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Free Rice Play and Feed a Hungry Person! 24 Hour Streaming Folk Music

James Mathus Links

Squirrel Nut Zippers
Knockdown Society

James “Jimbo” Mathus
Interviewed by Mark Gresser and Big Joe V.
James “Jimbo” Mathus is the guitarist with his Knockdown Society and founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He grew up in a house that was filled with instruments and musicians. His birthplace was Clarksdale, Mississippi where he was steeped in the music of the South. Early on he was exposed to primarily white forms like Country and Western, bluegrass and rockabilly but as he began to develop his own uniqueness, he followed the road of black Delta bluesmen. His wanderings and avoidance of the tender clutches of the Mississippi state penal system eventually placed him in North Carolina and we pick up the story there, in an interview that Dr. Blues and Big Joe V. had backstage at the Westbury Music Fair in New York, where Mathus opened for Buddy Guy.

MG: Did you have any formative experiences? Were there things that were a big influence on your future direction?

JM: My family and growing up in the family band. That and running around Mississippi and getting in some pretty tight scrapes with the law and ending up going out on the riverboats, working as a deck hand. I got my story together and traveled, looking for a place to move. I wanted to do music full time and I knew I couldn’t do it in Mississippi. On the boat, you work shifts of 30 days on, 30 days off so I started traveling a lot, looking around. I ended up in North Carolina, which is where I am now, in the Durham area. I started the Squirrel Nut Zippers with my wife and that gave me a foot in the door of the music biz. I wanted to be in music but success is being in a place where I was as good as I wanted to be. That was my success. I wasn’t sending tapes to record companies or even thinking of it. When I moved to North Carolina, I was 21 and didn’t dream of being a rock star like you might at 16. I said, “I know when I get there, someone’ll come and pick me out.” If I’m there, it’ll happen on its own. That was my philosophy. That happened when I put the Squirrel Nut Zippers together for my wife. She had never done music. She had never sung or played on instrument until she met me. I have banjos and guitars all over the house. I’m always practicing songs over in the corner and she just got frustrated and said she’s going to learn how to play the banjo. The first song I ever showed her was “Jesus on the Mainline” by Mississippi Fred. One day, I was out on the porch around back and I hear this voice coming from around the house. She was singing to herself and I just came into the hall and listened. Later that night, I told her “that was really pretty, your singing.” I said she should sing with me and I started to bring her out. She tried to sing some country, but her voice wasn’t right for it. She loves Billie Holiday and had a lot of old 78s with different female jazz singers so I said, “Let’s learn some of this stuff.” I tried to figure out the guitar. You know, I didn’t know any jazz but I knew “Salty Dog.” Jazz is just like a 1, 6, 2, 5 progression so I could get in a little bit. I tried to learn “St. Louis Blues.” It just fed me up going from major to minor, from 2 to… but Robert Johnson has these diminished chords like in jazz, so I had some idea of how to do it. I remember trying to learn “St. Louis Blues” off that old Bessie Smith record. It’s just old creepy organ and you can’t tell what the chords are. I struggled for weeks and weeks until finally I figured it out. It’s the 1 then to major 2 that was a breakthrough. That’s the way the band started, doing that sound. She’d pick a song and I’d figure out the key and transpose it. We did that for 6 months or a year when I told her I had a friend who plays string bass that I was going to invite over. She said that she never played for anyone else but she got over that and then I tried different people out. We were just having parties. I never realized that the Squirrel Nut Zippers would be so influential. All I was trying to do was get something like where I grew up, where people could come over and have parties and play music in the house and have fun. Before we knew it, we played at this café in Chapel Hill where we did a show for about 20 people and, before we knew it, we had a record company knocking on the door. Within 6 months from that first gig, we had a record out.

MG: You set the trend for the new swing bands. Why did you name the band the Squirrel Nut Zippers?

JM: It’s the name of a little candy you get in NC, like a Mary Jane.

MG: What about the Knockdown Society?

JM: It’s something I made up, but the biggest thing that lead me to where I am now was Rosetta Patton. She was my baby sitter when I was growing up in Clarksdale. She’s from Duncan. Her mother was named Martha Brown and she was married to Charlie Patton and that’s when I found out Rosetta was Charlie Patton’s daughter. I did “Songs for Rosetta.” I said to myself that I want to do a Delta record. I had 3 or 4 records with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and had a little money. I could do whatever I wanted to so, I did it. I mean, all I practiced when I was with Squirrel Nut Zippers was the blues and all I listen to is Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton so I said, “I’m gonna do it.” Plenty of white boys have done it. I hadn’t wanted to but I then said that I am going to do it for Rosetta so I had a reason to raise some money. That broke the ice for me and I did some blues and gospel and stuff that’s much more in my heart. The Zippers went on and did more records but, right now, this is a full-time thing for me. It’s been that way for 2 years. I go to Memphis or Clarksdale to play. I do little tours in the South like Georgia and Florida.

