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Jimbo Mathus is serving up fish and Old Scool Hot Wings
By Mark Sanders
Jimbo Mathus, Southern blues-country-rocker, consummate gentleman and occasional hellraiser, is holding a cell phone in one hand and tending a grill with the other. He’s talking with me on the phone while watching his freshly caught fish cook, occasionally breaking away to chat with whomever else is at his afternoon cookout. Yet his propensity to multitask goes far beyond grilling and gabbing.
First time I saw Jimbo was the winter of ’97. He was stealing the show from his fellow bandmembers in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, pounding a walking cane festooned with jingle bells onto the floor of a Nashville bar. When he wasn’t gesturing with his stick, Jimbo would howl into the mic or flash his inimitable smile at audience members--pretty much anything to get the crowd going. The guy was on fire.
And for good reason: The Zippers were riding the wave of their breakthrough album, Hot, and Jimbo, an ebullient multi-instrumentalist from Clarksdale, Miss. (same hometown as John Lee Hooker and Sam Cooke!) had written or cowritten most of its songs, in addition to playing guitar, banjo and piano, and singing.
In the near-decade since the Zippers’ fade from the spotlight, Jimbo’s hardly slowed down, releasing albums under the name Jimbo Mathus, James Mathus and Jas. Mathus & His Knockdown Society. His newest album, Old Scool Hot Wings, is about as weird, hot and down-homey as his many names might lead you to believe.
“I make beer-drinkin’ gospel music!” he shouts, standing over the coals. “That’s just what I do.”
It’s easy to get Jimbo talking about what he does, since he’s played music (though not necessarily gospel) and drunk beer for much of his life. His family, with roots that trace back to the Civil War, has always jammed. Add to that equation hunting and fishing, plus a fat dose of Southern literature (given one person to listen to or read for the rest of his life, he’d choose Faulkner over any musician), and you pretty much have Jimbo.
“Not a lot of people grew up the way I did,” he says, as if to explain the difference between him and the rest of the world. “No cable TV, none of that shit.” He plays grimy, husky-voiced Delta blues music because that’s what he’s always done. It’s part of him.
“People like us are going extinct,” Jimbo continues, his voice crescendoing into a yell.
As if his words aren’t passionate enough, check out Old Scool Hot Wings’ track list and you’ll find one particularly Southern song: “Dixie.” Asked about the political implications of such a divisive anthem, Jimbo says in his not-so-plaintive drawl, “It’s just a good ol’ song. I was a little worried about it, but I liked the take.” So he kept it.
What’s more, he’s been in this business long enough to know not to rely on anyone else’s approval. He knows his brand of front-porch blues music isn’t for everyone, and he isn’t aiming for another hit like he had with the Zippers.
“I basically have my own label,” Jimbo explains. “I’ve been through that whole [fame] thing before … I sell CDs out of the back of my van.”
The blues simply doesn’t get much more user-friendly than that.
Jimbo Mathus plays Wednesday, Sept. 27, at WilLees Blues Club in Santa Fe (401 S. Guadalupe). Call (505) 982-0117 for times and cost.
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