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For a while now, Mississippi musician Jimbo Mathus has referred to himself as "the Arkansas Son-in-Law." The moniker always seemed to imply more than just his Arkie bride, however. The idea of a proud and talented musician from Mississippi not only acknowledging but embracing Arkansas's music had me intrigued. After all, Mathus' own artistic pedigree is a crazy quilt of notable endeavors. As a teen, he and Jack Yarber (a.k.a. Jack Oblivian, of legendary Memphis garage rock demolishers The Oblivians) formed the punk band Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves. He founded the platinum-selling swing/jazz/blues outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers (which performed at the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton). He lent his six-string skills to the masterful 2001 Buddy Guy album "Sweet Tea" and the blues great's Grammy-winning 2003 disc "Blues Singer." And since 2004, he's led the Tri-State Coalition, mining the rich musical history of his native Mississippi alongside players from Arkansas and Tennessee (hence the name).
With a fantastic new album called "White Buffalo" that's due out Tuesday on Fat Possum Records, it seemed like a good time to explore Mathus' background and connections to Arkansas. I started poking around and found stories and characters dating from the mid '70s to present. Eventually, I'd sit down to a meal with Mathus, 45, his wife, Jennifer Pierce Mathus (a Jonesboro native), and a dozen or so Kickstarter contributors who helped fund his new album. Fittingly, dinner was at Doe's Eat Place, the steakhouse/Southern tamale institution founded in Greenville, Miss., and with several Arkansas locations. Since then it's been a whirlwind of running down some of Mathus' Arkansas contacts, all of whom had a smile and a story (or several) about the wiry musician.
Mathus' association with the Natural State started while he was still in grade school. His dad, a five-string banjo player and a big fan of bluegrass and folk music, would haul a crew of family and friends from Corinth, Miss., to Mountain View for the folk festival. Picking on the Stone County Courthouse Square, the Mathus family quickly became friends with the Griffey family of Morrilton, and they would camp together on subsequent visits.
Becki Griffey, matriarch of the family, told me about what may well be one of Mathus' earliest public performances. She said Mathus had always loved music and that someone had given him an inexpensive mandolin that he'd been messing with for a little while. Finally one of the groups picking let him play, and that "skinny little kid stood up on a stump and played 'Fox on the Run.' "
The group took turns playing three or four more songs and when his turn came back around, young Mathus played "Fox on the Run" again. It was the only song he knew but he wanted to keep on playing over and over again, Griffey said, adding that the next year, he returned with a lot more songs (and had taken up a couple more instruments to boot).
Eventually the multi-family campsite near Sylamore turned into its own festival of sorts with people hardly going into town, if at all. At times the campsite would host nearly 250. It developed its own traditions, too, like Mathus' dad's annual blue recitation of "Piss Pot Pete and ol' Lil" and "grudge-picking," sort of a musical game of attrition and one-upmanship in which the only prizes were pride and the biggest of hangovers.
I asked Mathus via email about his time spent in Mountain View and the surrounding area, and he wrote of "the idyllic days of youth, the clear water of the White River, the scrappy beautiful trout, caught in abundance, the strange and exotic mountain people and the music — old women playing bass wearing sun bonnets, buck dancing on the plywood stage in the sweet summer evenings by the courthouse, little love affairs flung up around the bushes and walls of the square, dulcimers, banjo and fiddles ringing all over the country side. Just a beautiful idyllic age of my youth with family all around."
In the mid '90s, when Mathus was home during a break from his jazz/ragtime outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, he met Arkansas-born Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson. He had been playing with Dickinson's son Luther and ended up at the Dickinson home.
Dickinson held Mathus in high regard and is widely quoted as calling him "the singing voice of Huck Finn." Another musician Dickinson admired was Arkansas guitar heavyweight Greg Spradlin (for more about him, see the Arkansas Times' Dec. 12 cover story). Spradlin and Mathus would both spend time at the Dickinson house and both would eventually meet there and become friends.
Sadly both would eventually attend Dickinson's funeral and play at his memorial folk festival. Spradlin and Mathus seem to have a mutual regard and admiration for each other as well. No wonder then that the parallels between them are many. Both are rooted firmly in Southern music heritage without being overly weighed down by its history. Both seek creative outlets beyond music. Both are damn hard workers and finally, both are incredibly personable.
I caught up with Spradlin over a couple of whiskies at the Capital Hotel Bar to talk about his relationship with Mathus. Now, if you've ever spent any time at all with Spradlin, you know he's an entertaining and lively teller of stories, another thing he has in common with Mathus.
