It may come off as a bit of a stretch, but at this point Jimbo Mathus is somewhat of an institution in the South. Having slogged away in the rock & roll trenches for thirty-plus years, he has at times experienced—as so few musicians do—the ersatz glitter and sublime dizziness of massive mainstream success coupled with wide-ranging critical acclaim. On other unfortunate occasions, he has been burdened with the soul-sucking misfortune and psychic grime that is the worst part of a life lived as a professional musician—lawsuits, acrimony, divorce, tawdry scandals, ruined friendships, and financial hardship. Throughout his career, though, and through a myriad of bands and projects and genres, Mathus has always delivered nothing less than great music—instinctual and pure and shorn of artifice, but also informed by a scholar's sense of place and cultural tradition. It's an ecstatic marriage, the way Mathus plays it—from peak to peak, the relationship becoming deeper and more foundational with each new release. Fat Possum Records, the nearly legendary Mississippi record label previously responsible for drilling the cryptic blues sounds of the north Mississippi hill country directly into the skull of American pop consciousness, released his latest LP/CD, White Buffalo, in February. And it's blindingly good.
I have recently started to think of Jimbo Mathus as a new kind of archetype for the Southern rock & roll artist, his music a refurbished paradigm of Southern rock. If the previous prevailing archetype has been, say, Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Marshall Tucker Band, then it's safe to say that such embodiment of the Southern rock & roll ideal has long since been sapped of whatever vitality it had. Don't get me wrong: I love Lynyrd Skynyrd's records, rarely turn the dial when they come on the radio, and every so often I can still get my rocks off on the wily guitar heroics of Marshall Tucker's Toy Caldwell. Once, I nearly got into a fight with some colossally uncouth dude who had the temerity to denigrate the Charlie Daniels Band's Honey In The Rock LP. I really don't have a problem with the old warhorse of Southern rock and its attendant devices—blazing guitar solos, imperturbably tough rhythm sections, louche reliance on shitkicking hippie-hillbilly lyrical themes, and so on.
My point with this digression is this, though—that the pervasive old notion of Southern rock very quickly mutated from something pure and naif-ish in its simple beauty into something that was sadly neither very Southern nor very much rock & roll. It was as if Steve Sholes, Owen Bradley, and Chet Atkins—the architects of the "Nashville Sound" and the prime movers in the effort to deracinate country music of its hillbilly wildness in the 1950s—had somehow materialized wraithlike in the world of 1970s rock music and set out on a new mission to smooth out the music's rough edges and make it palatable and clean.
Sloughed off with such process was the genre's original embrace of 1960s Southern soul music—the tough blues and R&B coming out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals especially—and the long-form trippiness and acid-fried sonics of late-'60s psychedelia. Finally, there was no place in the music for even the unhinged wildness and the weird, mystic cultural synthesis between blues and country music that sparked the rock & roll engine in the first place. As a commercial and musical behemoth, Southern rock was remade as kitsch, its effortless passion replaced with plastic. It's no small wonder, then, that the most mainstream and successful of modern country music hit-makers, the most adroit operators of Nashville's cultural machinery, have determinedly strip-mined the old Southern rock paradigm for new material for the last twenty years.
Southern rock became a genre-joke, rendering mute its early promise of moving the whole of rock music forward through reconnection with the primal intensity and utter realness of Southern soul music. For a new, young generation of Southern musicians in the early 1980s, that cultural deafness resulted in a profound process of reconnection with the original imperatives of the music—and a relocation of their collective muse within the crazy-quilt culture that was always in their own backyard.
Jimbo Mathus was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but he grew up mostly in Corinth, a stately and colorful town rich with the ghosts of Civil War history in the northeast corner of the state's high hill country. He also spent much formative time in the Mississippi Delta (in Clarksdale, the ground zero of American blues music, the place where the ur-texts of that culture were composed) amongst his matrilineal kin, part of a historic wave of Italian immigrants who had settled in the Delta as levee workers and merchants during the late nineteenth century. His was a musical family, musicians and singers who were possessed of wide repertoires and considerable skill. And through them Mathus was immersed in the sounds and songs of his state's culture, the receiver of ancient reverberations that settled deep into his unconscious. This being the 1970s, however, Mathus was also keenly tuned in to the irresistible glam and clean heat of contemporary rock music, and it was to rock music that he naturally gravitated.
In 1983 he cut an obscure record in Corinth with a group called Johnny Vomit and The Dry Heaves, an odd experimental noise/punk-rock combo with a sound quite unlike anything else coming out of the South at the time, and a group that included future Memphis guitar-slinger Jack Yarber of the Oblivians. A couple of years later Mathus led an alternative-rock group based in Starkville, Mississippi, called Cafe Des Moines that proved particularly adept at negotiating the burned-out sonic space between R.E.M. and more aggressive hardcore-punk-influenced bands like Husker Du.
