THE EDUCATION OF CAPTAIN CATFISH: Jimbo Mathus

Jimbo Mathus 2

In which our protagonist revels in the roots of rock.

 BY TOM SPEED

 It’s late fall in North Mississippi and the air is getting crisp. Jimbo Mathus, wearing denim overalls and a sweatshirt over his wiry frame, reaches into the backseat of his van and pulls out a couple of cold cans of Busch. We pop the tops and sit on the front porch of one of the rental houses he’s renovating for his landlord. Jimbo and his wife Jennifer live in one of a half dozen almost identical houses in the tiny town of Taylor, just south of Oxford. The small wooden structures occupy an old cotton field. They’re accessible only by a gravel driveway, and hidden from the main road by a row of pines.

 These houses and others nearby have long served as residences for artists of all types—painters and musicians, writers and filmmakers—for whom the modest hustle and bustle of small town Oxford is even too much.

 The town of Taylor is mostly renowned for it’s fried catfish but it’s gained so much notoriety as an artists’ colony that it attracted a new planned development—replete with high dollar antique stores and tract housing designed by Southern Living magazine. This time of year, this new development can be seen peaking through the pine branches. This juxtaposition is a fitting metaphor for Mathus, who has one foot in a long lost rural Mississippi and one foot in the modernity of mp3s.

 Mathus’ future is gleaming brightly with the release of White Buffalo, out now on the Oxford-based Fat Possum label. The record is taut compilation of Mathus’ ongoing self-education project to steep himself in the soul of this land, to make rock ‘n roll music from the ground up. Mathus has spent a lifetime soaking up the music of his homeland, learning it from the inside out to the extent that through the practice of his craft he has become a kind of redneck shaman, a musical mystic who holds the magic of his ancestors in such high regard that the urge to breathe continual life into it is a compulsion.

 White Buffalo is Mathus’ most fully-realized expression of this musical vision yet. Backed now by his band the Tri-State Coalition (Matt Pierce, guitar; Eric Carlton, keyboards; Ryan Rogers, drums and Terrence Bishop on bass), Mathus is here a backwoods alchemist, cooking up a cauldron of sounds containing plaintive country ache (“Tennessee Walker Mare,” “Hatchie Bottom”), rambunctious, rollicking rock ‘n roll (“Satellite,” “Fake Hex”) and spooky hoodoo incantations (“Run Devil Run”.)  The Tri-State Coalition, with the help of producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Bottlerockets, Steve Earle) decorate these concoctions with plenty of screaming electric guitars and a wicked backbeat, but also with tasteful layers of accordion, mandolins and harmonica. It’s a culmination many years in the making.

  Making Mythology

As for Mathus’ past, it’s peppered with mythical adventures—scrapes with the law, back-breaking work on Mississippi riverboats, vagabond travels in the back of a pick-up truck, and fleeting success with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He’s built a mythology for himself by living it out. He’s created a character for this mythology, that of Captain Catfish, purveyor of a brand of music defined as “catfish music for the masses.” If this self-made character is a contrived concoction or a self-realized backwoods Buddha, it doesn’t seem to matter, for the mythology seems to make the music matter more.

 But the route home has been circuitous. Jimbo was born in Oxford, where his parents were attending Ole Miss and living in a trailer that abutted the famed legal marijuana fields.   He was just a little tyke then though, and after graduation the young family moved around a bit before settling into the hill-country town of Corinth, in the northeast corner of the state near the Alabama and Tennessee borders.

 It was, Mathus says, “A typical dry county, Pentecostal church on every other hill, trapped-in-time type place. Very conservative, very white.” Fortunately, Mathus came from a musical family. He raided his father’s record collection, feasting on Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and John Prine. He learned to play several musical instruments at a young age and joined in the kinfolk hootenannies at family reunions. “I heard what my dad played,” he says. “Banjo, fiddle, bass, good harmony singing. My dad was very good.” His family also took him to nearby juke joints to hear hill country blues that wouldn’t be discovered by the outside world for decades.

  Dry Heaves & River Rats

But he grew tired of playing his parent’s music. When he caught the Ramones’ “Rock & Roll High School” on TV, he was soon making frequent trips to nearby Memphis to score punk rock records.

