Musician Jimbo Mathus takes his native Mississippi wherever he goes

Contributing Music WriterNovember 16, 2013 

Mississippi-bred guitarist and singer Jimbo Mathus will perform at WoodSongs on Monday.

  • IF YOU GO

    'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Jimbo Mathus, Cynthia Sayer

    When: 6:45 p.m. Nov. 18

    Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

    Tickets: $10. Reservations required; call (859) 252-8888.

    Learn more: Woodsongs.com.

Over the past two decades, the roots-music adventures of Jimbo Mathus have shifted with the regularity and rapidity of a slide show.

One night he might be gigging with a blues great like Buddy Guy or a new-generation contemporary like the North Mississippi All-Stars. Or he might be matching rural blues chops with Alvin Youngblood Hart and Luther Dickinson in the South Memphis String Band.

The Mississippi-bred guitarist, singer and songsmith could be touring with his newest Southern-style roots music troupe, the Tri-State Coalition. Then again, he might just be playing a show on his own or performing behind another like -minded musical pal trying to bring rock, blues, soul and juke-joint charm to the masses.

"I'm kind of a journeyman," said Mathus, who will return to Lexington for Monday's taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "I can play in a solo, duo or trio setting. I play drums sometimes. I play bass sometimes. Sometimes I'm even known as a mandolinist. I frequently play other instruments that I'm not known for just to pay the bills. It's as simple as that. So my repertoire benefits me because I can get into any musical situation and do something that is appropriate. ... And I like it like that."

Much of that journeyman attitude is reflected in the music of the Tri-State Coalition, which touches on numerous roots-friendly styles in the course of a concert or recording. They might rip through a guitar-dominant roadhouse groove in one song, switch to vintage-style honky-tonk on the next and then wind up in a jam overseen by the primal Hill Country blues spirits that Mathus grew up with.

The job that Mathus confronts on the band's two Fat Possum records — the 2012 debut White Buffalo and follow-up Dark Night of the Soul (due for release in February) — is to weave those inspirations into a cohesive sound of his own.

"We're reconfiguring the basic components of this music, and Tri-State is the band that can really roll with the punches I throw at them.

"I've never liked pigeonholing in one style in the first place. I like listening to Buck Owens as much as I liked listening to Muddy Waters. I've never seen the difference between the genres to where I would get classified one set way, and that has probably been difficult on my career — not sticking with one thing. I'm just not satisfied doing that.

"Predominantly, I'm an entertainer and a songwriter. With that, there are certain topics I want to discuss in my songs, but they need to be presented with a certain sound — be it through honky-tonk or something heavier."

Piecing together musical jigsaws is nothing new to Mathus. In 1993, he co-founded the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a roots-music troupe that was essentially unclassifiable as a whole even though its songs referenced jazz, blues, ragtime, folk, swing and even vaudeville.

"The Squirrel Nut Zippers, if you look at the band, was an example of me searching the deepest roots of American popular music. We were starting with Stephen Foster. We were starting with Tin Pan Alley. That was what that group expressed. The research and the energy I put in involved taking the roots all the way back.

"People can call that a swing revival or whatever. It was not a swing revival. The Squirrel Nut Zippers were a roots revival band. It's hard for people to understand that who aren't as deep into this music as I am. It seems like a bunch of disparate elements from the outside to them. But to me, it all makes sense."

Perhaps more than any single dominating influence, Mathus' newer music with the Tri-State Coalition (which will operate at WoodSongs as a trio rounded out by pianist Eric Carlton and bassist Stu Cole) is a product of heritage. A native of Oxford, Miss., Mathus, 46, feels artistic tugs from scores of artists, musicians and writers who have hailed from the region.

"There is everything from Elvis to Howlin' Wolf. There is Memphis to draw from. There is the Delta. There is Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. There is every great writer you can shake a stick at, from William Faulkner to Larry Brown. The list goes on and on. ... Man, I couldn't imagine being from any other place."


IF YOU GO

'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Jimbo Mathus, Cynthia Sayer

When: 6:45 p.m. Nov. 18

Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third St.

Tickets: $10. Reservations required; call (859) 252-8888.

Learn more: Woodsongs.com.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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