"When it comes to playing live, Jimbo is a true warrior," Spradlin said. "He has taken me to a lot of towns in Mississippi I had never been to and that is saying something."
A few days later, out of the blue, I got a fairly colorful text message from Spradlin: "Jimbo Mathus is that last of the Mississippi troubadours. The bastard son of Jessie Mae Hemphill if her baby-daddy was Jimmie Rodgers."
Mathus would have another brush with Arkansas musical lore in 2004 when he was contacted by Jonesboro guitarist Matt Pierce. Pierce had been playing with Arkansas rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess and thought it would be a good move for Burgess to go to Clarksdale, Miss., to record at Mathus' studio, using vintage equipment. Those recordings haven't yet seen the light of day, but hopefully will soon.
But Pierce had a dual purpose in contacting Mathus. His pitch? He thought Mathus should start a country band and that Pierce himself should be his "Telecaster man." What's more, Pierce said he sweetened the deal with the promise of securing genuine Nudie suits for him and Mathus, a promise he fulfilled through a financial backer in Jonesboro and connections to one of Nudie's successors. Who could turn that down? According to Mathus, Pierce's timing was spot on. Mathus had a well-respected blues trio going at the time but was ready to diversify his sound.
"Have you ever heard a blues bassman trying to play a country bassline?" Mathus asked me. "It just don't work." Pierce's trip to Clarksdale would be the start of what would eventually become the Tri-State Coalition.
By this point, in 2004-2005, things were starting to click with Pierce and Mathus. But the two musicians' lives became even more entwined after Pierce gave his sister Jennifer's number to Mathus.
"I saw two people that looked like they needed someone," Pierce said. Jennifer was just back in Arkansas after having lived in Ireland, and she was more than a little reluctant to answer when Mathus called to ask her out. But she finally agreed to go on a date.
"Well, he was willing to drive an hour and a half from his place in Mississippi to Jonesboro, Ark.," she said. "I didn't feel like I could say no." On a hot summer day they went fishing and caught a solitary sun perch. A month later they would be engaged.
Another Arkansas/Mathus connection involves Conway native and fellow Fat Possum recording artist Jim Mize, who has been working on a new album of his own. In the past he has enlisted Tennessee guitar wizard John Paul Keith for studio work. Keith was not available for a session due to scheduling issues but Mathus was. The two had not worked together before, but Mize, familiar with Mathus' resume, was willing and eager to give it a go. He was impressed with the results. "We went into the studio as musical strangers and walked out as musical brothers," Mize said of the recording.
Going in that studio was key, because it gave Mathus a chance to walk into Fat Possum at just the right time. Given the considerable overlap between what Mathus does and what Fat Possum does, you have to ask: Why did it take so long for the two to come together? It's not for lack of trying. Mathus said he has pretty much sent the label everything he has done. This time he handed them "White Buffalo" and it was exactly what they'd been looking for from him.
" 'White Buffalo' is named for and written for Takota, the pure white (not albino) buffalo that died at Tupelo Buffalo Park in Tupelo, Miss., two years ago. They are incredibly rare and considered omens, blessings and frequently fulfill prophecy. He represents to me a deeper level of our local culture and mythology here in the hilly country of North Mississippi," Mathus told me.
There is much to like on the record, which may well be Mathus' best work to date. It's a mixed bag that conjures up everything from Hendrix to Hank Sr. without aping or simply mimicking anything along the way.
Found within the album's 10 tracks are blistering Southern rock riffs, heartfelt reflective ballads, back-road pop tunes and eerie midnight highway dirges. The record really seems to show off Mathus' songwriting and the Tri-State Coalition's versatility while Eric "Roscoe" Ambel's production keeps them reined in just enough. Ambel's relationship with Mathus is a new one and I hope it continues. It's early in '13 but I am sure that "White Buffalo" will be one of my favorite albums of the year.
Mathus isn't shy about expressing his pride in the album.
"As far as the recording itself, I've made some good recordings, but none great like this. I've had some great bands but none like Tri-State Coalition. I've written some good songs but none like these. The Mayan calendar has rolled over. This seems like a new beginning to me."
On Feb. 15, Jimbo Mathus & the Tri-State Coalition play an album release show at the White Water Tavern, a venue that has hosted Mathus and company many times. It's no surprise then that Matt White, one of the owner/operators of the White Water, is a longtime supporter and patron of Mathus and his music. So on the off chance that the record doesn't grab you, the live show certainly will. "Watch his eyes when he performs," White said. "There is an electrifying charisma and he believes in every damn word that he sings and note that he plays."