North Mississippi native Jimbo Mathus is the definition of modern, Southern Gothic homo sapiens. Raised in that hard hill country, since returning home after a stint in the Raleigh Triangle area as head axe-slayer for Squirrel Nut Zippers Mathus has issued an astonishing body of work, working with guys like late uber-producer Jim Dickinson, producer-guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, and Big Legal Mess Records president and producer Bruce Watson.
In the late '90s it seemed like Mathus would be known for his part in the great swing-revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers, but by 2000 Mathus found himself embroiled in lawsuits with other members of the Zippers that left him virtually broke in spite of ten years of effort. He and singer Kathleen Whalen divorced in 2003 and Mathus drifted home to Mississippi, free to take any direction he wanted.
He'd already fallen in with Dickinson and his son Luther, leader of the North Mississippi Allstars, and his return to Mississippi provided Mathus the opportunity to delve deeply into the music, sounds and literature of his home state. He opened his own studio, filled it with vintage gear, and began to record himself and others, including Elvis Costello. He also became a favorite at Morgan Freeman's blues club in Clarksdale.
But it was the forming of his Tri-State Coalition in 2010 and the release of the stellar Confederate Buddha in 2011 that shoved Mathus to the pinnacle of Southern and Mississippi roots music. He has since issued a vinyl-only six-song EP titled Blue Light and excellent full-lengths White Buffalo (2013) and the next year's Dark Night of the Soul.. Yet here he is early in 2015 already releasing another monster full-length effort, Blue Healer.
The album is raw, although at times it has a gospel feel.
"Yeah, I've been in a very good place with songwriting the past five years and we've got the facilities for recording, so there's not a lot of travel and expense or wasted motion to do an album," Mathus explains from a festival in North Carolina. "We cut live on ribbon mikes so there's not much wasted motion or time to overthink anything.
"I also have to give credit to my rhythm section, Bronson Tew and Stu Cole," he adds. "Those guys make it so easy for me to just concentrate on what I need to do. I don't have to worry about those guys, they'll be right where they're supposed to be, and that makes my life much easier."
The new album "is just more of what I always write about, the South, the love, the lust, the liquor, the life down here," Mathus explains.
"My dad had horses and hunting dogs, so all that was part of the everyday when I was growing up," he says. "I tend to not stray very far from who I am in my writing. And I think I'll be eternally interested in the South, in Southern ways, what it means to be a Southerner."
He points out the song "Old Earl" from Blue Healer. The character Earl is lazy, he lives alone, essentially avoiding the demands of modern life (Earl was so lazy, "he didn't learn to crawl until he was 17").
"That tune was in my writing partner Robert Earl Reed's archives. He passed away in October, 2013," says Mathus.
"I always loved Robert's very dark humor," he continues. "The funny thing about that song is every word of it is true and it doesn't even begin to tell half the story of that guy. It's such a Southern character. If you hear that song, I don't think there's any way you'd think he's from Nebraska or Oregon."
Earl is so lazy and so off the grid he's been dead a year before they find him. So they don't have a funeral, "they put his bones in a sack /and tied it around a hound dog's neck / and said, 'Git, boy, and don't come back'."
"Yeah, that song just tickles me," says Mathus. "I really miss having Robert as a conspirator."
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Mathus has always rocked hard, but Blue Healer hearkens back to Confederate Buddha in the power and strength of tunes like opener "Shoot Out the Lights," whangy-twangy anthem "Bootheel Witch," and no-frills rocker "Save It For the Highway," which recalls "Shady Dealing," one of Mathus's barnburners from Confederate Buddha.
Mathus also hits deep grooves. "Mama Please" is a humorous repentance that could apply to a bunch of us. "Mama, I like the taste of whiskey/ I love the smell of cocaine too/ Hey, mama, I played with matches/ And burned myself just like you said I'd do." Mathus ends with the plaintive "Mama, please forgive me/ I didn't grown up straight and tall."
The title track is something of a new direction for Mathus sonically, a slow, churning poem delivered in a mysterious Andre Williams croak. You can almost see the moss hanging from the cypress trees in the swamp.
"I grew up around hunting dogs and I've done lots of research on breeds, it's just something I've had an interest in my entire life," Mathus explains. "My dad really loved hunting, it was something we did all the time. He taught me how to work dogs in the field, how to take care of dogs. Sometimes I think like a dog. It's a basic part of who I am.
"Dogs and hunting are elemental Southern things."
Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition perform 8 p.m. Wednesday at Under the Volcano, 2349 Bissonnet.
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