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Published: 2013/03/19
by Brian Robbins

Jimbo Mathus & The Tri-State Coalition: Ridin’ the White Buffalo

Welcome to Jimbo Mathus’ world of interplanetary honky-tonk: a place where twang and zen and tube amps and good karma and hoo-doo and doo-bee dom dom dwell in perfect harmony. The latest dispatch from Jimbo’s parallel universe (rooted within the four walls of his Delta Recording Service in Como, MS) is White Buffaloand it is his best album to date.

There are three keys to what makes White Buffalo so good. First you have Mathus’ ever-growing talents as a songwriter, combined with a knack for nailing complex emotions and philosophies with an economy of words. Also essential to the album’s vibe is the synchronicity of Jimbo and producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel – who locked in on what White Buffalo was intended to be from the beginning, leaving Mathus free to sing and play his ass off. And then there’s Mathus’ team of killer players, The Tri-State Coalition: Terrence Bishop on drums; Ryan Rogers on bass; Eric Carlton on keys; and Matt Pierce on guitar. The single best word to describe their sound is “authentic” – whether the tune they’re playing at any given moment would be more at home at the Opry or the Fillmore East. Just as the Mississippi River’s waters have traveled a long, long way by the time they reach the Delta, Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition’s sound is fed by everything they’ve absorbed in their lives … and it appears they’ve absorbed a lot.

We recently had an opportunity to talk with Mathus about the new album – a chat with off ramps that (naturally) led to many places along the way, including sweet ol’ mandolins, wives as best friends, gris gris, and Jesse James.

Our conversation begins with Jimbo calling me – and when I answer the phone, I hear music. It’s definitely Jimbo, doing an a cappella version of … well … I can’t tell what it is, but it sounds like something you’d hear on a Sunday morning. I let him go for a few moments and then …

BR: Jimbo!

JM: (stops mid-verse as if he’s surprised there’s someone on the other end of the phone) Hey! What’s up, Brian?

Checking in on you, man. How’re you doing?

Good! How you be?

Doing all right up here in the frozen north. (laughter)

Listen: I sure do appreciate what you and Jambands and Relix have done for us – this piece and the album review and premiering the “White Buffalo” “video.”:

It’s all much appreciated, man, and I want to thank you.

Well, as far as my part in any of it, if it wasn’t a great album, I wouldn’t be writing about it. You and the boys should be awfully proud of White Buffalo.

We are. It’s really woke me up and made me realize how I have to be pretty serious about things this year. Just try to see the thing through and see where it leads us, you know? Everybody in the band is fired up and it’s a good place to be.

To me, the Tri-State Coalition is more than just a band of great players; it feels like they’re in tune with where you’re coming from.

You hit the nail on the head. That’s the difference between this record and probably any solo record I’ve ever done. Instead of having different players coming and going out of my space, this is a team. It’s all live. People tell me it sounds so polished, and I tell ‘em, “Man it’s all live. No overdubs.”

I was going to ask you about that, as there are things that I’m hearing that feel like reactions to what someone else is playing at that moment; no gimmicks – just emotion.

Yeah, and there’s a lot of good space in there. I turned the reins over for this one – I’ve been a producer and I’ve done a lot of that on and off for the past couple of decades – but I turned the reins over to Roscoe totally. He used my studio and my sort of philosophy and technique – no headphones; you just pile up in a good-sounding room – and he tweaked it from there. He sculpted the sound with more space in it and just made sure that every note was where we wanted it. He did an incredible job.

We’ll talk about specific songs in a minute, but one thing I wanted to mention is the thread of spirituality that I’ve long felt has run through your tunes. You have a knack for writing about some pretty heavy stuff in a manner that doesn’t seem heavy.

(laughs) Yeah, I don’t hit you over the head with it. I’ve learned how to do that over the years. I’ve always been interested in the spiritual life that is this world. It’s just something that I was seeing at an early age and pursued on my own … and it’s always been a part of my music; what I read; my travels; the people I gravitate towards. And it’s hard to express sometimes what it is … it’s like an illusion, but it’s the only illusion we have. (laughs) Soul music is music of the soul; the intangible, the unreal side … and that’s just where it’s at for me.

And as far as writing about heavy things and making them not seem heavy, that’s what I try to do – I know I’ve done a good job with a song when I do that. And it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do; you don’t want to preach to people and I don’t want to be rambling on and on – I like to get the job done in a couple of verses, you know? (laughs) Pack the words and verses with meaning so that they’ll tell a story that’s beyond even what the words are.

You manage to paint big pictures on White Buffalo without wasting any words to do it.

Thank you; I think it’s a good, straight-forward batch of material and I’m very, very happy with it.

Well, how about we take a look at some of that material. That’s a brave little mandolin that ushers in the album on “In The Garden”. What are you playing there?

That’s my original mandolin that I got for my birthday when I was 8 years old. It wasn’t my first one – I learned on more of an inexpensive model when I was around 6 … but then they could see I was going to stick with it so they got me a nice one. It’s a hand-crafted Alvarez from … ’76, I guess. They don’t make ‘em any more but they’re very nice. That was my first instrument.

It was actually Roscoe’s idea to bring the song in with the mandolin rather than the guitar riff and I think it’s great. It takes the record off in a great direction.

And the way that everybody folds in behind you is like a cross between the Celtic Highlands, a Tibetan mountaintop, and a little bit of E Street Band, too.

I love it! (laughs) Plus a little bit of swamp in there, too.

I know you co-credit Reverend Reed on that tune. Tell me about him.

Oh, sure: his name is Robert Earl Reed. He lives in Sardis, MS and he’s been a collaborator of mine since 2008 or 2009. He’s one of those people who I know what he’s going to think before he even thinks it … and it’s the same for him. He’s an artist – a visual artist and a songwriter and a photographer and a writer – and he enjoys all of it equally. Reverend Reed’s never really done it in the spotlight; I guess you could say he’s a private artist.

I would advise you to look him up; he has a lot of great art of his own. He’s one of the few songwriters that I’ll hear and say, “Wow – I wish I’d written that.” (laughs) Or maybe say to him, “Reverend, I’d like to steal that.” (laughter)

I appreciate you asking about him; you’re the first to do that. I usually don’t have any other writers, but with the Reverend, I make the exception. We balance each other out well. On my website, you’ll see three different videos that he and I have created, including the “White Buffalo” video.

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