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Endless Boogie

Former Squirrel Nut Zipper Jimbo Mathus gets back to basics

Oh, we got both kinds of music in here," said the barmaid to Elwood Blues. "Country and western." That line from The Blues Brothers got a lot of yuks, but that hillbilly barmaid was right. There is a difference. Country music and western music sound the same only to Yankees and other provincial sorts. Country is Roy Acuff, western is Bob Wills. Hank Williams and George Jones are country artists, while Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings are western.

Similarly, just because their originators were Southern blacks, blues and boogie music are often lumped together. Most blues musicians play a little of both, with a few exceptions. John Lee Hooker, for example, was all boogie all the time -- he never played what you could call a traditional blues in his life. Unlike the country-western dichotomy, there is no regional quality to blues versus boogie. While there's as good a case for the blues having been invented in Texas as in Mississippi, boogie would seem to have almost certainly been invented in the Delta.

Everybody knows the blues when they hear 'em, but what is this thing called "boogie"? For rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, who heard it played by a young Junior Kimbrough in the 1950s, it was "the beginning and the end of music."

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

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

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Former Squirrel Nut Zipper and current solo artist Jimbo Mathus finishes the Feathers quote before I do, and adds, "That's one of those quotes that the more you think about it, the truer it is."

But still, we haven't answered the question. What is boogie?

"One chord is all you need, and you need the African influence, and then float those lyrics in there and keep it going," Mathus answers. Like that of Comets coach and fellow small-town Mississippian Van Chancellor, Mathus's accent is so Dixified that the word "accent" fails to suffice. "Southern brogue" is a better description.

It was the recordings of a third rural Mississippian that inspired Mathus to leave the Squirrel Nut Zippers and fire up his current band, the Knockdown Society. Mathus says Charlie Patton is his creative font, in the way he approaches both lyric-writing and guitar-playing.

"To electrify Patton was my initial idea," he says. "It just got a hold on me back in '94, '95, and that's what kind of got me out of Squirrel Nut Zippers. The Zippers was a great opportunity, and I just had to ride that thing out, because there's not that many times where you get in a band and people are throwing money at you. And plus we made a lot of people happy, so it was a good thing for a lot of reasons. But then I always had the Knockdown Society as kinda my shrink, my way to deal with all that crap. And of course now it's my main thing, and I'm real happy about that."

There's plenty of reasons to be real happy with his new album, Stop and Let the Devil Ride, a mesmerizing and narcotic collection of ten originals and a cover each of Otis Rush and Booba Barnes. The last thing you would confuse this album with is a Jonny Lang record -- there's not a hint of Stevie Ray- or Slow Hand-worship in the proceedings.

Mathus deifies older gods. While Patton might be the Abraham in Mathus's pantheon, the Moses -- the guy who took him to the promised land -- was Buddy Guy. Mathus worked with Guy on Sweet Tea, the elder man's nod to north Mississippi blues, and later toured as a second guitarist with him. The kid got quite an education, both in the studio and on the road.

"That's when I got serious about putting a band together," Mathus says. "I was basically in charge of the music that he put his guitar over, and that was basically a bunch of Junior Kimbrough and some T-Model Ford, so that was when I had to get serious about learning that shit right. Also, I had to organize it without sterilizing it -- you know how Junior does these 12-minute songs with 11 bars on one part and ten here and nine somewhere else? That whole north Mississippi style is just 'follow the man,' and since Buddy didn't know that style, I had to codify it for him in a way that kept the feel right. I enjoyed that so much that I immediately found a drummer up here that could play like that and formed the trio I've got now."

The drumming on the R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough records is seldom noted. It's phenomenal -- nothing like that of any other blues records -- especially the bone-crushing beats of Burnside's son Cedric and Kimbrough's son Kenny. If you thought there was something familiar about the sound, that's because there is, but it isn't what you would think. Mathus, for one, said he felt like someone dropped a bomb on him when he found out the source.

"I was talking to Kenny and he said he was already a drummer when he started playing with his dad right around the time that Junior cut that first CD," Mathus remembers. "And he asked his dad how he wanted him to play, and his dad said, 'Just do what you want to do,' and Kenny had been playing in bands that played Gap Band and Ohio Players covers, so he'd just mix that in. He said a lot of his drum fills are from Cameo covers and stuff like that. It fuckin' blew my head when I heard that -- it's like boogie disco, primal disco."

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."

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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