Singer-songwriter/folklorist/engineer/artist Jimbo Mathus (founder of ‘90s-era swing-revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers) plays Jack of the Wood (with his band, The Tri State Coalition) this Friday. Showtime is 8 p.m., The Tillers open, and cover is $10.
Here, Mathus talks to Xpress about his new EP, signing with the Fat Possum label, and the Mississippi-North Carolina connection.
Mountain Xpress: Did you decide to put out an EP [Blue Light, released in July on Fat Possum] to have something for fans while you’re at work on your next full-length?
Jimbo Mathus: That’s correct. It was my first project with the Fat Possum label. We were testing the waters with Blue Light and it’s been very well received. We’ve been having a good time doing business together so we expanded it to doing a full-length [White Buffalo, due out early 2013].
MX: How did you connect with Fat Possum?
JM: I live here — I was actually born here in Oxford, Miss., and that’s where they’re based out of ever since they started. I’ve been knowing them for awhile, but I never had the right record that they were interested in. I’ve been doing solo albums since the late ‘90s, but this was the first one that just clicked.
MX: There’s a definite blues feel to the EP, but it’s also modern, as if you’re standing between two worlds.
JM: Oh yeah. That’s the Possum, too. They started out doing the hill country blues thing and now they’re way more into hipster indie stuff. Andrew Bird was on there. The Black Keys got started on there. I really try to bridge the gap and also mix up genres of Southern music.
MX: You’re very well studied in all the forms of Southern music, and then there’s your personal history [Mathus comes from a family of musicians and his childhood nanny was the daughter of Delta bluesman Charlie Parker]. Do you feel a responsibility to represent all of that when you sit down to create an album?
JM: It’s just who I am. It’s not a conscious thing. But I respect where I’m from and I study where I’m from so it’s naturally going to come out in my art. I really look at the lineage of Mississippi music and the Mississippi arts and letters. It’s been a life-long study for me, starting as a child, continuing up to Chapel Hill and now back to Mississippi again. I’ve come full circle.
MX: Mississippi is where you grew up, but North Carolina is where your career took off [Mathus and his ex-wife Katherine Whalen met in Chapel Hill in the early ‘90s and formed Squirrel Nut Zippers]. Do you still have a soft spot for N.C.?
JM: Definitely. I found this out later: There’s a really big cultural exchange between the Oxford area and the Chapel Hill area. A lot of the Oxford authors are published in the Chapel Hill press and Chapel Hill literary circles. The head of the folklore department at UNC-Chapel Hill, William Ferris, is from Oxford. It’s definitely a place that got me started in a big way in art and music. It really nurtured me and educated me in a way I could have never done here in Mississippi in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
MX: Why does Mississippi work for you now?
JM: Well, Mississippi has changed somewhat. It’s progressed somewhat in its arts and recognition of arts and music. I got the education I wanted in Chapel Hill, in theater and arts, to bring back with me. I was never enrolled in school there, but it’s more of a community of bookstores, intelligence and culture. There are places like The ArtsCenter in Chapel Hill, and there are nearby towns like Asheville that are very quirky and unique. I learned what I needed to there, and I was able to come back home again, and apply it, and really start representing Mississippi in a way that I’m proud of. I feel like it’s my life’s work.
MX: There’s some anger on this EP. I’m thinking of the song “F**ked Up World,” specifically. Is there a story behind that?
JM: As far as the song “F**ked Up World,” I always write a lot of my music in August. That seems like my big time. A lot of my songs come in the form of dreams. I dreamed that one. It came to me through one of my main mentors, Jim Dickinson. His sons are in the North Mississippi Allstars. He was a producer here, and a mentor of mine in music and in the studio. [That song] came to me in the form of a dream from him last August, which was the month he died [Dickinson passed away in August of ‘09].
Like everyone else, I’m frustrated with all of this horse shit in the world. It’s just getting ridiculous. Of course we’re in a political season. It had already started last August when I wrote this song and now it seems even more appropriate. I just say, “Hey, I wish the man would get his shit together.” It’s a simple plea. And that’s the blues.
There’s a story behind each song. “Burn the Honky Tonk,” that’s kind of inspired by a local writer, Larry Brown, who’s passed away as well. It’s just sort of twisted Southern short story of a guy who’s at his wits end. But I’m at a very happy place in my life, so I felt a little more comfortable to write some darker thing. “Blue Light” is about about a big shootout with the cops and a person at the end of his line. Which I do not advocate.
MX: Will some of these songs end up on the full-length you have coming out next year?
JM: It’ll be all different tracks. We’ve already recorded them, produced them and mastered them. They’re already to go. It’s called White Buffalo and it’ll be on Fat Possum. It’ll be released on January 22. We’re just waiting to fire up next year and expand our audience.
MX: Did you record at your own studio [Delta Recording Service]?
JM: I haven’t been as active there as in the past, but I recorded White Buffalo there.
MX: One more question: You played at the summer Olympics in ‘96. Since we just finished with the 2012 summer Olympics, I wondered if you watched them and if you had any thoughts about the games.
JM: You know, the year the Squirrel Nut Zippers played was when the bomb went off. We were actually at that stage. We had just left that day — we were driving to Asheville to play. By the time we got to Asheville, everyone was talking about this bomb that went off. It was a little shocking. I kind of didn’t even think about that ‘til a few days ago. I thought, “Wow, the summer Olympics. We were there.”
It did bring back some memories. It was a great event. We were on a stage that was rotating different Southern music — Zydeco to jazz to blues and rock ‘n’ roll. It was fantastic — Native American, Mardi Gras Indians. It was quite a great event. I just hated that it ended on such a horrible note.
Black and white photo of Mathus by Robyn Friday.