Page 2 of 3
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.
A&E Feature / To-Do List / In Brief / Movie Reviews / Music Reviews / Theater Reviews / A&E News / Art Notes / Graham Gordy / Books / Media / Dining Reviews / Dining Guide / What's Cookin' / Calendar / The Televisionist / Movie Listings / Gallery Listings