Grandad, it's good enough for me'.  I've written a song about everybody in my family.  'Tennessee Walker Mare' that's about my mother; 'Jimmy the Kid' is about my father; I've written about the closest things in my life.  I'm always asked to play at funerals, wakes and events like that which are important to families.  I couldn't name one, they are all very personal and I put a lot of soul and heart into what I write.

Alan:      You are currently part of a UK tour with Ian Siegal.  How did that come about?

Jimbo:   I met him through the Dickinsons and he was down there last year and Luther calls me when he's got some cool projects and he wants me to come and do session work and knows that Jimbo's who you need.

Alan:      I'll bet you hit it off with Ian alright.

Jimbo:   Hell, yes, I just met him for a few hours, we did the session but we cut it fast.  One take, that's it.  So we did that and I didn't hear anything else from him, then I got an email from him around January last year and he said would you like to come over, I'm putting this CD out, Picnic Sessions, you're on it so would you like to come and tour with me.  I'll pay you this much and I said, "Sign me up".  So I really just met him again a few days ago but we are getting along famously.  He's like a soul brother to me.

Alan:      You've had some sell-out audiences so far?

Jimbo:   Every night so far.  He's a brilliant cat, he's smart, he's funny and he's just a wonderful cat.

Alan:      He's well appreciated here as well.

Jimbo:   I'm so glad.

Alan:      So what are your future plans in terms of tours,gigs, albums.

Jimbo:   I'm working on a new one now, on the Fat Possum label and I've already got 30 songs demo'd for the new record.  It's going to be coming out in April/May 2015, so I've got the support of Fat Possum and so they are pushing me and are wanting to keep promoting me and spreading the word about what I'm doing, there's no stopping!

Alan:      Thank you Jimbo and have a great tour with Ian.

© Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.


(1)   Sweet Tea was a studio album by Buddy Guy, released in 2001 on the Silvertone/Jive label, produced by Dennis Herring and recorded at Sweet Tea studios, Oxford, Mississippi. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album (2001).

For more information check out Wikipedia here.

(2) Review of 'Play Songs For Rosetta' album by Tim Sheridan, All Music Guide:
"Mathus, one of the masterminds behind the Squirrel Nut Zippers, here cuts it Clarksdale style for the sake of bluesman Charlie Patton's daughter, Rosetta. Not surprisingly, Rosetta doesn't see a dime from the sale of Patton's music, and
Mathus saw an opportunity to give back. Give back to the music? Well, yes, but also to Rosetta herself, who helped raise Mathus from knee-pants. And the result is a righteous paella of roots music: rattling Delta style, jug band and parlor jazz with Dixieland and country-blues to boot. It's all so fresh and lively you may wonder how you lived your life without it. Dig the winking ragtime cover of Leadbelly's "Keep Your Hand's Off Her" or the country scrawl of Mathus' "Turkey Buzzard in a Pork Pie Hat."
(3) More on Charlie and Rosetta Patton can be found in Bill Wyman's 'Blues Odyssey', pages 148-149, published by Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2001.

© Copyright 2014 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.

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