 “I liked it because it was different, it was outlandish,” he says. “I wanted to stand out at that time. You could be the jock, or into church, or just, like, dipping Skoal and hunting all the time. Which all three of those are fine, but just not my thing.”

 Soon, the cover band he was playing in with his buddy Jack Oblivian (neé Yarber) splintered off into a noisy blaze of a band known as Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. They made some crude, home-made recordings, a few of which actually made it on to wax.

 “We’d go to the practice place and have these explosions of sound,” he says “Me, Jack and this other guy Johnny Vomit. We would write songs off the top of our head.”

Near the end of high school, Mathus was restless.  “I was so sick of Corinth,” he says, “I just left…played bass in a band. I just packed my little Datsun B210 and went over to Starkville.” 

 There, he met with legal entanglements, including a possession charge and a DUI.  Jim Dickinson famously called Mathus the “singing voice of Huck Finn,” and that’s maybe a more apt description than even Dickinson realized because Mathus really did come of age on the river.

 “I was looking at having to deal with some heavy stuff,” he says of his impending incarceration. A judge took him under his wing and introduced him to state a program for wayward teenagers.

 “It was basically a vo-tech,” says Mathus. “As a juvenile delinquent, you could choose different professions to learn and avoid some jail time. So there was welding, auto mechanic, air conditioning and heating, all different trades. One of them down in the Rs was riverboat deckhand. I said, ‘I’ll take this!’”

 After a six-week boot camp on a decommissioned steam ship on the Tombigbee River, he landed a job with the Natchez Barge Company and found himself traversing the country via its web of navigable waterways. “It was hard work,” he says, “but this was perfect for me. I enjoyed being out on the steel decks, in the snow blizzards in Chicago and everything. I felt there was a purpose for the work I was putting into it. I didn’t want to be some namby pamby artist who was feeling sorry for himself or didn’t know a hard dose of reality.”

 It also gave him the opportunity to indulge his wanderlust. Working thirty days on and thirty days off, Mathus spent his months off traveling around the country in his small pickup. Thumbing through an atlas, he would simply pick a place and go. He traveled to Texas, California and Colorado. Soon, he figured out college towns were a reliably laudable destination and that landed him in Chapel Hill, N.C.

 “Once I found Chapel Hill, I was there for about a week and I called up Canal Barge and said I wasn’t coming back. That’s it. You could make six dollars an hour washing dishes, so it was easy. Books everywhere. Artists. Original music. That’s when I really put it all together.”

Mississippi Mud

In Carolina, he soon found success with the swing revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers.  But Mississippi was already calling him home. Mathus spent a lot of time at the UNC library, reading books and studying the extensive folklore collection there. “It was great,” he says. “You could use the library. You didn’t have to be a student, just a citizen of the town.” He dug up recordings by Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon, studying previously indecipherable lyrics and read the works of William Faulkner. Mathus became so enamored with Faulkner that he changed the spelling of his family name from Mathis to Mathus, just as Faulkner added a “u” to his family name of Falkner.

 Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, there was a burgeoning record label that he began hearing about. Fat Possum records was founded in 1992 and quickly made a name for itself by releasing recordings by hill country blues masters like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.

 “I heard that,” says Mathus, “and thought: that’s the shit I grew up hearing in Corinth!”

So with a little money in his pocket from the Zippers success, he began making the pilgrimage back to his home state more and more often, hooking up with old friends and making new ones. One of the new ones was a fresh-faced kid named Luther Dickinson.  They first met when Luther and brother Cody Dickinson were playing in their pre-North Mississippi Allstars jug band Gutbucket and as chance would have it (if you believe in such things) were chosen to open a show for the Zippers.

 “Right away we just hit it off,” says Mathus.  “We started sending cassettes back and forth through the mail, started collaborating a lot. Later that year is when I came down to do Songs for Rosetta.  It happened real fast. I just jumped on it. All the shit I was studying was Mississippi—learning Robert Johnson, learning Charley Patton, reading Faulkner and everything.”

 Songs for Rosetta was his first proper solo release, a paean to the woman who helped raise him when he spent his summers in Clarksdale with his grandparents, a women who just so happened to be the daughter of Charley Patton. That led to another watershed moment. Mathus was chosen to work on Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea record, and he helped the legendary Chicago bluesman delve into the hill country catalog to wide acclaim.