During the 1990s, he formed the Squirrel Nut Zippers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his then-wife, Katherine Whalen. The group very quickly achieved international success, its music a giddy and kinetic gumbo made from 1940s swing jazz and klezmer and frenzied takes on Western swing and jazz manouche, amidst other studied sonic arcana. Theirs was a racket of weird consonance, to be sure, but it was sweetly addictive and incredibly successful. But, as so often happens, success sort of ruined the group, and the band split up in rather spectacular fashion in the early part of the last decade. Divorce followed, too, and Mathus moved home to Mississippi and reconnected with his home state's roots—blues, country, and rock & roll.
Over the last decade, since the demise of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus has been a continual presence on the Americana landscape and the driving force on a number of stunning projects. He cut a particularly wonderful album with members of the North Mississippi Allstars, which was dedicated to his improbable childhood nanny, Rosetta Patton, the daughter of perhaps the most legendary Delta bluesman of all, Charley Patton. He recorded and toured with Chicago blues guitar genius Buddy Guy, and he formed notable bands like the Knockdown Society with Luther Dickinson and the South Memphis String Band with the great Alvin "Youngblood" Hart. He also founded a recording studio called Delta Recording Service—originally located in Clarksdale but later transplanted to the ancient Delta town of Como—that was filled with old tube amplifiers, valve recording consoles and ribbon microphones, an impressive repository of vintage audio recording equipment. As a producer and engineer, he recorded scores of notable sessions, including Elvis Costello in 2005 and King Louie and The Loose Diamonds in 2007.
His latest group, certainly the toughest band Mathus has put together, is called the Tri-State Coalition. With great skill and remarkable intuition, the Tri-State Coalition manages to bring the whole of Mathus' foregoing musical legacy to bear on his new songs. They are as comfortable with hard rock bluster and punk propulsion as they are with the nuanced demands of the tenderest ballad and the funky intricacies of blues and Memphis R&B. The mighty White Buffalo is their work.
To these ears, White Buffalo is the best record Jimbo Mathus has ever released; certainly it's his most arresting and mature set of songs. Produced by renowned roots-music/Americana producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel (following a successful Kickstarter campaign to pay Ambel's fee!), White Buffalo is brilliantly streamlined but nonetheless wildly raucous.
The album is scattershot with musical tip-of-the-hat references. The gorgeous autobiographical ballad "Tennessee Walker Mare" features a guitar solo that sounds like it could have come from Dickie Betts. Another ballad—the aching and tender "Hatchie Bottom"—reveals cool Nicky Hopkins-like piano figures and an arrangement straight out of the Jack Nitzsche playbook.
There's a discernible Laurel Canyon hippie vibe hanging over the terrific "Poor Lost Souls," the song itself being a meditation on those all-night denizens of L.A.'s darkest side. "Run Devil Run" manages to throw off more cryptic West Coast vibes as well. Cool, fluid, and psychedelic, it's almost a coupling between Dr. John and the early-'80s slide guitar style of Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club. "Fake Hex" offers a brilliant take on what sounds like it could be an outtake from The Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup album. The song "White Buffalo" is gleefully pounding and unrelenting, as gargantuan and insistent a riff as you'll find on any 1970s hard-rock or proto-punk nugget. And "Useless Heart" comes off like a lost John Hiatt classic, plainly beautiful and perfect in its lonesome anguish.
Despite the references, White Buffalo isn't an album with a borrowed aesthetic. It's purely Jimbo Mathus. Here are songs that sound more mature and more lived in than any he's written. The Tri-State Coalition, despite their ability to pull disparate sonic cues seemingly out of the ether, are not simply practitioners of rock reference. Instead, they bring together the whole catalogue of music that has informed Mathus during his long stretch of a career—from whatever influenced Johnny Vomit and The Dry Heaves to the white and black string band sounds that informed the South Memphis String Band. That kind of band is nothing if not special.
In his short, brilliant tome Cut 'N' Mix, the British critic Dick Hebdige reveals an interesting and instructive quote from the controversial Elvis biographer Albert Goldman. "The secret of Elvis' art lay not in an act of substantive creation, but in a recasting of one traditional style in terms of another. To make such a transposition, you have to be stylistically sophisticated . . . Rock is not, as is always said, simply an amalgam of blues, country, pop, etc. This is to define it by its sources and substances instead of its soul. The music's essence lies in its attitude."
That's what Jimbo Mathus does, and why his rock & roll is elemental. It's the music of the Southern soul—rock & roll that lives through its past but not in it, alive and forward-moving and always conscious of its past. That it gleams as bright as the stage light glinting off Jimbo's gold-capped front teeth is just icing on an already swell cake.