Honest Tune talks with…Jimbo Mathus

I came across the music of Jimbo Mathus as a result of exploring the varied and numerous paths which the Dickinson family has traveled.  It was easy to find Jimbo’s contributions documented in the current Mississippi roots and blues scene, as he has worked with a host of Southern talent.


Jimbo has just finished a new CD entitled Old Scool Hot Wings, recorded on his own vintage equipment, with his own choice of musicians.  He called on the people whom he has grown to love playing with the most but doesn’t see often, and captured down-home jams. The result demonstrates a common appreciation of and ability to perform traditional/roots music in a relevant and highly entertaining manner. The group-think and cohesiveness behind this project comes across loud and clear.


Jimbo is a unique storyteller, a gifted conversationalist, and has mastered the art of composing thoughts for strangers. He is adept at putting people instantly at ease, and one can’t help but immediately become engrossed in his straightforward southern way of expressing himself.  He is deeply steeped in the process of exploring and preserving the integrity of the way music began in this country, and takes the act of producing back to where it once belonged….from the heart and soul.


Jimbo Mathus is an artist who is working expertly at making old sounds familiar to new listeners and his body of work to date indicates that an immense gift has been passed down to him from a musical family, regional heritage and that great juke joint in the sky…the one that hovers over the entire Dirty South.  The ghosts of Mississippi have got nothing on this guy, and Honest Tune contributor Candise Kola is fairly certain they love to haunt him.


Honest Tune:  On your new CD, you called upon some great local talent to join you in its making.  Tell me about the other guests on this CD.  How long have you been playing with most of them?

Jimbo Mathus:  I’ve been playing with most of them off and on for about 10 years.  What I tried to do for this CD is to get the original Songs for Rosetta crew back together.  It’s pretty much the original group.  Luther and Cody Dickinson, Paul Taylor and Steve Selvidge are the core members.  I first met up with them back in 1996.  Some other guests joined me from The Taylor Grocery Band, from Oxford, MS.  I met them back in 1999 when I was working on the Sweet Tea record with Buddy Guy.  I basically consider the guys on this CD some of my best friends.  It was a lot of fun to make it – man, we understand each other pretty well – so it makes recording a lot more fun.


HT:  How did you first learn about the Dickinsons?  Do you remember what the first thing you said to Jim was?  When was the first time you played with Luther and Cody?

JM:  I knew about Jim before I knew about Luther and Cody – through his producing work and such.  I actually first met Luther and Cody when their band, Gutbucket, opened up for my band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. It was the first time SNZ played Memphis at this ‘lil punk club called Barrister’s – it’s closed now.  After that, I started corresponding and trading tapes with Luther. This was right around the time they were just forming The North Mississippi Allstars. 

The first time I met Jim I had come to Memphis to rehearse with Luther and Cody or something like that…they were my back up band for another band of mine called Knockdown South.  They helped with that when I first started the band – before NMA had started. Well, they lived in the basement of their parents’ house at that time – they were both still pretty young, and were sleeping in late.  So I went creepin’ around upstairs in search of a coffee pot…and found Jim up there hanging out.  As I walked towards him he said something like “hey,” and shot me a grin.  I noticed he had a gold tooth up front – just like I do – so I shot him a grin back.  We checked each other’s grins out for a second, and got to talking from there.  It was funny.  That was back when they lived in Hernando (MS).


Jimbo Mathus HT:  How did you come up with the name Old Scool Hot Wings for this record?

JM:  There is a ‘lil BBQ stand in Memphis on hwy 61 that says OLD SCOOL HOT WINGS on the side of it. I just always thought it was funny and would make a great name for a jug band, Memphis Style!


HT:  How long have you been thinking about making this recording?

JM:  Well-I started talking about it last year and finally found a time when everyone was free.  Then, we went ahead and recorded it in a few hours!  The idea really came to me at Luther’s bachelor party.  We all got together for a jam session up in Como, MS.  We just sat around and enjoyed pickin’.  After that I started thinking it was too much fun, and that we ought to get together to record.  We just don’t get to do that kind of thing too much anymore!  Of course, I am blessed to have my own studio, so I can pretty much do what I want to do.


