He wore it more clearly on his sleeve back in the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ heyday of the mid-‘90s. Amid the deeply derivative swing revival they were initially lumped into, the Zippers stood out as a different bowl of gumbo altogether. They combined the adroit gypsy jazz stylings of Django Reinhardt, the jauntiness of Dixieland, and the askew sense of humor of the B-52’s into something genuinely unique, coalescing perfectly on hits like “Hell.”
That said, “There’s a huge difference between the Zippers and what I’m doing now,” as Mathus told You Hear This? in an interview. “It was a collaboration, for one thing, but it was more of a kind of…act. We were sincere about it, but at the same time there were wigs and costumes and all that.”
White Buffalo, Mathus’ latest record with the Tri-State Coalition, is “more personal” by comparison; “It’s my own music,” Mathus said. The album was released by the Oxford, Mississippi label Fat Possum Records on January 22. Mathus is touring the South in support of that record, and he’ll be stopping at WorkPlay on Friday, February 1 to open for Memphis country-punk band Lucero.
“Anybody that comes to my show expecting the Squirrel Nut Zippers is gonna be sorely disappointed,” Mathus said with a laugh. Mathus’ solo work has been more subdued, by and large, and he’s been vexed by working in genres that are terminally vague, such as Americana, Singer-Songwriter, and Alternative. He’s been heading down that path for over a decade; “Anybody that’s followed me for a minute is not that shocked with White Buffalo,” he pointed out.
As he’s been for a long time, Mathus is a protean songwriter. On White Buffalo, he shifts gears from soulful folk songs with heavy religious overtones to organ-tinged blues to hard-edged juke-joint rock, abetted at every turn by a very game band. “To me, it doesn’t seem like I’m jumping around a lot,” Mathus said. “To me, it seems like all of a piece, of music, of culture. You’ll hear something that comes out like a Baptist hymn…or something like a weird, country psychedelia. That’s just my aesthetic. I don’t see the difference in those things.”
This genre hopping is indicative of Mathus’ intrinsic intellectual wanderlust. To hear him tell it, it may be genetic: “My whole life I’ve been traveling. My parents were voracious adventurers, characters in their own right.” In addition to consistently hopping trains and hitchhiking as a teenager, he was also an insatiable reader, taking in poetry, medieval alchemy, Latin studies and more as one rich pageant during his college years.
Ironically, Mathus found that he didn’t have to travel far at all to find inspiration. “Growing up in Mississippi,” he said, “we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cable TV…it was really trapped in the past. Not of this modern world. And I think it’s fantastic. It’s shaped my whole life.” He’s endowed with the peculiar romanticism of Northeast Mississippi one also finds in the sons and daughters of Alabama’s Black Belt. To him, Faulkner and Elvis are “one and the same. It’s a watershed that changed the world. Faulkner, living in New Albany, just a few miles out of Tupelo, was a Nobel Prize-winning author. In the middle of nowhere. It’s like, why? Why Elvis?”
Whatever the reason, Mathus came to believe in earnest that there was something special about the South. About its people, its music, and its culture. “I really try to stand for the best parts of the South: the openness, the warmth and generosity, the eccentricity, the intelligence—that’s what my music stands for.”
“I’ve been blessed to have been taught by great Southerners,” he continued, “and to have learned so much from them.” Buddy Guy, who will be performing at Alys Stephens on February 17, is one of them. “He’s from Lettsworth, Louisiana, and even though his life was in Chicago, he’s a Southerner. You can imagine what all you learn from a man like that.”
Mathus also incorporates experiences from his many travels with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, from his parents’ home in the Southwest, and from his trips to L.A., which inspired his song about homelessness on White Buffalo, “Poor Lost Souls.”
“It struck me as a sad state,” Mathus said of his time in L.A. “A prayer needed to be said for these people, living right in the midst of this affluence. People can live like royalty, have their names down on the sidewalks and embossed, and then there’s people sleeping on that.”
There’s an old debate amongst literary types about originality versus authenticity, which hinges on whether the former can be achieved and the latter can be faked. Because of his empathy, his experiences, and his fundamental need to communicate them, Mathus projects an unalloyed authenticity that’s unmistakable in his music.
“We’re not reinventing the music,” he said of his work with the Tri-State Coalition. “There’s no chord progression that hasn’t been played. There’s no tempo that hasn’t already been found. If anything, I’m just moving the dial incrementally at this point. But I am putting my own stamp on it.
“To be authentic…I mean, you can’t fake authenticity. My motive is just to be genuine, to be sincere, to be accurate, and to be powerful with the music I make. The other reasons just disappear.”
After the arch, Brechtian spectacle of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus is an artist who, as he nears 45, is refreshingly honest and free from pretense. Though it hails from simple premises, his music can be tragic, and it can be hilarious, and it can be winning. But most importantly, it rings true.
Lucero, whom Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition are opening for, are likewise bold in their sincerity. And like the Pogues before them, they’ve invested punk rock spirit into an unexpected framework: in their case, country music. All told, WorkPlay is about to feature two bands that embrace, and represent, the very finest of what the South has to offer.
WorkPlay is located at 500 23rd Street S. Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition/Lucero will perform on Friday, February 1 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $17. For more information, call (205) 879-4773.