As patrons of the arts, we live vicariously through the artists’ painting, the authors’ prose, the musicians’ song; we consume their creations and ultimately align ourselves—for good or for bad—with the journey upon which these individuals have embarked.
For musicians in particular, the road can go on forever, and the road is not necessarily all fame and riches. It can be an unglamorous lifestyle filled with trivial to monolithic, highly exaggerated moments that find their way into lyrics and song, all for our enjoyment.
A road-worn musician like Jimbo Mathus is filled with endless stories of his own exceptional experiences and countless stories of encounters with a wide range of folks, naturally influencing and infusing themselves into his songwriting. Mathus’ journey over the last few years, albeit a rough one, has yielded the most rewarding result. On his latest offering, “White Buffalo,” Mathus pens some of the most reflective and enjoyable music he’s made in his entire career. While the stories are all true and the music remains honest, Mathus has created an album that echoes his Southern heritage and the hardworking ethos he was raised by.
A musician since an early age, Mathus started playing with the family band in the kind of front-porch gatherings that would bring out the neighbors and friends on a sweltering summer weekend night in the deep South. Having learned hundreds of songs before he could drive a car, he eventually left Mississippi with an abundance of hill-country blues, folk, and country in his repertoire and landed in Chapel Hill, where he utilized the university’s library and studied art, theater, history and southern culture. With his studies and musical prowess, he eventually rose to fame in the early 90’s when he formed the inspiring North Carolina ragtime revival group, the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
After having recorded a couple of highly acclaimed records, played at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, President Clinton’s second inaugural ball, and countless television and radio appearances, the ride finally came to end when litigation took precedence over making music. The infighting among the members of the band took its toll and left Mathus feeling let down by his former friends. “I learned a great lesson though, in that I never lost my love of arts, refusing to let this betrayal make me jaded or cynical,” he said. “I got into music for the joy and adventure and clung to that tenaciously.”
Life has taken Mathus back to Oxford and his Mississippi roots, where he currently resides in a more rural-than-urban setting sandwiched between two cotton fields. Along with the members of the Tri-State Coalition, Mathus and friends have put together a ten-song collection of tunes reflecting a part of his life that is both heartbreaking and optimistic. “White Buffalo” is an album filled with Southern gothic imagery, plenty of rootsy twang and romp-n’-stomp rock n’ roll. Songs like the mandolin-driven “In the Garden” and raging honky-tonk “Fake Hex” make this authentic songwriter a true pleasure to follow on his pursuit to creating art. So does Mathus’ journey reflect the life that has been lived or the life that is passing? His hero and mentor from afar, William Faulkner, would say yes to both, and I bet he’d enjoy Mathus’ “White Buffalo” and its stories about the great and mysterious South too.
More at jimbomathus.com
Q&A with Jimbo Mathus
SML: You come from a family of musicians. What was it like growing up in a home filled with music?
Jimbo Mathus: It was definitely an adventure growing up as I did with music all around. I was drawn to it as a very small child and really preferred “playing” with the grown-ups than with the children my own age. I learned hundreds of songs by the age of 13. It was like a dream, man!
Mandolin was your first instrument. Was that because the family band needed a mandolin player?
Musicians gravitated to our home to play with my dad’s bunch. Often, they would leave their instruments and retrieve them later. A distant cousin left a mandolin one night. I was only six years old, and the mandolin I found lying on the floor was just my size, so I gravitated toward it. Dad taught me the rudiments.
The area of Mississippi in which you grew up seems remote and isolated from the rest of the state. Did the history and culture you absorbed during your youth seemed sheltered or unfilled?
My youth in Northeast Mississippi was in the 70s and 80s, but it could have just as easily been the 50s. We had no computers or cable TV. “The Lone Ranger” was on TV after school. Kids entertained themselves with sports, hunting, fishing and, in my case, music. I can’t really think of a preferable way to be raised, just sort of trapped in time like that. I was eager to leave but appreciate it so much now.
The South is filled with interesting contradictions, in many different aspects. Have you ever found yourself living on both sides of the fence?
I have lived and been an observer to the extremes of deep South culture. My mom’s family was Italian immigrants to the Mississippi Delta—some of whom never spoke English. My father’s family, from the hills of Northeast Mississippi, was settlers there in the Civil War/pioneer/sawmill culture of the 1870s. My father became an attorney, which provided us with a comfortable life, but he never let us forget we came from working people, always keeping me in the deer camps and backwoods places, always working me in different ways. I have seen life thoroughly from the bottom up and especially have been drawn to the underdogs along the way. All of these experiences serve me well in my writing, as I write from pure experience, not conjecture, second-person or fantasy.
Touring and playing with Buddy Guy must have been another milestone in your career. How would you describe those years playing with him?
Mathus: Right about the time of the first lawsuit in 2000, I got the call from Buddy Guy to come and record and collaborate with him. Wow! What an experience. I worked with him then and through the mid-2000s. I was a part of the famous Double Trouble Rhythm Section, backing Mr. Guy coast-to-coast. I accepted his Grammy for him for Best Traditional Blues in 2003. I toured in his band and company, and I learned from him how to be truly fearless as a guitarist and performer.
“Tennessee Walker Mare” is a loving tribute to your family, but specifically your mother, isn’t it?
I wrote this song for my mom, while she was enduring my father’s illness—Guillian-Barre syndrome. They had actually split up after decades of marriage, and she stood by him through this terrible illness and took care of him, something he probably didn’t deserve. She would stay in the ICU in Tucson all day and have to drive back out to Cochise at night to feed and water their walking horses and hunting dogs. I learned about real strength and commitment. The lyrics to the song are all autobiographical. “Money was no object/there was no money to be had/back in Carolina/Johnny Law saw to that” refers to the first SNZ lawsuit. “Word came down from back east/I tell y’all that it wasn’t no joke/four riders and a bloodhound/about the time that the levee broke” refers to the second lawsuit.
Another one of my personal favorites is “Hatchie Bottoms.” The lyrics almost create a mythical place in my mind, a place no one would dare go unless they came from there. How much truth is found in this song?
Hatchie Bottoms is an area in North Mississippi, also known as the 9th district. It is the drainage area of the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers, flowing south west, turning into the Tallahatchie, then Yalobusha, then Yazoo, then ultimately the Mississippi River. It is the ancestral home of my Scottish forbearers, arriving in mid- 1800’s as pioneers in the region. It is a very hilly area, full of rills and dark hollows, very remote to this day. Areas known as chalybeate (pronounced cleebit), Theo, Falkner, Walnut and Mathis Mississippi. Those are areas you really don’t want to be in after dark, as an outsider. Every word in the song is true and autobiographical.
I know your life’s work is not nearly through. What other projects (both musical and artistic) are you going to pursue in the near future?
I’m excited about the future and what it holds for me. My life, creative and otherwise, feels as if it’s just beginning. There is so much to learn, express and interpret. I thank God for the chance to be alive here on Earth and my many blessings.