JV: You are on Sweet Tea. (Buddy Guy’s new release)

JM: I hooked that up through the Zippers. I met the producer of Sweet Tea. He wanted Spam from T-model Ford to play drums. Spam blew his mind. He had a guy to play bass and he wanted a rhythm guitar man, he wanted that North Mississippi Hill thing and he couldn’t find the right one. He tried to get Luther to do it, from the North Mississippi Allstars, but Luther said, “what about Jimbo?” This was two summers ago. He said “whatever” but then another guy recommended me, a producer who had been with the Zippers and he heard me sitting around picking blues and he talked to me. I had two recommendations so the guy says “OK, if Luther and Ethan Allen say you’re the man, I guess, you’re the man, come on.” I’m not playing with him on tour, he has his Legends band but I did do the record.

MG: You also have a new one, National Antiseptic. It’s similar to Songs for Rosetta but harder. You were involved with North Mississippi Allstars’ Shake Hands With Shorty too. How about that. It seems that your album is influenced by that kind of sound.

JM: It is, it totally is. There are three main things, R.L. (Burnside), T-model, Junior Kimbrough and Sweet Tea. After all that and hanging out with Luther since Rosetta. He’d give me a song like “Done Got Old” off Junior Kimbrough’s first album and say, “Teach this to Buddy Guy.” You try to learn that song, much less teach it. What about “Stay All Night, Stay A Little Longer.” It ain’t easy. You can’t just go out and buy the tablature for it. I have the CDs and have been wearing them out since they first came out. The producer told me that he needed me to “come in here with a good idea of how to get this band together.”

MG: How do you teach Buddy, who’s steeped in Chicago electric…?

JM: I didn’t teach Buddy. I got the form for the songs that me and Spam and Bassman could play. We worked for a week before Buddy got there and we stuck to our guns. The producer worked with us on the arrangements, organizing chaos. The whole North Mississippi thing is chaos. There are no forms, there are no set bars, there’s nothing. You follow whoever’s in charge. You follow the man who is singing. Even with all the clams and f-ups, it still sounds good. This sound is what is saving the blues. My thing was to keep the chaotic feel, the weird 7, 8, 9 bars but put it into some long pattern that you can follow over and over again. Then the producer just pointed at Buddy when he wanted him to sing. Of course, there’s not many lyrics to these songs. Just “love me baby, love me all night long” and that’s it. He would then point when he wanted a Buddy solo. The song that finally got him to think it was something he could do was “Tramp” because he had already heard the Lowell Fulsom version and that got him interested. We really did Jr. Kimbrough’s version, though.

MG: What is National Antiseptic? Is it a patent medicine? It’s a name that has a real Americana feel.

JM: That’s something I made up that only means something to me. I’ve got the song “Drinking Antiseptic,” a Lonnie Pitchford song. I do my own twist on it, but I wanted something patriotic sounding. First, I wanted Government Antiseptic. The song tells the story of how the government store on the Choctaw reservation sells Dr. Tishner’s mouthwash and that the Indians were drinking it. I went down to the res in 1985 in Philadelphia, Mississippi and I got the line, “give me a ride down to the reservation….” But anyway, they were drinking this antiseptic all night long because no alcohol was allowed to be sold there. They sold walls and walls of Dr. Tishner’s mouthwash. They knew why it was so popular and that became the idea for National Antiseptic. It was sarcastic and patriotic at the same time.

MG: Anything else going on in North Carolina? Any bands, what’s the scene like?

JM: Well, Hobex is a great soul-blues band out of there. They’re about to sign with Tone-Cool. There’s a great jazz-funk-soul group called Countdown Quartet that has two records out on Yeprock and they’re starting to get out. Those are about the best two in North Carolina. Of course, there’s the Patrick Smith band out of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Otherwise, I generally listen mostly to my friends like North Mississippi Allstars.

MG: Any future plans?

JM: I’m going to keep on with the Knockdown Society and get back to the studio. My next record’s gonna be good. I’d like to stay with Mammoth. The Squirrel Nut Zippers were there and Knockdown is. We’re the only ones left from the old days.

MG: What do you think the blues is going to do in this century?

JM: Well, it’ll stay alive like it always has. Like I said earlier, one of the reasons is Fat Possum. They won’t sell a million records but they’ll still hook people. It’s getting a little bland and washed out but they’ve injected a lot of piss and vinegar back into it. That will influence a lot of people. They’ll take off on that and make their own stuff. To me, Fat Possum over the past 10 years has been like Chess was with the Stones and all. There’ll be lots of copies. The blues’ll still go through phases. I’ll do my part, that’s all I have to say. I’m working it. I gotta go and play now. Thanks!

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