"Tie me to the chair and lock the door/ Take my shoes and nail 'em to the floor"
Nothing short of an envelope stuffed full of crisp new payola $100 bills moves Lonesome, Onry and Mean like hearing a new recording from an unknown artist that causes insomnia to set in. Right now that album is Jim Mize by, you guessed it, Jim Mize (I could've said eponymous, but that's the most pompous who-cares adjective ever), on Mississippi roots label Big Legal Mess. The label also handles folks like Jimbo Mathus and John Paul Keith, who both just happen to support Mize on this nine-track Southern Springsteen-ish effort.
Mize is the anti-rock-star, a 58-year-old insurance adjuster from Little Rock, Ark., and if you've heard about him at all it's probably via his tune "Let's Go Runnin'," which was on Blue Mountain's 1995 album Dog Days. Mize has two other Big Legal Mess efforts, No Tell Motel (2000) and Release It to the Sky (2007).
On tunes as opposing as "Drunk Moon Falling" and "Need Me Some Jesus," Mize sings like an introvert with a knife at his throat, like a man whose spirit is being repossessed while his house is burning down. He opens with the warning "we sleepwalk into our dreams" on opening track "Rabbit Hole," and while he knows the rabbit hole is like a noir film treasure map with cryptic directions and that one is more likely to end up lost than found, he willingly crawls into the void on all-fours. Sounds pretty real to me.
"Is there a second chance?/ I don't think so/ With words, we bleed."
The album is an emotional tightrope-walk as Mize tries not to look down while he searches for balance somewhere between the tension of everyday hopes and dreams and the despondency of unforeseen downfalls, disappointments and disasters. We've all been there in one way or another.
Much like Lucinda Williams, Mize's cigarettes-and-whiskey voice and flat delivery are perfect for his introspective, frequently dark material. The segues can be brutal, as Mize shifts from willingly -- and perhaps foolishly -- jumping into the rabbit hole on the opening track to the barroom depths with "You want to find me follow the blood trail of my heart/ I'll be lifting spirits at the end of the bar" on second track "I Won't Come Back Again." No one said Mize was going to make this easy or simple. It likely hasn't been easy or simple for him, judging from these nine gripping tracks.
"Landscape in my mind keeps changing/ Working overtime." Again, we've all been there.
A terse, exacting writer, Mize can literally swerve all over the emotional map inside one verse, as he does on the been-there, done-that, would-do-it-again duet with Matty Crockett, "This Moment With You":
When your lips touched my lips it became this intoxicated kiss Well, I wish they remained the day after you
Yeah, Mize frequently finds himself in situations where "I'm in deep/The walls are steep." Mize's lyrical precision is on display in every song as he drops "Shazam" one-liners at every turn, like the touching observation, "A little incomplete/ But that's what makes you sweet."
Mize has suffered more than his share of personal tragedy, so without prying too deep or getting into specifics let's just suffice it to say that Jim Mize literally bleeds some of these songs of universal appeal. Give Jim Mize the artist credit for working his own feelings out in this public way where we become the beneficiaries of hard knowledge gained through his intense personal pain if we choose to listen closely and feel. When it's over, you'll probably want to count your blessings and push play again.
LOM caught up with Mize in Little Rock on his day off.
Story continues on the next page.
Lonesome, Onry and Mean: It's not a concept album or anything like that, but your album has an oddly comforting cohesiveness once you get through that last aching track. Did you see that coming while you were planning and recording it? Jim Mize: Not at all. How this usually works is I get some songs written and I go over to Oxford [Miss.] and play them for Bruce Watson, the head of Big Legal Mess and my producer. And I can always tell with Bruce whether I've got a keeper or something I need to work on some more.
I'll play a song and he'll say, "What else you got?" and I know that one's not quite ready.
So there were more songs than just the nine you ended up with on the album? Yeah, I think we considered about 35 songs and then Bruce whittled it down to the nine that are on the album. One thing I've discovered in the process of writing songs and making records is that it's hard these days to get people to sit down and listen to an entire album. There are so many distractions, so many options.
So it slowly dawned on me over the years that when you get something together, it needs to be quick, you need to feel it and do it pretty quickly, and that's it. That's the formula, at least for me.
As an artist, how do you feel about that sort of thing, having 35 songs whittled down to nine? I've just learned to trust Bruce on these kinds of details. I actually told him I thought nine was too few, that the album seemed too short. But this is the kind of guy Bruce is, he sent me a list of really good albums that only have nine tracks. In the end, I just find myself trusting his judgment and instincts.
You've got a full-time job with Farm Bureau, so how does songwriting and making records fit into your big picture? Well, this is only my third record, but I've been writing songs most of my life. And playing guitar has always been a relaxing thing for me. It may not be the same for everyone, but I need that balance between what my day job demands of me and some creative outlet that takes me away from my day-to-day. Therapy, you know?
I used to do some insurance adjusting myself. Does that figure into your songwriting? Oh, yeah. I've always been an observer and I've always written lots of observations down to come back to and work on as songs. Plus I'm a great eavesdropper. I'm always looking for some telling statement, some little accidental phrase that turns out to be an epiphany.
One thing about being an adjuster, you see about everything there is of the human condition. I've worked fires where people lost everything, I've worked some horrific car wrecks, I've worked nine hurricanes including Andrew, and I can't even remember how many tornadoes. So I've seen the worst that can happen to good people. And I've also witnessed some stuff that bordered on being a miracle.
With a full time job, how much do you get to play out? Only once a month or so. I actually just got back from a weekend playing in Oxford with a band, and that was great. I'm sure some people look at me as this corporate guy trying to do music, but I can't change their minds about that.
With the demands of your day job, where does your performing and recording career fit in the overall Jim Mize picture? My juice is to get it out there and play, maybe move someone's soul a little bit. I'm about three years from retirement, and if things go right I plan to play more gigs and work more at my music than I've been able to.
You're relatively unknown and on a smallish label. How is the album doing commercially? It's doing pretty well, but I haven't seen the latest monthly sales figures. It's sad but unfortunately money is the measuring stick of success in this game for most people. I hate that but that's how it is. All I can do is keep writing and playing and hopefully satisfy myself. If I can satisfy some other people, fill up a hole or two for them, I consider that success.
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