Two years ago, Jimbo Mathus celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alan Lomax's trip through Mississippi. In the late 1950s, folklorist Lomax recorded Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters, along with church choirs and prison groups, ensuring that the mid-century folk and rural blues forms would be documented. "Any cat from around here, if they know what they're talking about, the Lomax stuff is their roots," Mathus says. "That's our bible."
To mark the occasion, Mathus and Justin Showah, the studio engineer at Mathus' Delta Recording Services and bass player for his backing band, re-read Lomax's 1993 book The Land Where the Blues Began and made pilgrimages into the Mississippi countryside to look for old towns and churches visited by Lomax and his crew. "We were already embedded in this stuff, but we took it to another level," Mathus says. "We'd go out in the van, grab a beer, and drive around these crazy back roads and find these old places that weren't even supposed to be there anymore."
The project was revelatory for Mathus, inspiring his latest album, the genre-jumping Confederate Buddha, released on the Memphis International label. It has deepened his strong attachment to all sorts of Mississippi music, whether it's blues, country, folk, jazz, or anything in between. Magnolia State musicians invented most of those genres, Mathus, says, "and what they didn't invent they stole. The South has a rep for being close-minded, but when it comes to music, we generally accept each other and learn from each other."
Outside of Mississippi, Mathus may be best known as a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the North Carolina-based outfit. Unfairly lumped in with the superficial swing revival of that decade, the Zippers were actually sophisticated stylists, blending hot jazz, ragtime, string-band, and any number of other styles. The group went on hiatus in the early 2000s and regrouped later in the decade, but Mathus has remained busy with other outfits, including his Knockdown Society and the South Memphis String Band (which includes Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart). Mathus has been nominated for Grammys for his work with Buddy Guy and the late producer Jim Dickinson.
As a solo artist, Mathus never toured much beyond the state lines, favoring local and regional one-offs instead of treks across the country. "I had all that shit many years ago," he says, "and I got tired of it." His tenure as a strictly Mississippi and Mid-South performer proved highly instructive, however, teaching him to adapt to different rooms in different locales:
"I was doing gigs at juke joints — dances and stuff. You have to keep it to one or two chords, the fewer the better. It needs to be open-ended stuff ... dance-oriented stuff so people could keep moving and buying a lot of beer."
Without that experience, Mathus would not have been able to make Confederate Buddha, his first album with the loose, agile backing band the Tri-State Coalition. Listeners expecting the uptempo, urbane jazz of the Zippers may be surprised to hear the hangdog country of these songs, for which Mathus' deep, sad voice is ideally suited. But Southern honky-tonk is only the foundation for these songs, which draw equally from Marty Stuart, Jimmie Rodgers, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Charley Patton. Mathus even reworks Patton's 1929 composition "Pony Blues" into "Leash My Pony," a postmillennial country blues so deliriously slack it sounds like it was recorded in one take with no rehearsals.
Working at Delta Recording Services in Como, Mississippi, Mathus strove to capture the loose spontaneity, which he credits to the Tri-State Coalition. The band has the chops to follow him through all of Mississippi's music, from the country blues of "Aces & Eights" to the Band-style folk rock of "Kine Joe" to the lowdown honky-tonk lament of "Cling to the Roots," a flood narrative that will have special gravity for Memphians. "I try to take as many disparate things and make them sound like a whole piece — not like you're jumping from one type of band to another," he says. "I feel like there's nothing I can throw at the Coalition that they won't understand, and that's pretty amazing considering all the music I like to do."
For this album, Mathus is looking to tour outside the state, with Wilco's Ken Coomer on drums. "I decided to go legit again and get a label and an agent," he explains. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but let's go for it again."
Many of these songs were debuted only recently at the Beale Street Music Festival and will be further road-tested at the Levitt Shell. After that, he's planning a larger-scale tour that will take the music of Mississippi to new listeners. "I think we have something to offer and I feel like we should take it out to the people again," he says. "The songs and the band are good enough to merit shaking some bushes."