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March 12, 2015


Co-produced by Bruce Watson, the ex-Squirrel Nut Zippers and South Memphis String Band co-founder’s new album provides a psychedelia and garage rock drenched tour through the sounds of the South

Eric Ambel of the Del-Lords is special guest.

OXFORD, Miss. — From the gritty, chiming six-string stomp of opener “Shoot Out the Lights” to the angelic gospel choir and piano finale of “Love and Affection,” the new album Blue Healer is a flat-out, no holds barred, brawling, sprawling excursion through the deep musical soul of Jimbo Mathus.

Born and raised in North Mississippi, where the sound of the region’s blues and gospel blend with the echoes of rock and R&B from nearby Memphis, Mathus has become a vital link in the chain of great American music. He built the foundation of the ongoing old-timey/swing revival with unlikely ’90s hit-makers the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Then Mathus became an MVP indie producer and sideman who made his bones playing guitar on blues legend Buddy Guy’s seriously twisted electric groundbreaker Sweet Tea. He’s also a co-founder of the critically heralded South Memphis String Band, with fellow roots music rabble-rousers Luther Dickinson, of North Mississippi All Stars, and Alvin Youngblood Hart. And along the way he’s toured internationally and recorded under his own name and with his Tri-State Coalition band, leaving a dozen untamed, free-ranging albums in his wake.

Now the artist has created his absolute manifesto with Blue Healer. The 12-song set was co-produced by Mathus and Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum house studio maven Bruce Watson at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi, an all-analog recording palace that’s perfect for Mathus’ blend of old-school tones and edgy, kinetic energy.
At its core, Blue Healer is a concept album with room for acid-fed, supernatural visions, vulnerable love songs, Saturday night brawls, bad-boy regrets and youthful celebrations — all embellished by Mathus’ estimable abilities as a natural raconteur and straight-from-the-heart singer.

“It’s the story of a man in a southern landscape who is swept insanely apart by internal and external winds,” Mathus explains. “He digs deeper and deeper into the very fabric of his reality, experiencing love and lust, despair, hope and sheer animal exhilaration on levels few ever do. He is tested in every way imaginable and achieves a sort of enlightenment — gains power and understanding of life’s mysteries. Yet questions remain. He wonders if the struggle was worth it, or even real. Is he madman or sage? Con man or honest counsel? Is this autobiographical or fictional? Only the Blue Healer knows the answer to the great cosmic heebie-jeebie.”

The Blue Healer — not to be confused with the Blue Heeler, or Cattle Dog — is a mythological figure that makes her appearance three songs into the album, on the title number. Mathus intones the story of this mysterious yet comforting female presence over a fever dream soundtrack where reverb drenched guitars writhe like angry serpents in a Delta fog and lysergic Farfisa stirs the mists. By then Mathus — or, at least, the album’s protagonist — needs healing. He’s gotten into plenty of trouble, raising a raunchy, riff-driven rock ’n’ roll ruckus with help from Del Lords’ guitarist Eric Ambel on the opener “Shoot Out the Lights,” and ticking off a list of vices and failings from drug use to pyromania in the confessional “Mama Please.” “Coyote” briefly changes the setting from the Deep South to a peyote-fueled Southwestern landscape, where tremolo’d guitars are the breadcrumbs along a cosmic cowboy’s trail that runs among the rough-hewn sonic landmarks of Neil Young, the Electric Prunes and spaghetti western film composer Ennio Morricone.

The quiet spirit of “Thank You,” a love song that Mathus sings to the spare accompaniment electric and acoustic guitars, spotlights the dusty sincerity reflected in his voice throughout the album. In fact, his graceful and commanding vocals on Blue Healer are the spine and soul of its songs, no matter where they roam — even when Mathus is serving up hot refried Southern boogie on “Bootheel Witch” or using weeping pedal steel to abet his country-style tale of prize winning lay-about “Old Earl.” It all culminates in “Love and Affection,” which is a breathing compendium of the major elements in Mathus’ musical DNA: rock ’n’ roll strut, blues guitar hijinks, backwoods funk and gospel testifying, all framed by untrammeled joy.

For Mathus, who was born in 1967 in Oxford, Mississippi, his entire life has pointed toward this uncanny album. “As a boy, I was fascinated by ancient things and the arcane,” he states. “I saw visions. I could see and feel the Earth plummeting through the solar system and it, in turn, grinding along, clock-like. I saw and heard time being sucked into the gaping maw of infinity. I always felt both frightened and comforted by these experiences. Then came music.”