Up in Chicago, the record caught Ambel’s ear. “I remember driving home from Christmas and I heard that thing on the radio,” says Ambel. “I pulled over to wait and find out what it was, because it was just so … savage.”

 Fast-forward ten years, and Ambel has struck up an online friendship with Pierce on a “guitar-geek” forum. Ambel was originally unaware of Mathus’ role in the Sweet Tea record when Pierce suggested they work together. When he found out, things started clicking.

 Mathus had been making records all this time, of course. He continued his self-education by exploring the different permutations of Mississippi music, and that focus was revealed in his releases. National Antiseptic, released in 2001, and Stop and Let The Devil Ride, released in 2003, were gritty electric delta blues collections. With 2005’s Knockdown South, he focused more on Stax-style soul sounds and hill country boogie. Old School Hot Wings in 2006 addressed folk and old timey music in a way that he would later explore with the South Memphis String Band. Jimmy The Kid turned more towards honky-tonk country than before. Confederate Buddha began to coalesce these sounds.

Yet while each of those records seemed to have a particular bent, they mixed those elements too. And though released on a variety of small labels, or self-released, they were all self-produced.  So when it came time for White Buffalo he put the producer’s hat away, took Pierce’s advice and hooked up with Ambel. Via an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign, the recording sessions for White Buffalo began at Mathus’ studio in Como, with Ambel at the helm, for what would be the studio’s last session before Mathus would close up shop to focus on his own music. After years of near-collaboration, Mathus finally hooked up with Fat Possum for the release too.

Raising The White Buffalo

“I knew that blues, honky tonk and everything else led to rock ‘n roll,” says Mathus. “I knew that back in Starkville. I could hear it listening to the Stones, listening to the Beatles. But I wanted to come around to it from a roundabout way. I wanted to learn it inside out, so I said I was going to back it all the way up to Charley Patton. I know that Charley Patton equals ‘Jumping Jack Flash.’ It equals everything, but I wanted to put every link in the chain, just for my own edification.”

The result is a rock ‘n roll record that codifies this decade-long education process. Tinges of honky tonk and country and blues conjoin to provide a timeless compendium.

 Clocking in at a taut 35 minutes, it’s a primer that was intentionally all encompassing.

“If you could, compare [Jimbo’s output] to Neil Young’s career,” says Ambel. “I like it when Neil Young makes the best Neil Young record he can, not when he says this is a rockabilly record or this is a country record. I felt like what we needed to do for Jimbo was to make the best Jimbo Mathus record. Sometimes when you stick to a certain style, you’re missing out on the variety. He’s been self-producing himself, and he’s a very good producer. But producing yourself is like self-dentistry.”

 Before heading into the studio, Mathus and Ambel waded through about 25 songs and picked the ones they liked the best, and complimented each other the most.

 “I started whittling it down to what I feel like are my real songs that I can really write,” adds Mathus, “and that’s what’s on White Buffalo. It’s less folk and less blues than anything I’ve ever done. If you look at my CDs, it might look like I’m trying to be this or sound like this but to me it was just pieces of a puzzle.”

 The puzzle comes together when you hear songs like “Tennessee Walker Mare,” a song Mathus has recorded before but perfected here. Like most of his songs, it’s autobiographical—this one, an ode to his mother. It begins as a country ballad, but after a few soaring sweeps through verse and chorus, the beat turns and quickly develops into an up-tempo twin-guitar jaunt that would make Duane and Dickey proud.

 Elsewhere, the shuffle-rock of “Fake Hex” is the sound the Stones were seeking on Sticky Fingers. (“You listen to the Stones, you got Mick Jagger singing like a fake redneck. I am a redneck!” Mathus quips.) “In The Garden” is the kind of rough-hewn roots rocks that gets filed as Americana these days. All pieces of the puzzle, all put nicely in place.

 So Captain Catfish, the rock ‘n roll ringmaster, moves on, wiser if a little bit worn. Of this long-term education process Mathus says, “It’s taken me this long just to get the confidence to say, ‘Hey, I’m a rock ‘n roll artist now!’”

 [Photo Credit: Robyn Friday]

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