HT:  Did you get a chance to practice them – or did you record on the fly?

JM:  No, we just learned the songs on the fly.  It was a lot of fun.  We only had a couple of mics and there was not a lot of mixing, so what you play is what you get.


HT:  How did you choose the song list?

JM:  Well, you know, I mostly listen to older music anyway.  I do a lot of solo gigs when I’m not on the road with my band so I always have a repertoire of things I’m playing at any given time.  These songs were just the coolest things I had cookin’ at the time.  I always knew I wanted the songs to be Mississippi music. These songs are “roots music.”  I really like to explore that era.


HT:  So far, my favorite song is “Carrier Line.”  I like the rhythm and flow of it, and you sing with so much soul on that one!  What helps you to reach way down there when you’re singing like that?  Do you have to get “in character” when you tell some of these stories?

JM:  I just kinda stay in that frame of mind I guess.  If a song means something to me, it helps.  That song is a real important song to me.  It was written by Sid Hemphill.  It was written back when the terms “black” and “white” music weren’t really used – before it was really even recorded.  Music served another purpose back then actually.  

The purpose of that song was to tell a local story – it has many elements to it.  Basically, it’s a story about Mr. Carrier, who is a wealthy railroad owner.  The story takes place at a time when the Mississippi Delta was being forested to make room for cotton plantation land.  The character, Dave, is a conductor of Mr. Carrier’s train, and the verses are like a kind of back and forth debate about the political climate that followed cotton fields coming into the Delta.  Mr. Carrier thinks Dave is going to ruin his train by going so fast.  Then there is a side verse about Mr. Carrier’s business practices.  Dave mentions that Mr. Carrier only pays his employees in “brass” or plantation money.  There is a strike, and all the lumberjacks quit.  In the end, Dave does wreck the train, but Mr. Carrier ends up winning anyways.  You learn that Mr. Carrier caught his train on Beale and Main.  You see, his train line was able to transform from hauling timber to becoming a passenger train.  He sees all the people who used to work for him in lumber are all out in the fields picking cotton now.  It s really a wonderful story – it’s got so many different elements to it, and it was composed out of the air by a brilliant musician.  That’s the only way people really got songs back then.  They were just making up songs and music on the fly.  Many of the songs lasted a long time.  People weren’t in so much of a hurry, so a 3 minute song wasn’t as popular as it is now.  In those days song could last all night!  The song lines all talked about the local regions of MS. DeSoto, Sardis, all these areas around me here, and what was happening locally was what got sung about.

As far as the way I sing some of these old songs, you know, a lot of people would have a hard time even understanding what was even being said in the original field recordings.  So you need to be a bit of a translator to translate the lyrics, and of course then you need to be able to pull it off and sing them effectively.  I don’t really sing in any character.  I really won’t sing anything that I don’t understand in an emotional way.  I just sing it like me I guess! (laughs).  Some of the songs I am singing are eighty to ninety-plus years old.  It’s just part of me, singing these old stories.  I have always liked the old stuff.  It’s what I grew up with.  I grew up learning from the old musicians too. So, I guess when I listen to a primitive field recording of Sid Hemphill’s I go back in my mind to when I was a kid learning from my dad or my uncles and think back to that student-teacher relationship, and I just make myself learn it!


HT:  Is there a particular audience that you really hope to reach with this record?

JM:  Ummmm (slight pause) I’m not much of a marketing person. (laughs).  I don’t think too much about that.  I just like to play for people who like music.  The other day I was talking to this guy and he said to me, “I really don’t get to hear your kind of music too much.”  I then asked him, “If you don’t mind me asking, just what would you call my kind of music anyway?”  He just looked at me and said “Good! Good Music!”  So I took that as a compliment.  You know, I don’t like to do any one style…all of my records are well varied.  I just really like to play, so target audiences and such are not a big deal for me.


