Confederate Buddha, Indeed: the Wit and Wisdom of Jimbo Mathus
BR: Cool. How about we take a look at the rest of Confederate Buddha track-by-track?
JM: Yes, sir.
BR: “Jimmy The Kid” – to me, what makes that song is the acoustic guitar that’s underneath everything, driving it along.
JM: That guitar you’re hearing is my old Martin; I put that on pretty much everything in the studio. That’s the heart of a recording to me – whether it’s the Stones or whether it’s Elvis Presley, you know? You got that Martin six-string banging out the rhythm.
BR: I hear you, man.
JM: You’ve got to have it in rock and roll – you’ve got to have an acoustic guitar.
“Jimmy The Kid” is me writing this song in the Southern myth-making tradition of Casey Jones or Jesse James … the different characters that we’ve singled out in our stories to the point where a real human becomes a myth or a folk lore character. I wrote that song for my father … but it’s actually 100% autobiographical, okay? (laughs)
BR: I listened to “Wheel Upon Wheel” with one set of ears and I heard darkness – but I listened to it with another set of ears and I heard hope in it, as well. How does it work for you?
JM: Well … I guess, for me, it’s a song about hope. It’s about being in troubled times and clinging on to the rays of hope; looking for the good in what’s happening. It’s “darkness on darkness,” but then at the end it’s “brightness on brightness.” The line “wheel upon wheel” is about the interconnectedness of all the different philosophies and all the different religions and how they all help these larger cogs in the universe. And how the wheels all fit together and how they layer in ways that we don’t even understand.
You know, it’s kind of based on readings from Hindu stuff and different philosophies that I’m interested in. And it’s using a lot of stuff from the Bible, too – the Four Horsemen and the seven seals-type imagery … it’s a little puzzle I put together. (laughs)
It’s not a normal song for me by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a song like that … but I felt compelled to. I was going to give it away to [bassist/vocalist] Amy LaVere, but when I played it for my wife Jennifer and a couple of the boys in the band, they told me, “You’ve got to keep that; you’ve got to sing that.”
BR: It’s beautiful.
JM: Thank you, sir – thank you.
BR: Listen: it’s not a compliment – it’s a statement of fact.
JM: Yes sir! (laughs) I love it!
BR: You were channeling ol’ Hank on “Town With No Shame”.
JM: Well, if you’re going to play a honky-tonk song, you’re channeling Hank Williams. If you’re not, you’re not doing it properly, you know? (laughter) You’ve got me 100% on that one.
BR: That must’ve been a blast for Forest Parker to play pedal steel on, because he got to do every heartbreaking steel lick he could think of.
JM: (laughs) Oh, yeah. Forest is a veteran around these parts. He’s a world-class pedal steel player, but he’s hardly known outside of this region.
BR: I guess Forest isn’t an official member of The Tri-State Coalition –
BR: But he’s an MVP, for sure.
JM: He’s an honorary member, man – you got it.
BR: You know, I like to think I’m a decent rhythm guitar player for an old white boy from up North, but “Unleash My Pony” really knocked me on my butt. You think there’s going to be another four, but it shifts …
JM: (laughs) That shift is something actually that I’ve been doing for a while. The first song I did it in was “Who’ll Sop My Gravy When I’m Dead And Gone?” that I put out back in, like, ’96 – Luther [Dickinson] played on that.
That shift comes from Charlie Patton. He’d jump the four; and, of course, John Lee Hooker would jump the four; Hound Dog Taylor – the list goes on and on. It was accepted and expected that you could move around like that and the band would follow you.
BR: It’s cool – everybody’s got to be right there. I think there are people who play the blues who start to get lazy –
JM: That’s right! (laughs) You got it: they get complacent. This way, it’s complete improvisation and it’s not codified. But yeah, that jog is from Charlie Patton – he’d jump time a lot. It propels the song … it has a real purpose in the blues – it keeps it moving.
And I was trying to do something funky with a second-line beat; just throwing some stuff together. I put a VI-II-V chord change in it – like a New Orleans change. I try to keep a little New Orleans feeling in all my stuff, you know? Like “Kine Jo”; I like a little second-line feel in my music.
BR: Ah – “Kine Joe”. Tell me the story behind “Kine Joe”.
JM: In New Orleans and different places you got all those little stores that carry these candles and oils and unguents and shit, you know? Gris-gris and all that kind of stuff – little powders and everything. And that’s always fascinated me … like when people light candles and do different things for good luck. Hey – I believe in it. (laughs) It’s my business and I believe in it, so I was thinking I wanted to make up a kind of a voodoo powder name that I had never heard before, you know? You got the “Secrets of the Shifting Sand”, “Come To Me”, “Law Stay Away”, “Adam & Eve” – all these different kinds of powder. So I made up “Kine Joe”. (laughter)