JIMBO MATHUS SENDS OUT SPARKS
WITH BAND OF STORMS EP, RELEASING MAY 6
ON BIG LEGAL MESS LABEL
Nine-song collection a mini-primer of “folk music”
from the fertile pen of the born-and-raised Mississippian and Squirrel Nut Zippers founder
TAYLOR, Miss. — Trying to pinpoint the musical proclivities of Jimbo Mathus is a bit like trying to predict the path of lightning. You never know where his seemingly limitless creative energy might take him next. But you can bet those bolts of inspiration will produce something you need to hear.
His latest project, the nine-song EP Band of Storms, out May 6 on his Big Legal Mess label (via Fat Possum), is a brilliant collection of what he characterizes as “just some odds and ends … you know, folk music.”
Well, that depends on your definition of folk music. If it includes Stonesy R&B grooves, straight-outta-Nuggets rawk, deep blues, barrelhouse honky-tonk, a string-laden murder ballad and Louisiana-accented bluegrass, then yeah, we could call it folk. As filtered through the fertile mind of a diehard Southerner, born and raised in Oxford, Miss., not much more than a stone’s throw from Tupelo, Holly Springs and Clarksdale. That is, right in the birthplace of American roots music.
“It’s just a continuation of the work I’ve been doing for, shoot, the past 20 years,” Mathus says. “There’s no big overall, arching thing. It’s just random notes out of my brain.”
But then he reveals that there is a theme of sorts, and that most of the subject matter is reflected right in Erika Jane Amerika’s cover art. It features a maniacal-looking Mathus standing near a cypress swamp, holding his lightning-struck Epiphone guitar in one hand and a fiery bible in the other. A lightning-zapped Econoline van hovers above him; gathered at his feet are an alligator, his Catahoula dog and a snake-handling Yemayá (the “great mother” of Santeria religion).
All his writing has basically the same theme, Mathus says. “It’s dealing with nature — forces beyond us — and trying to sum it up in my little cave paintings that we call recorded songs.”
Those “little cave paintings” were created at Dial Back Sound, the Water Valley, Miss., studio owned by Fat Possum Records partner Bruce Watson. Mathus has birthed loads of material there; he’s able to jump into the studio just about whenever motivation strikes. The situation is so ideal, Mathus closed his own successful studio a few years back; he was no longer interested in running it after finding so many fulfilling opportunities at Dial Back, including producing and accompanying other artists.
He uses the winding eight-mile drive from his home in the tiny artist enclave of Taylor, Miss., to think about projects. “If it’s me or if it’s somebody else, it’s all the same,” he says. “We just study on it, trying to make it as great as we can.”
Mathus doesn’t even list individual credits on his albums because, he says, they’re so collaborative. But he plays just about all the instruments, augmented by helpful friends. In this case, they include Watson as executive producer; Mathus produced. Bronson Tew engineered, mixed and mastered — and played many instruments, too. Also contributing are Ryan Rogers, Eric Carlton, Will McCarley, Jamison Hollister, Jim Spake, Mark Franklin and Stu Cole, who plays bass in Mathus’ most renowned musical endeavor, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. (He’s also a member of pal Luther Dickinson’s South Memphis String Band with Alvin Youngblood Hart, and credits Luther’s late dad, famed pianist/producer Jim Dickinson, as the source of much of his musical mojo.)
The result is an ode to what Mathus calls the “primal Southern groove.”
There’s only one co-write — the twangy “Play with Fire,” also credited to his late friend Robert Earl Reed. “He and I were pretty close collaborators,” Mathus reflects. “This was one he wrote right before he passed. He left me all his music to carry on with, and every so often, I’ll just pull out one of his sheets and cut one of his songs. He had never recorded this one. I just showed the band and we did one take.”
Mathus says he loves its almost desperate imagery; hissing like a snake, he sings, “Yes, let’s play with fire/Let’s cross in front of trains in the darkness, feel the flames/oh, yes, let’s play with fire.”
Of that hiss on each “yes” he says, laughing, “I guess every song, I’m getting into character.” Then he adds, “The way you say the words is very important. If it’s a rock ’n’ roll song, you maybe got 20 words. You gotta squeeze the most out of ’em.”
He does exactly that in “Massive Confusion,” the garage-rocker that serves as a straight-up homage to the Replacements, Bobby Fuller Four and the Ramones — and contains what he’s sure is the first-ever rhyme of “yemaya” and “FBI.”
“I wrote it when I was getting audited by the IRS and I was trying to save my fuckin’ ass,” Mathus explains. “It’s just super-punk rock. I came up in the ’80s and the Replacements turned me on to songwriting. They showed me that I could actually write songs. I’m 48, but I’m still a punk rocker.”
Mathus has stories about every song, starting with the rollicking, horn-pumped rock of the opener, “Gringo Man.” He wrote it on a cheap guitar rig he picked up at a Christian supply shop in Jackson, Tenn.
“Sometimes a guitar will write its own song,” Mathus says. “It was like a little cardboard amp with a plastic cord going to it; I made that almost clichéd little rock ’n’ roll riff. But it’s like Keith Richards said about Jimmy Reed: He wrote the same song over and over, but he never did the same thing twice. It’s about celebrating the groove.”
The honky-tonk blooz of “Can’t Get Much Higher” was one for the piano player, Mathus says. He borrowed some of its lyrics from one of his heroes, Charley Patton — father of his nanny, Rosetta Patton.
Dramatic pedal steel and strings give “Stop Your Crying” a Southern gothic turn, with Mathus’ voice going from big and angry to almost plaintive as the song reaches its murderous climax.
“I think it’s one of my best vocals I’ve ever done. But it’s extremely personal. I wrote it for someone very special,” he says, not mentioning who.
“Wayward Wind,” inspired by an Emmylou Harris lyric, has elements of an Irish/English/Scottish drinking song — and was, indeed, written while Mathus was playing U.K. beer halls with his “brother from another mother overseas,” Ian Siegal. “With songwriting, you just pick up scraps and try to turn ’em into a whole page. This one kind of fits in with the theme of desperation, of somebody leaving,” Mathus says. “The blues is all about movin’ on down the line.”
Resonator echoes convey the more elemental blues of “Slow Down Sun,” on which he beseeches the sun, the wind and the rain not to hurt his true love with lines like, “Hold up rain/don’t let your waters down/I’m afraid my baby might slip in and drown.”
“Keep It Together” sounds as if George Harrison might have written it, but Mathus says it came to him after watching the documentary about fellow Southerners Big Star.
“I listen to blues, jazz, country and gospel, but I’ve never listened to rock bands at all, since the Replacements and the Ramones — since the ’80s,” he says. “But I was really touched by the sounds, the chords, the layering of the guitars and the melodies that they brought.”
He leaves us with the mandolin plucks, boot-heel stomps and yowlin’ yelps of “Catahoula” — written, like many of these tunes, in the dog days of summer. “You’d be surprised how much rhymes with Catahoula,” he says, laughing again. “It’s going back to the old balladry days where you state your case right at the top of the song; you give the geography and the whole synopsis right there at the top.”
Speaking of synopses, we should mention Mathus’ career credits include working with Buddy Guy and Elvis Costello, among other luminaries. He says he’s also getting ready to fire up the Vaudeville-meets-swing band Zippers, who had a platinum-selling album and played President Clinton’s second inaugural, among other high-profile gigs. But in the meantime, he remains ready to catch those bolts of “rambunctious creativity” whenever they strike.