His father was a banjo player, horse trader and small-town attorney descended from Scottish fiddlers and singers. Alcohol-fueled music and all-night singing surrounded the young Mathus. At age six he joined his family’s band as mandolinist. “As a small child,” Mathus explains, “I was sort of self-contained — very adult. I was allowed to wander the back streets of Jackson or the hillbilly towns of Arkansas, alone with my mandolin absorbing songs. I never had any trouble sitting in with and learning from the musicians I found there. It was weird because adults always told me their problems. They would ask my advice, like I knew the answers.”

When Mathus began creating his own original music in high school his first composition was “Chokin’ on a Lude,” — fodder for his noise rock band Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. “My hometown was a Pentecostal Church-infested conservative Southern hillbilly town,” he relates. “Old men sat on the courthouse steps whittling. Needless to say the band and song didn’t go over well in my area. I was asked to leave high school for being too subversive. They mailed me my diploma and said, ‘Please go!’”

Various mishaps led to his being arrested and sent to the Mississippi River to work as a deckhand. “I was basically an indentured servant to a barge company outta New Orleans,” he says. “I had to perform extreme physical labor in the most brutal conditions alongside big, bad men. But they would pull me aside and spill their guts, seek my advice on shit with their old ladies or whatever. Ask about their deceased father or grandmother. They thought I was some kinda fortune teller.”

Mathus settled in the cultural and artistic oasis of Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the early ’90s and immediately started assembling the musicians who would become the Squirrel Nut Zippers. “I already had the background on the Deep South musical styles — black, white and creole,” he recounts. “ In Chapel Hill I was able to use the libraries, record stores, bookstores, original music clubs – all that shit I had never seen before. I was able to do the research I’d always dreamed of. I went back to the roots of American art and music. I found the Harry Smith anthology. I educated myself.”

Through seven albums and one hit single, 1996’s MTV favorite “Hell,” the Zippers negotiated the turf of roots music, alternative rock and hipster cool like penguins on a slalom course. By the time the group disbanded in 2000 — although reunions continue — Mathus had already begun a solo career with the 1997 release of Jas. Mathus & His Knockdown Society Play Songs for Rosetta, an effort to raise money for his ailing one-time nanny Rosetta Patton, the daughter of legendary early Delta bluesman Charley Patton. Along with the string of ensuing solo recordings and productions for mostly local bands at his now-gone Delta Recordings studio in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he also embarked on a career as a session player. In 2001 he was the second guitarist and creative sparkplug for Buddy Guy’s expressionist blues explosion Sweet Tea, and worked on its follow-up, the Grammy winning Blues Singer.
Further fueled by an apprenticeship with the great producer/pianist/raconteur and fellow Mississippian Jim Dickinson — whose history ran from the beginnings of the Memphis blues festival to Captain Beefhart’s Magic Band to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers to the Replacements to his sons’ North Mississippi All Stars — Mathus was ready for an evolutionary leap.

“I was encouraged by great men to take on the full Southern musical landscape and forge it into my own cannon of songs — to dig deep inside myself and to look and listen hard at what I found there,” he says. The results can be found on his albums Jimmy the Kid, Confederate Buddha, Blue Light, White Buffalo and 2012’s Dark Night of the Soul, which marked his first collaboration with co-producer Watson. And they culminate in the wild, revelatory contours of Blue Healer. “And so,” Mathus adds, “the journey continues."


Nov. 6, 2013


The former Squirrel Nut Zipper forges a unique collaboration
on a new album, due out on Fat Possum Records February 15.

OXFORD, Miss.—Few studio albums have had a birth process like Jimbo Mathus’ new release, Dark Night of the Soul. To create his ninth album, the singer-songwriter spent nearly a year going to Dial Back Sound Studio, near his home in Taylor, Mississippi, to work on new tunes. Dial Back Sound, however, isn’t just any conveniently located studio, but one operated by Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson, who offered Mathus this extended opportunity to create the follow-up to his highly-regarded Fat Possum debut White Buffalo.

Like having a regular gig at a neighborhood bar, Mathus would drop by the studio every couple of weeks and hash out song ideas with engineer/instrumentalist Bronson Tew. Mathus ended up with around 40 songs and Watson heard them all. “He acted as my editor,” Mathus explains. “I really trust him. He would come in and say, ‘I like this or could we change a little of that?’”

Mathus enjoyed the casual, low-pressure studio environment but also felt challenged to bring new material to the table every week. “I would pull out scraps of paper from my wallet that normally I would dump in the trash and those would be the ones that Bruce liked.” The ones Watson would gravitate to be the darker songs — the ones, Mathus confides, he would typically keep private. “So collaboratively,” he says, “we brought them to life.” This process resulted in his most personal and hardest rocking album to date. While on earlier releases, the Mississippi-bred Mathus tended to showcase his encyclopedic facility with Southern roots music, this time, however, he really wanted to play his songs unselfconsciously — “letting them just fall off the bone.”