HT:  I know Olga played a typewriter on this cd…are there any other unconventional rhythm tools being used? Whose idea was that anyway?

JM:  I think it was Olga’s idea.  I collect old manual typewriters.  I always have a few around.  I like to type on them.  There is just something about the way they stamp the letters on the paper – it’s so final.  I just like it.  Well, we also have some other things you don’t hear too much anymore in the studio…like a kazoo, washtub bass, washboard, banjos, mandolins and fiddles.  Oh, and we have one of them toy train whistles.  I’d say the typewriter was the most unique instrument though.


HT:  Do you have any plans to tour with the Old Scool Hot Wings Group?  Is that even remotely logistical?

JM:  Well, you know, I’d love to!  Sure, of course!  I love doing acoustic music.  This style is what Luther and I call the “Folk Orchestra” (laughs).  It’s kind of a concept that Jim Dickinson helped to pioneer back in the day.  You just throw everything but the kitchen sink, or even the kitchen sink, into the mix.  Play around with every instrument you can think of.  I really like the philosophy – it’s a cool sound.  It’s a style you don’t hear much of these days.  A lot of people really don’t even know how to do it.  But, we will see what kind of reception the new CD gets.  We are all so busy, so who knows what we can work out.  But really, we made this because we just like to play and do unique projects.  We haven’t talked about touring.


HT:  At what age did music “hit you” and when did you know that you would devote your life to making it?

JM:  Well, I started playing music at age 6.  My family was all musicians.  There was just a lot of music happening at my house and many instruments to play with.  I was always drawn to making music with the adults.  I started on a mandolin – it was small and it was lying around.  I just started watching the adults around me and I figured out a few chords.  My family was all encouraging.  They let me stay up late and play with them all the time.  It was great.  I really don’t think there was any one age I decided to go pro.  I just kept up with playing music and one day, before I knew it- it was just what I did.


HT:  What rock and roll first got your attention as a pre-teen?

JM:  Right around the time I turned 14 or 15 my family got cable TV.  That’s when I first saw Rock and Roll High School with the Ramones.  It really flipped my trigger so to speak.  It inspired me to look for Ramones records…and soon after that my band turned into a punk band. (laughs).


HT:  What was the first rock song you learned to play?

JM:  I remember a friend of mine teaching me how to play bar chords, and the first song I learned in that method was the song “Fire House” by Kiss.  I grew up playing open chords, so I remember learning my first bar chord song.  I was in the 6th grade or so.

HT:  I swear- I have listened to the “Asked My Captain” track (from latest Knockdown South CD) a thousand times.  I sometimes play it 4 times in a row.  I wonder whose version of it moved you to record it….judging by the way you deliver the song, I suspect that it hit you the same way it hits me.  I have cried to hear you sing it a couple of times now!  I get really moved by it sometimes.  Thank you for sharing your version.

JM:  Actually, I wrote that song.


HT:  (I feel it important to share with the readers of this interview that I was completely and instantly humbled by Jimbo’s answer to my question.  My presumption was embarrassing, and I wished instantly that I had researched just a little bit more on that song before asking.  A small amount of gushing occurred at this time, and of course Jimbo was accepting of my compliments and received them genuinely.  I must encourage any roots music lover to listen to this track for its soulful delivery, painful story, and gorgeous simplicity.  It is a very moving song.)


JM:  Thank you.  It’s a true song written about things that happened to me.  I worked on the river boats as a deck hand when I was about 18.  I did that for about 4 years.  Basically everybody in that song, Captain White and Old Chief, they are all real people.  The sound and style of the song are based on Mississippi prison work songs.  At that time in my life I was incarcerated, and part of my rehabilitation was learning a trade.  I was sent to kind of boot camp on the river to learn deck hand skills.  And they work you all day long ya know, trying to work some sense into you.  I think I was the only white dude in there and Captain White took it upon himself to ride me extra hard just because he knew I really had more sense than to be in a place like that.  That’s where the verse “the boy ain’t right” comes in.  I’ve got short stories up on my websites that I wrote about those experiences.  This song was definitely inspired by the Parchman recordings that Lomax did.  But like I say, I’m not going to sing something unless I know it’s true, and that song is definitely true (laughs).

