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Endless Boogie

Former Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus gets back to basics

Today, Mathus lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he settled after spending a year with an interesting job: as a deckhand on a Mississippi River barge. Like Huck Finn, Mathus took to the river after getting into some scrapes (he won't elaborate) in his hometown, the Clarksdale, Mississippi, of blues fame. So what's life on the Mississippi like a hundred years after Mark Twain?

"It'll kick your ass," Mathus says with no hesitation. "You had to work what they call 'squirrel watch,' which was two six-hour shifts a day. They come and they drag you out of the bunk, put some groceries in your pie hole and then they send you out on the deck and you hump it for six hours. You get off, go eat, fall back in your bunk and sleep for six hours. You either work from six to noon and six to midnight or the opposite hours, so they always got a watch on 24 hours a day. I always liked what they call the back watch, which was midnight to six and noon to six, because at night it was so quiet on the river and everybody's asleep and you're just goin' down the river real slow -- I don't know, it was neat to get to see the sun come up every morning and shit like that."

As with workers on oil rigs, deckhands work a month and then take a month off. On his months off, Mathus bought a pickup truck, slapped a camper top on the back, tossed a mattress, his guitar, a stove and a few books in the back and hit the road. "I just drove all over this country by myself, man," he remembers. "It was real liberating -- you got 30 days, you got money in your pocket. I was 18, 19 years old. You want to go east, you go east, you want to go west, you go west. No deadlines, nobody tellin' you what to do. I went out to the Rockies, to California, Mexico, all over the place, and I ended up settling up here in North Carolina 'cause I liked it so good."

Jimbo Mathus is the Huck Finn of the north Mississippi blues.
Jimbo Mathus is the Huck Finn of the north Mississippi blues.

Details

Performs Wednesday, August 13. For more information, call 713-529-9899.
Continental Club, 3700 Main

Mathus's life on the river came to an end when he was offered a promotion. "I knew if I stayed on the decks too long I'd get my fuckin' hand squashed off or somethin', and they wanted me to come up to the wheelhouse and learn that stuff, but I didn't want to become a pilot, so I picked guitar over anything else, as I have continued to do for some reason for the rest of my life."

Two Texans have helped him along his way. One was the Continental Club's Steve Wertheimer, whom Mathus won over as a sideman in Cedell Davis's band. Another changed his sound on the guitar. No, it wasn't Little Joe Washington or Albert Collins. Instead, it was Allen Hill. The antic Allen Oldies Band front man doubles as the artist relations rep at Houston's Rockin' Robin Guitars, and he sold Mathus a six-string built at the music instrument shop on T.C. Jester. "I showed it to him in front of the Continental, and said, 'Whoa! That's a Cadillac guitar. That's my TV guitar right there,'" says Hill.

Adds Mathus, "Now I got the Houston sound on my guitar."

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