The late Memphis producer Jim Dickinson once called Jimbo Mathus “the singing voice of Huck Finn.” Outside the South, Mathus is likely known as the ringleader of the hyper-ragtime outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers. In his native Mississippi and throughout the South, however, Mathus is the prolific songwriter of born-in-the-bone Southern music, the torchbearer for Deep South mythology and culture.
He masterminded the hyper-ragtime, jump blues act Squirrel Nut Zippers, something that started as a fun little art project but eventually sold a million-plus CDs in the 1990s, with a standout hit single “Hell” that went gold. Since then, Mathus has released recordings of his own in a style he rightfully describes as Mississippi Music. He has stayed busy with numerous side-projects, as well, working with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Elvis Costello and Buddy Guy. Mathus played guitar on Guy’s critically acclaimed 2001 album Sweet Tea – which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums chart. And can be heard performing rhythm and slide guitar on the blues master’s Grammy-winning 2003 record Blues Singer. Mathus also served as guitarist/bandleader for Guy on tour.
Mathus’ Delta Recording Service, a studio based in Clarksdale, is where artists who want that down-home sound akin to vintage Sun Records go. Costello recorded his Grammy nominated “Monkey to Man” single at Delta Recording Service in 2005. And Mathus has produced two albums there that were nominated for Blues Music Awards in 2006, Duwayne Burnside’s Under Pressure and Big George Brock’s Club Caravan.
As a performer, Mathus contributed vocals on the North Mississippi Allstars’ 2006 Grammy-nominated Electric Blues Watermelon. He recently reteamed with buddy Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart to create the South Memphis String Band, whose first release, Home Sweet Home, is nominated for a Blues Music Award (formerly known as the Handy Awards.) He also collaborated with Luther Dickinson and The Sons of Mudboy on Onward & Upward, nominated for Best Folk Performance in the 2011 Grammy Awards. The album came out in late 2009 and features Mathus on guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals. It honors the late Jim Dickinson and received a glowing review in Rolling Stone magazine. “Jim would have loved the rough edges [and] determined joy,” wrote Senior Editor David Fricke.
Mathus started doing Mississippi Music professionally in between Squirrel Nut Zipper projects. He and some other Zippers went by “James Mathus and the Knockdown Society,” recording three albums together from 1997 to 2002. Around this time, Mathus’ guitar skills started popping up on other high profile releases such as the North Mississippi Allstar’s smash debut Shake Hands with Shorty and Jim Dickinson’s lauded Free Beer Tomorrow. This led to producer Dennis Herring hiring Mathus to play on Sweet Tea. “It was the honor of a lifetime,” Jimbo says of playing with Guy. “I have nothing but respect for the man.” Jimbo’s most recent industry performance was given in the Clive Davis Theater, as the headliner for The Recording Academy’s “Mississippi Music Night at the Grammy Museum” on February 10th, 2011, and was lauded by the LA Times and Billboard.com.
Mathus opened Delta Recording studio in downtown Clarksdale in 2004 and relocated the co-op to Como in 2006. The studio features vintage RCA silver capsule microphones and Pre-Amps like the ones used in the 1940s and 1950s by everybody from Billie Holiday to Elvis Presley. The guitar amps, drums, piano and everything else is old school, too. So is the building. ”It don’t look like it work, but it do; just ask Elvis Costello,” Mathus says.
Jimbo Mathus remains a rising-star powerhouse, creating music that feeds the soul. His latest band, The Tri-State Coalition, features solid talent cut from the same Delta cloth. The band was recently signed by Memphis International records and is set to release their first CD, Confederate Buddha, in May 2011. Mathus describes Tri-State’s sound as “…a true Southern amalgam of blues, white country, soul and rock-n-roll. As [Jim] Dickinson would say, ‘If you don’t like this, there is seriously something wrong with you.’”