This emphasis on “more ultra chrome and less sepia tones,” as Mathus calls it, arrives on the title track that opens the album. Fiery electric guitars match the artist’s emotionally wrenching vocals as he pleads to be taken to his “sweet solution.” A similar search for salvation fuels the impassioned soul-rocker “White Angel,” while a more rollicking spirit imbues the ’70s Southern rock-flavored “Rock and Roll,” where the piano is pounded as hard as the guitars. “Shine Like a Diamond,” a love ode to Mathus’ wife Jennifer, sparkles like an old Van Morrison-style gem, complete with some “sha-la-la” near the end.

Dark Night grows funkier in its second half with tracks like “Fire in the Canebrake” and “Casey Caught the Cannonball.” Mathus’ take on the Casey Jones legend (which he wrote from facts he got off of a roadside marker) conjures up memories of The Band, as does another Dixie-based tale, “Hawkeye Jordan.” The album ends in a rather dark place with the closing tracks: the junkie lament “Medicine” and eerie eulogy “Butcher Bird.”

On most of Dark Night’s tracks, Mathus’ acoustic guitar is surrounded by the electric guitar played by his longtime sideman Matt Pierce and pal Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. (Ambel produced White Buffalo but on Dark Night he focuses exclusively on his righteous guitar playing.) The album’s raw, rock sound arose from the fact that most of the tracks were recorded live in the studio with Mathus’ band, the Tri-State Coalition, which he found “very liberating way of doing it.” Mathus feels very in synch with his bandmates (keyboardist Eric Carlton, drummer Ryan Rogers, guitarist Pierce and guest bassist and Drive By Trucker Matt Patton) since they have played together now for several years. “The intensity you’re hearing on this album,” he proclaims, “is the spirit of a band that is putting its shit on the line.”

As potent as the band’s recordings are, the album also contains several tracks — including “Casey,” “Medicine” and the swampy blues number “Tallahatchie” — that were actually studio demos. Watson, Mathus explains, didn’t find anything to change in them. It’s this level of trust between the two men that has brought forth and formed the heart of Dark Night. In Mathus’ words, Bruce is “someone who sees what I am capable of doing and wants other people to hear it too. The record is a testament of his vision of me — and an accurate depiction of the way I experience life with its high ups and its far downs.”

While Mathus plays less of the musical historian role on his new album, his love and knowledge of roots music still radiates throughout his songs. “Knowing about some banjo part on a Gus Cannon record informs me on writing a song like ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ believe it or not,” Mathus reveals. “It’s all in my frame of reference and my musical DNA.”

This musical DNA has been in him since birth. His father and relatives were all skilled musicians who filled the house with old folk, country and blues tunes. By the age of eight, Mathus was joining them on mandolin and by his teenage years had learned guitar and piano. High school led to playing in punk and new wave bands, the most notable being Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves and The End, with future Oblivian Jack Yarber. Post high school, Mathus studied Philosophy at Mississippi State University before leaving to travel around America. In doing so he worked various jobs, including an influential stint as a barge tankerman on the mighty Mississippi River. Settling in Chapel Hill, N.C., he drummed in the cult rock band Metal Flake Mother prior to starting the Squirrel Nut Zippers. This ahead-of-its-time retro roots band scored a hit with “Hot” and performed at President Clinton’s second Inauguration and the 1996 Summer Olympics. Following the Zippers’ split, Mathus worked with such noted artists such as Buddy Guy and Elvis Costello, and collaborated with North Mississippi Allstars guitarist Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart in the South Memphis String Band. He also recorded his own albums (including one dedicated to his childhood nanny Rosetta Patton, the daughter of Delta blues icon Charley Patton).

With the South being so central to his life, it’s no surprise that Mathus and his band are very popular there. “I could stay in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana and never have to leave,” he admits, “but the point is I want people to hear this album — to bring a little gris-gris to the rest of America.”

# # #


May 2, 2012


Mississippi musician, veteran of Squrrel Nut Zippers
and South Memphis String Band, will tour in May

OXFORD, Miss. — The late Memphis producer Jim Dickinson once called Jimbo Mathus “the singing voice of Huck Finn.” Outside the South, Mathus is likely best known as the ringleader of the defunct hyper-ragtime outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, or as the catalyst for Buddy Guy’s breakthrough Sweet Tea in 2001 and Guy’s Grammy-winning Blues Singer album.

This July, Mathus will soon release a six-song vinyl EP on the Big Legal Mess label titled Blue Light, which he recorded with producer Bruce Watson at Watson’s Water Valley, Miss., studio, Dialed Back Sound.

