The late, great producer, raconteur, pianist, session man, artist and sage Jim Dickinson once called Jimbo Mathus “the singing voice of Huck Finn.” Outside the South, Jimbo is likely best known as the ringleader of the 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. 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 “innerplanetary honky-tonk” for the masses. His credits include vocals on the North Mississippi Allstars’ Electric Blue Watermelon and was, himself, Grammy-nominated for his participation on the Jim Dickinson memorial album, Onward and Upward as a member of Luther Dickinson & The Sons of Mudboy. He also joined forces with Luther and Alvin Youngblood Hart, forming the retro-roots “supergroup” South Memphis String Band whose Memphis International debut was Home Sweet Home.
He recorded Confederate Buddha, his forthcoming solo album to be released by Memphis International on May 24 with his current band, The Tri-State Coalition, featuring solid talent cut from the same Delta cloth. He describes the sound as “…a true Southern amalgam of blues, white country, soul and rock-n-roll.” The idea behind the album’s title germinated from Jimbo’s interest in regional folklore and art forms. “I got the (Alan) Lomax book [The Land Where The Blues Began] and found myself going where he went and those same places, the same churches are still there and I was finding these weird country people who are backwoods bodhisattvas – oracles, rural sages who are so wise and of the past projecting an image of both peace and rebellion.
“Confederate Buddha is the first album I’ve written and recorded with a band in mind,” he notes, having previously based his recordings around songs rather than players and says the result has a “southern rock feel to it.” For the past two years, he’s been with these same cats – fellow Mississippians Justin Showah (bass, vocals) who also co-produced and co-engineered and Eric Carlton (keyboards), Arkansan Matt Pierce (guitar) and drummer Austin Marshall from Missouri a/k/a the “Tri” in “Tri-state.” The result is a sound that’s coherent and rock solid. These core players were augmented by guests Forest Parker, Billy Earhart, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, Paul Taylor, Paul Morelli, Steve Selvidge, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Brian Ledford along with Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Gin Gin Carlton and Rosamond Posey, a/k/a The White Angels.
The tunestack for Confederate Buddha recasts Jimbo as a latter day Siddhartha, journeying forth into a (Southern) world of wonders and revelations. He offers some insights into that journey:
“’Jimmy The Kid’ is kind of my theme song and it’s a bit autobiographical but it’s really about my dad. I wrote it when he got sick a while ago.” We must add that the overall sound is “tuff” and, yes, that’s how it should be spelled in this context.
“Cling To The Roots’ is my favorite song on the album; we were playing a string of rib joints around the Gulf last July when the BP spill was happening; there was an apocalyptic vibe with all these people in orange hazmat suits running around and I was thinking of Katrina and the Nashville flood. It kind of hit me while I was back in the van: it was a biblical, Old Testament situation.”
“’Wheel Upon Wheel’ is just some philosophical stuff about the interconnectedness of everything with some end of times lyrics in it. I was in Italy and hadn’t had a lot of sleep and thought about Hindu teachings and waiting for the avatar; it’s not from that movie.”
“’Town With No Shame’ is just a very country, very honky tonk song. I wrote it in the hope it would sound good in a juke box in Memphis.”
“’Leash My Pony’ is some country blues with a Ry Cooder influence via Jim Dickinson, what my dad would call ‘west coast ‘jankey’ blues.’ Took a little from Charlie Patton, too.”
“‘Walks Beside’ is just a love song, pure and simple.”
“’Glad It’s Dark’ is my idea of a creepy pop song. I once lived with a blind woman in Tallulah Bankhead’s mansion in Como, Mississippi. Southern gothic, of course, is my bent.”
“’Aces & Eights’ was written after a visit to Deadwood, South Dakota. I had this one around for a while – before the Deadwood TV series. I was fascinated with the story of Wild Bill Hickcock’s killing by the coward Jack McCall. Wild Bill was holding three aces and two eights when he was shot and that become known as the dead man’s hand. He was a bad card player and blew through lots of money but the irony is that he was holding a good hand at the end.”
“’Too Much Water’ is just an end of the line, bitter love song kind of thing. You know, it’s over when you’re getting blamed for everything including natural disasters.”
“’Kine Joe’ is a voodoo dance number. I’m a longtime student of New Orleans oils, unguent and candles and have been frequenting a spiritual shop down there and going to Mardi Gras since I was a teen-ager.”
“’Shady Dealing’ is strictly a rock ‘n’ roll number.”
“’Days of High Cotton:’ In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ So we have some of his imagery in there, contrasting the state of the Delta today where there’s endemic poverty and ruin to its salad days. I’m just more at home in Mississippi than any other place; my forebears on my mothers side came here from Italy to pick cotton around Clarksdale, home of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Sam Cooke and my father’s side is from near Shiloh, in the north east. “
Confederate Buddha tracklisting
1. Jimmy The Kid (3:09)
2. Cling To The Roots (3:16)
3. Wheel Upon Wheel (3:18)
4. Town With No Shame (4:14)
5. Leash My Pony (3:10)
6. Walks Beside (4:07)
7. Glad It’s Dark (3:11)
8. Aces & Eights (4:53)
9. Too Much Water (4:09)
10. Kine Joe (3:30)
11. Shady Dealing (2:41)
12. Days of High Cotton (5:24)
All titles written by James H. Mathis
Produced, mixed and engineered with love by Justin Showah and Jimbo Mathus
Mastered by Brad Blackwood, Euphonic Mastering, Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis International Records catalog # DOT 0226