Mathus started his journey in Lafayette County, Mississippi in 1967. Of Italian and Scottish descent, he was immersed in music from the very beginning. By age six, he was playing the mandolin with the family band and by his early teens knew a vast repertoire of Southern folk, blues, gospel and rock and roll. “Mom and Dad were great dancers, hell raisers, and tireless adventurers,” Mathus says.
His father and his father’s family and cronies were all musical. Scottish immigrants, they were pioneers in Northeast Mississippi after the Chickasas Land Cession of 1830 and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The men that were of age fought in the Civil War and many died at Shiloh, just a few miles to the northeast of Mathus’ hometown of Corinth, MS. The Mathis clan (Jimbo changed the “i” to a “u” in honor or Mississippian William Faulkner, born “Falkner”) were great fiddlers and had paid their way to America as fiddlers on a steamship. The “ancestral fiddle” was on the high shelf in Mathis house and Jimbo would take it down on occasion and mess around.
His mother's family was Italian refugees from Piedmont, Italy, recruited by American interests to come to Mississippi to work the cotton fields. Once in the States, they became engaged in bootlegging and juke joint operating among the Delta’s black community, running whiskey from Virginia and Kentucky in cars equipped with overload springs to thwart the law enforcement. Italian was spoken in his grandfather's house, where they continued their Italian lifestyle there in Clarksdale, MS. At the same time, Clarksdale was becoming Ground Zero for the birth of blues music in America, counting Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker and many, many more as native sons. Jimbo calls his birth there in North Central Mississippi "fortuitous."
"I was born in the shadow of the great pyramids, so to speak, in the nexus of Southern/American culture, from Elvis to William Faulkner,” he says. “I’m continually amazed that these great accomplishments in the arts were somehow achieved in this unlikely location. This state is revered by many worldwide for its arts, culture, cuisine, letters and athletic heroes and abhorred for its cruelty and racism. It's heroic and cowardly, savage and gracefully civilized by turns. You can find the depths of ignorance and the loftiest of thinking.”
Although their home in Mississippi remained a constant, travel was also a big part of his early childhood. "Dad threw me and the dogs in the back of a pickup truck one summer and we drove to Alaska sleeping in the truck along the way" he recollects. " I took his guitar and learned to play and write songs over the month it took us to get up there and back." This wanderlust continued on into his early adulthood.
He chose music as his life's pursuit at an early age and found himself caught up in the miasma of contradictions that make up Southern culture. His response was to reject “polite” convention and seek out the “outsiders, the losers, the scrap-heap cast-off people." "I was asked to leave my high school early due to my general lack of concern and smart-ass attitude,” he says. After a brush with the law, he was “encouraged” to enlist as a deckhand on Mississippi river barges. For a time, Jimbo considered a career in the Merchant Marines. He enjoyed life on the river.
“We pushed and pulled coal, grain and petroleum for America to consume," he recalls. "Moving massively and slowly, through the night and day, I'd watch the world go by. We could see life on shore from the decks, but we were separate, apart from it all, seeing the people start to stir in the morning dawn as lights came on in the houses, imagining the families at their breakfasts, their coffee, seeing the cars light up and pull off to the jobs they held down. At night, the searchlight of the boat would play over the bank, illuminating the people parked by the river drinking, shooting guns, making love … We'd witness the goings on and depravities that happen by the river at night. “
Jimbo also sought travel and adventure by hitchhiking and jumping trains on his shore leave, meeting and living with the "prostitutes, idlers and gentlemen loafers; the preachers and junkies who congealed at the bottom on dead end roads and bus stations of the deep South and beyond." He saw Hopi vision seekers elevate before his eyes as he tended the sweat lodge rocks of a Sun Dance in Arizona. Having no health care, he "negotiated” a gold tooth with a certain Dr. Sanchez in the jungles of central Yucatan. He met Appalachian vampires who lived on ginseng and moonshine. At the same time, books were his constant companions as he studied history and the arts in his pursuit of “the real South -- the real America."
"I wanted to know American music from the inside out, from top to bottom,” he says. “I instinctively knew that there was no fast track to get where I wanted to go to learn what I wanted to know. I came to discover that American music started with the people that came here from somewhere else, with all these cultures contributing something. Stephen Foster first codified this folk music into songs that America could sing. Horns and strings, borrowed from martial bands and orchestras, were bastardized into jazz and minstrelsy; guitars, souvenirs stolen from Mexicans, were turned into blues and country. W.C. Handy, Jimmy Rogers, Charley Patton, Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, and the Ramones. They all made American music and all it led somewhere – I was determined to find out where.”
All these influences — people he'd meet, music he'd hear; places he's pass through on his travels — have fermented in his soul. Jimbo's music, as well as his characters and narratives, is a potent, high-octane concoction, steeped in the lore of the Deep South and filtered through generations of American musical styles.
"Some people think I play blues because of my work with Buddy Guy. Some people think I play vaudeville because of my time with Squirrel Nut Zippers." Jimbo says. “Some people think I play ‘You Are My Sunshine’ for tips because they see me play it at a catfish house. Most people have no idea what I really do. Mostly I play what I want and right now I play with Tri–State Coalition; Matt pierce from Arkansas, Terrence Bishop from Tennessee, Eric Carlton and Ryan Rogers from Mississippi. Together we made the White Buffalo.”
Jimbo Mathus' ninth album, The Dark Night of the Soul, will be out February 18 on Fat Possum Records.
Mathus recorded the album over the course of nearly a year at Dial Back Sound Studio with his band, The Tri-State Coalition. The Dark Night of the Soul will be the follow-up to Jimbo Mathus' Fat Possum debut White Buffalo.
In his native Mississippi and throughout the South, Jimbo Mathus is recognized as the prolific songwriter of born-in-the-bone American music, the torchbearer for Deep South mythology and culture. The lifelong musician, co-founder of the hyper ragtime outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, has signed to Oxford, MS label Fat Possum Records and will release White Buffalo, produced by Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, on January 22, 2013. Opening with the mandolin-driven Southern Gothic fable "In The Garden," Mathus and his band, the Tri-State Coalition, deliver an emotional honest bath of songs that embrace the richness of American Music - gospel, country blues and folk. Mathus' "tri-state" band, a handpicked group of like-minded players who make up his formidable live band, includes Matt Pierce (Arkansas), Terrence Bishop (Tennessee), and fellow Mississippians Eric Carlton and Ryan Rogers.
Listen To "In The Garden"
White Buffalo track listing:
01. In The Garden
02. (I Wanna Be Your) Satellite
03. Tennessee Walker Mare
04. White Buffalo
05. Hatchie Bottom
06. Fake Hex
07. Poor Lost Souls
09. Run Devil Run
10. Useless Heart
Jimbo Mathus On Tour:
10/17 - Nashville, TN - Loveless Cafe
10/18 - Cleveland, MS - Dockery Farms
10/20 - New Orleans, LA - Chickie Wah Wah
10/25 - Hopson, MS - Hopson Plantation Commisary
10/27 - Fayetteville, AR - Smoke & Barrel Tavern
11/07 - Oxford, MS - Snackbar
11/09 - Oxford, MS - The Library (early)
11/09 - Oxford, MS - Proud Larry's (late)
Pleased to announce that we have picked up Jimbo Mathus's upcoming full length album, "White Buffalo", for release on Fat Possum. The plan is to put this greatness in stores during the month of October. Read more about the release over on Jimbo's website and stay tuned here for more info.