HT:  I truly admire artists who believe in philanthropy, and live a life of giving, so I was naturally impressed with the dedication and support that you and Olga have shown the communities you reside in.  You both recently came together with many fine Memphis musicians for Katrina relief with a project called WTLB that benefits the JMHF.  What was it like performing that night?

JM:  At the Katrina Benefit?  Well, doing music is easy.  It seemed like the least we could do for a place we love so much.  There is still so much to do, everybody should be doing something.  I feel like I should be doing more.  Our benefit had an incredible line up and the music was great.  The final product* will be done soon!

*Go to http://www.jmhemphill.org/ to learn more about purchasing the DVD/CD “When the Levee Breaks”  


HT:  What were you doing when Katrina hit?

JM:  I was sitting at home watching it all unfold on the TV.  It was right after RL (ed: Burnside) had died, so we were still grieving that too.  Ya know, it was something that had been talked about for a long time but folks just got to where they didn’t believe it really would happen.  All of the sudden you see it happening, and it feels like a strange dream.


Jimbo Mathus & Olga HT:  Tell me a lil bit about how you met your new wife, Olga.

JM:  I first met her at the Jessie Mae Hemphill Benefit.  Somebody had recommended me to her to help with organizing the musicians.  She didn’t play any tunes at that event – she was involved in the producing.  I had heard her first CD by then though, and of course I thought it was wonderful.  We just kinda kept in touch from there and then I moved back to Mississippi.


HT:  Which songs have you written about her?

JM:  I have written quite a few (chuckles) but the first one was the song “Hypnotized.”  It’s on my last Knockdown South album.  She sings back up on that track.


HT:  I’d like to comment what a great musical union you and Olga make together.  Your story telling abilities combined really shine on her new CD, Now is the Time.  In particular the GDTRFB and WTMWTM tracks.  How many duets have you recorded?

JM:  Well thank you!  Ya know, we haven’t recorded as much as we should!  We’ve both been real busy and doing other projects – we have been running around and putting out fires with the other projects we have going.


HT:  Do you plan to keep exploring and recording this type of performance together?  Any Jimbo & Olga tour plans?

JM:  Of course I want to keep exploring this stuff.  I’d love to include her more in my projects.  She is real busy though!  Sometimes it’s hard enough just to get to see each other let alone record.  But I’d love to tour with her too.


HT:  You have been working with Buddy Guy for awhile now.  What is something you have learned about yourself by working with him?  About guitar playing?

JM:  Well, I had to sort of step it up when I began working with him.  Ya know, when ya walk in there and say to yourself, “Ok, I’m fixin’ to play with one of the greatest blues guitar players, possibly of all time” …you gotta feel pretty confident and I had to sorta realize myself as a professional guitar player now and not an entertainer or songwriter.   Cuz I really considered myself a songwriter for a long time.  I really didn’t start stepping it up on the guitar until I met Buddy, in the past 5 or 6 years.

I guess I learned every night that we played, I would really observe and listen to him play on stage.  He has definitely taught me to be more fearless when I play and not be so afraid to make a mistake.  Because if you don’t go for it, you’re never going to hit it.  Ya know, he is 71 years old and he still goes on stage and tries something new every night!  

He has also helped me to build my confidence and helped me become a more dynamic player.  I wasn’t as interested in single note guitar soloing until I played with him, now I really enjoy it.  I still really enjoy working with him when I can cuz I like mixing it up.  I help him more with this specialty stuff than his regular tour now.


HT:  You have also recently worked with Elvis Costello.  What was that like?

JM:  Yeah, he is someone who wasn’t even on my radar!  I guess I was surprised to learn how talented and versatile he is.  I mean at the same time he was recording a juke joint sound with me in Clarksdale, MS, he was also composing an orchestral opera score that came out the same year.  So I mean, it was really cool.  