Blue Light perfectly captures Mathus’ style of Southern musical alchemy. From the proto garage rock of “Haunted John” (“up and down Saint Charles/rides the streetcar all night long”), to the sideways-with-the-law Southern rock of “Blue Light” to the dead-end gospel-fueled country weeper of “Burn the Honky Tonk,” Mathus shows the diversity of his vision. The conviction of his singing and storytelling will make you believe every word is true. “I’m singing from absolute experience on this recording. Raw stories of real events,” he says.

Engineer Lynn Bridges and Dial Back Sound enhanced the artist’s raw, rough and tumble approach, adding warm textures and mournful pedal steel to make a sound akin to a late ’60s roadhouse jukebox.

In his native Mississippi, and throughout the South, Mathus is recognized as the prolific songwriter of born-in-the-bone Southern music, the torchbearer for Deep South mythology and culture. Think Delta highways, bowling-pin Budweisers and “interplanetary honky-tonk” for the masses.

His credits include the North Mississippi Allstars’ Electric Blue Watermelon, and he was Grammy-nominated as a member of Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy for the Jim Dickinson memorial album Onward and Upward. Mathus also recently joined forces with Luther and Alvin Youngblood Hart, forming the retro-roots “supergroup” the South Memphis String Band.

Beyond his solo work, Mathus hit paydirt with fans and critics alike in 2011 with the release of Confederate Buddha, on which he’s backed by what he says is “the best band in the land,” the Tri-State Coalition. Featuring solid talent cut from the same Delta cloth, the band’s sound is “ . . . a true Southern amalgam of blues, white country, soul and rock ’n’ roll,” according to bandleader Mathus. The group formed when Mathus was living in Memphis, Tennessee, and for nearly a decade, he’s been working with these same players — fellow Mississippians Justin Showah (bass, vocals), Eric Carlton (keyboards) and Arkansan Matt Pierce (guitar). They brought in drummer Ryan Rogers last year, and together the boys laid down the sound that is White Buffalo, the forthcoming 2012 release from Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition, produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (Steve Earle, The Bottle Rockets, Del Lords).

Of the band’s recording, Mathus says, “White Buffalo is a collaboration with our producer, ‘Roscoe’ Ambel, who brought a fierceness, a keen edge to our sound. I’ve never been prouder of any recording.” Ambel offers, “There is an effortless, natural feeling that comes from Jimbo & Tri-State’s music that in today’s times cannot be mistaken for anything less than ‘great.’”

And this from Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), writing in the liner notes for Confederate Buddha: “The Confederate Buddha, the Katfish King, people have a lot of names on a riverboat. Just a little time to dream, dark and murky, only to emerge fire and brimstone. Lightning and kudzu wisdom and wine oh . . . He’s feeling fine, besides either you look cool with a gold tooth or you do not. So listen to the Mississippi mystic and believe . . .”


Fri., May 4, 6:15 p.m. MEMPHIS, TN FedEx Blues Tent
Sat., May 5, 9:30 p.m. COLUMBUS, MS (downtown)
Sun., May 6, 4:30 p.m. WATER VALLEY, MS (downtown)
Thurs., May 17, 7 p.m. OXFORD, MS The Powerhouse
Fri-Sat., May 18-19, TBD MARKSVILLE, LA Chief Joseph Alcide Pierite Pow Wow Grounds
Sat., May 26, 7:30 p.m. MEMPHIS, TN Levitt Shell at Overton Park
Fri., June 8, 10 p.m. LITTLE ROCK, AR Whitewater Tavern
Sat., June 9, TBD HELENA, AR Levee Stage
Fri., June 15, TBD ATLANTA, GA Star Bar
Fri., June 22, TBD NASHVILLE, TN Grimey’s Basement
Sat., June 23, TBD CHARLESTON, SC The Pour House
Sun., June 24, TBD ATHENS, GA The Melting Pot
Thurs., June 28, 9 p.m. OXFORD, MS Rooster's Blues House
Sat., June 30, TBD WATERFORD, MS Hill Country Picnic Stage
Fri., July 6, TBD MOBILE, AL The Shed-Mobile
Sat., July 7, TBD OCEAN SPRINGS, MS The Shed-Ocean Springs
Sat., July 21, 7:30 p.m. MEMPHIS, TN National Ornamental
Sat., July 28, TBD PHILADELPHIA, MS Neshoba County Fair
Sat., Aug. 11, TBD CLARKSDALE, MS Delta Blues Museum Main Stage
Sat., Aug. 11, 9 p.m. HOPSON, MS Hopson Plantation Commissary
Thurs., Aug. 23, 8 p.m. BRADFORDVILLE, FL Bradfordville Blues Club


Artist Photo