Sometimes it is hard to keep pace with Jimbo Mathus's creative path, but he's always made it worth the effort to try. This prolific Mississippian has been making music for decades now, connecting and promoting southern music traditions every step of the way.
Jimbo's first commercial recordings were also his most successful in terms of sales. Back in 1993 with then wife Katherine Whalen, Mathus formed the Squirrel Nut Zippers in North Carolina . The Zippers were a fusion of all kinds of music, but they enjoyed huge early notoriety by getting attached to the "swing" or "lounge" movement during that period.
The Zippers might have been Mathus's biggest taste of mainstream success, but there were early signs that he would continue to explore musically outside of that band. His first solo album Play Songs For Rosetta, recorded at the peak of the Zippers career arc, was a tribute record to Mississippi bluesman Charley Patton and his daughter Rosetta. That album also served to spur the early career momentum of the North Mississippi Allstars as they played on the album and served as the core rhythm section for the accompanying tour.
It should be noted that the creative bond between Mathus and the Allstars Luther Dickinson has long been extremely strong. They've traveled through much of the same musical root system and frequently collaborated along the way. That's why it wasn't surprising that Jimbo chose to follow somewhat of a parallel career path to Luther after the Zippers broke up, choosing to move away from the acoustic roots of the Zipper and Play Songs For Rosetta to venture into the electric jook joint territory that the Allstars were already mining.
Mathus soon followed Rosetta with a series of albums (National Antiseptic, Stop And Let The Devil Ride, Knockdown South) built on this style. Since this music comes naturally to both Mathus and Dickinson, his direction made logical sense, but it did seem to prevent Mathus from fully establishing his own identity as a solo artist. It didn't help that he chose multiple monikers from Jas Mathus to Jim Mathus to James Mathus. This name changing fits Mathus's imaginative persona, but it makes it hard to follow his discography.
In 2006, Mathus turned back towards his previous acoustic stylings when he released Old Scool Hot Wings. The acoustic commitment deepened when Mathus and Dickinson teamed up to form the South Memphis String Band with Alvin Youngblood Hart recording an album (Home Sweet Home) that demonstrated the trio's mutual love for the sounds of acoustic blues. Mathus also was part of the Grammy nominated Sons of Mudboy acoustic tribute album Onward and Upward that Luther recorded to honor his father, the late Jim Dickinson.
Now full circle back to the acoustic leanings of the Zippers, this journey has allowed Mathus to hit the sweet spot of his sound with Confederate Buddha. Since Mathus has proven to be equally adept at nasty blues rock and acoustic, old time country music, he made the wise move of splitting the difference by recording an album that explores a era that often synthesized these sounds - 70s era southern rock and outlaw country.
From the first licks of "Jimi The Kid", Confederate Buddha sound like a lost album from the Capricorn Records catalog from the 1970s. Even though the Allman Brothers were the most successful Capricorn band by a mile, that era of the label featured a treasure trove of southern musical styles and Mathus covers many of them here.
Even within the Allmans, there were differing voices from Gregg Allman's soul and blues to Dickey Betts's country and acoustic leanings. This provided a musical spectrum for the Capricorn bands that followed from the Marshall Tucker Band's country perspective to Wet Willie's high intensity R&B. Even lesser known Capricorn artists stretched boundaries further, such as Cowboy and its acoustic singer-songwriting to Eddie Hinton who released his blue-eyed soul masterpiece Very Extremely Dangerous just as Capricorn was going under.
Although many of these styles are present on Confederate Buddha, Mathus channels another great Capricorn artist on the leadoff track ("Jimi The Kid") - Oklahoma's Elvin Bishop. Bishop's Ozark drawl mixed in with his multi-genred guitar playing and songwriting made for a unique sound. "Jimi The Kid" has Elvin's vibe down pat, whether intentional or a happy accident, due to the Tri-State Coaltion band that Mathus formed for this latest release.
The three states featured in Mathus's Tri-State Coaltion are Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi. "Jimi The Kid" shows right away how seamlessly Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition have united Mississippi's delta sounds with both the Ozarks and wild west cultures shared by Missouri and Arkansas. Don't forget Memphis and its southern soul since it lies right in the middle of all three states.
Needless to say from the span of influences above, Confederate Buddha marks Mathus's most wide ranging album to date. Even though some might hear heavier country leanings in songs like "Cling To The Roots", "Town With No Shame", and "Glad It's Dark", styles and genres weave together to form a distinctively southern tapestry of sound. "Leash My Pony" is blues in structure, but it also features a countryish piano and gospelized background vocals. Even the country songs have a strong soul overtones, reminding us all that soul music still lies at the intersection of country songwriting and gospel fervor.
Most importantly, Confederate Buddha displays Mathus's powerful songwriting skills as each track reveals a sense of heartfelt and raw emotion. He sings throughout of lost loves & heartbreaks ("Too Much Water), natural disasters and their human tolls ("Cling To The Roots"), as well the redemptive power of love ("Walks Beside").
Mathus later sets the legendary story of assassination of Wild Bill Hickock to song within a Tex-Mex troubadour vibe. This song ("Aces & Eights") pays homage to another 70s era great, Doug Sahm. After reaching deep into his New Orleans voodoo bag of tricks to create "Kine Joe", Mathus brings the album home with "Days Of High Cotton", a classic anthem to his Mississippi roots that should become his "Freebird" in the years to come.
Throughout each song on the album, Mathus demonstrates a vocal range to suit each and every style showing yet again how deeply his talents run. Confederate Buddha stands a monumental work and a testament to Jimbo Mathus as performer, singer, songwriter, band leader, stylist, and musical visionary.
Jimbo Mathus has never made it easy on himself or his career as he has followed his heart down several musical roads, but each path has been a worthy ramble for artist and listener. On Confederate Buddha Mathus has finally found a home where he can put down both his heart and hat. As Chris Robinson writes in the album liner notes, "listen to the Mississippi mystic and believe"
- Jim Markel
EXPLORE FURTHER INTO SWAMPLAND...
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Six Degrees of Swampland: Dickinson Famly
(This hub page features links to interviews, features, reviews about all aspects of the Dickinson Family from Jim, his wife Mary, as well as sons Luther and Cody, better known as the North Mississippi Allstars)
Dixie Fried with The High Priest of Memphis Mojo Jim Dickinson
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Luther Dickinson 2008 Interview: The Secret Code of Memphis Guitars
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Capricorn Records Discography 1969 - 1979
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Swampland: Capricorn Records
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