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Published: 2011/06/07
by Brian Robbins

Confederate Buddha, Indeed: the Wit and Wisdom of Jimbo Mathus

I never met Woody Guthrie.

I never met Huck Finn, Will Rodgers, Ghandi, Jim Dickinson, Bob Marley, or the Cat In The Hat.

I haven’t met Jimbo Mathus, either, but I’ve talked with him. And I can honestly tell you this, boys and girls: take the soul, the humor, the funk, the mysticism, and the wisdom of those mentioned above – both real and fictional characters – mix it up with a bit of gris-gris and some Mississippi mud, put a guitar in its hands and what will you have?

Jimbo Mathus. I kid you not.

Mathus, known for his years at the helm of the eclectic Squirrel Nut Zippers, has put together a band totally in sync with his vision of “interplanetary honky tonk.” The Tri-State Coalition (Eric Carlton, piano; Matt Pierce, guitar; Justin Showah, bass; Austin Marshall, drums) match Mathus’ every whim, quirk, groove, and hoot on their new Confederate Buddha album. The music may be rooted deeply in Mathus’ beloved Mississippi Hill Country, but the messages contained within the dozen tracks came from – and reach out to – some place far, far away.

Transcribing a conversation with Mathus is a challenge. Once he gets going, the rest of the piece could be in italics with breaks for laughter every few sentences.

But there’s lots worse things.

Come spend a few minutes in the Hill Country with Jimbo Mathus. From where he’s standing, you can see the whole universe.

BR: Jimbo, before we get into the album itself, I wanted to ask you how the floods in Mississippi were affecting where you folks are.

JM: Right now I’m at my studio here in Como, MS – in what we call the “Hill Country” – so I’m a ways from all that. We’re fine where we are.

What’s bad is the levee situation. The lowest point of the Mississippi levee system is down around Yazoo City up to Greenville – physically, those are the lowest levees at that part of the river. Those are overflowing and having some slide-offs and sand boils, where the pressure pushes water under the levees. They’re working pretty hard down there to maintain them. I have a lot of good friends and family down around that way.

BR: Man, people always joke with me about our winters when they find out I’m from Maine, but … so what? We don’t have anywhere near the kind of weather and worries that you folks do down there. We feel for you, believe me.

JM: Well, when you live in the wake of the Mississippi River, anything can be expected, man. You never want to be complacent, because that river is draining the entire continent down here. It’s quite a beast.

BR: Which brings me to “Cling To The Roots” off the new album. “Cling to the roots and you won’t wash away when the river starts rising.” The first time I listened to that, it made the hair stand right up on my arms.

JM: Wow … well, thank you.

BR: I know nobody wants to be a prophet when it comes to things of that nature – the last thing you want is to be proven right. When did you write “Cling To The Roots”?

JM: One of the reasons I’m putting it out is because I do want to talk about it; I wrote it in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill and the floods in Nashville. It was just kind of a feeling that I had that more was on the way.

BR: Oh, man …

JM: Yeah … right after the oil spill last year, we took a trip to the coast – my wife and I and my band, The Tri-State Coalition. I said, “Boys, let’s load up the van; we’re going down there.”

There’s a place I play – a chain of barbeque huts down there called The Shed. They have good P.A.s and have blues and rock ‘n’ roll bands come in and play. I called my friend Brett Orrison and I said, “Hey, we’re coming down to the coast – I want to see this first hand.”

A lot of the people that were at The Shed concerts we played in the evenings were Coast Guard and people that were there to help. It was a very moving week for me … and that’s when I really put that song together.

BR: What you were feeling comes through, but as tragic as the circumstances in the song are, there’s still hope … it deserves to be heard by anyone who’s known that kind of hardship.

JM: Yeah, it’s a song of hope – but it’s also saying that the earth and nature are bigger than all of us. No matter what our perspective is; our attitude; our political party; whatever – one thing will equalize us and there’s no denying it: Mother Nature, man. (laughs)

BR: We learned that growing up and working on the water.

JM: (laughs) Oh, yeah – you know what I’m talking about!

BR: We can talk and be as cocky as we want, but Mother Nature will always put us in our place when she wants to.

JM: And that’s when all you can do is cling to the roots. The Bible says, “He hideth my soul in the cleft of a rock,” you know? The rocks and the roots are the foundation that we walk on, so … I say whatever your roots are, cling to ‘em. (laughs)

BR: Right on, right on. Well, let’s see … I guess before we talk more about specific tunes on the album, I wanted to ask you about the production and the sound you captured during the sessions. When I wrote the review, the way I described the sound of the album was, “Sometimes the music is right in your face; sometimes it’s right in your lap; but it’s always right there.”

JM: (laughs) I’ve basically been using the same recording techniques since back in the 90s. We use a big room and a big ribbon mic and we usually don’t have headphones – we play at a quiet enough volume that you can hear. That’s the old-time recording technique: balance the musicians off the mic by putting them in different places in the room.

I remember listening to Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes all the time in my early 20s. You could hear them moving around the room – you could actually feel it, man. Me, I’m not a technology person; I really just came across my gear by random accident. I’m not a gearhead at all. I just worked with what I had and came up with a sound of my own. But, yeah – listening to those Basement Tapes and knowing that they were moving around in the room … it added more to the music, you know?

BR: There’s something about the drama of a picker closing in on the mic so he can drive something home that’s altogether different than someone sliding the fader on a mixing board …

JM: You got it! (laughs) Yeah – you got it. And not only that; you don’t have the safety net of technology. The way a lot of the music that we all admire got recorded wasn’t with technology … it was recorded with primitive tools. It was a singer walking up to the mic. He and his band at that point in time had to come together to make that recording, man. It’s a sacred moment … and it’s kinda crazy if you think about it too much, you know? (laughs)

BR: Was there one particular room that you used for this album?

JM: It was all done right here in my Delta Recording Service in Como, MS. We share a building with the Post Office here in Como – it’s a one-horse town. (laughs) We’re in a big, high-ceilinged, long building – an old grocery store.

BR: Yeah – I can imagine it.

JM: I just used those same sound techniques I’ve used over the years: dampened the sound, set my mics up, and started recording. (laughs)

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