He came into my studio with his band and were ALL about it!  They were so happy, and so pro, doing these live takes.  I kinda keep an open door policy and he was totally down with it.  I actually keep the door open, and let folks wander in – it gives the performers someone to play to.  My current studio is right on the street downtown.  There might be 10-15 standing around my sessions just hanging out and enjoying the music and a beer.  Jim D thinks I got balls for running that kind of studio, (laughs) says he could never do it.  But I guess I’m just ignorant enough to pull it off.  That’s just the way I like it.  

But you know, I just approached working with him the same way I would anything else.  Dennis Herring was the guy that brought him to my studio and he gave me the run of the show that day.  He told me he wanted me to run the session the way I normally would, so I just opened up the door and let everyone in- and treated him like anyone else.


HT:  Do you think he walked away from his recoding experience with you having learned anything?

JM:  Well, you’d have to ask him about that. (laughs).  But he did put out a DVD and there is a segment on it where he and Pete Thomas take a road trip in an old Cadillac from Memphis to my studio in Clarksdale.  They are recording the drive and their conversation about coming down to visit me.  I had no idea they were coming to visit.  It was after our studio session was done.  So, I am pretty he sure he enjoyed himself because he came back for a visit and he put it in his DVD.


HT:  What are your top five “Desert Island” CD’s?

JM:  1.      Charley Patton Box Set

2.      Chopin’s Nocturnes

3.      Fairfield Four – I need some good gospel!

4.      Hank Williams – complete recordings.

5.      Duke Ellington- complete recordings. Gotta have my Jazz too!

HT:  In your song “Boogie Music” you state very clearly that you have loved it all your life.  Can you recall the boogie you loved best from the beginning?

JM:  The whole boogie music thing came to me, again, from Jim Dickinson and what he calls World Boogie.  It’s world music, to me, it’s like all music.  It’s like Sam Phillips says, “it’s where the soul of man never dies.”  Like the old fiddle tunes and stuff, it’s just a cycle that you repeat and it never dies.  You just keep playing it.  That stuff is boogie music to me too.  It’s hard to say the first time I heard it.  It’s just the kind of music that doesn’t really have a beginning or an end.


HT:  Whose boogie moves have you admired?

JM:  Mr. Tater (said with certainty and without hesitation).  He has the best boogie moves of all time! (laughs).  Look him up on my Web site – there are pictures of him there.  He’s a six and a half foot black man with his legs up in the air.  That’s him.


HT:  Can you dance?„ÄÄ

JM:  Oh hell yeah!   My favorite dance is what I like to call the “Clarksdale Hunch!” mmmmmhhhmmm.  It’s a good one!


HT:  You are currently building a new recording studio in MS.  Can you tell me a little bit about your vision and plans for that?

JM:  The new studio is going to be the same deal.  Old school, downtown Como.  On the street level. I’ll use all my ribbons mics and stuff, same as now.


HT:  Who is your dream client?

JM:  I would love to do a Bob Dylan record, and have him backed by a real Delta blues band.  I’d like to get a gutbucket-style record out of him.  I’d have Jim D on the keys!  You know, Dylan loves Charley Patton too.  Yeah, it would be a tight project – I’d get some funked out lil amplifiers and let it roll.


HT:  If you were for some reason not able to make music or perform, what other profession could you see yourself doing?

JM:  Well, umm, there are two things I’d still love to do some day.  I’d love to write novels.  And I’d also like to be a river boat pilot.  I worked on them for quite awhile, so I guess I really enjoyed that experience.  I really like being on the river.


HT:  What do you like to remember about Junior Kimbrough?

JM:  You know, I never met him.  I know David and others in his family.  I produced David’s new record.  When his audience was growing through his Fat Possum work, I was on the road with The Squirrel Nut Zippers.  By the time I had moved back to Mississippi from North Carolina, he had passed on.  I was really bringing a lot of Mississippi bands on the road with me at that time, but I missed the chance to hook up with him.


HT:  Is there anything you’d like to say to him up in heaven?

JM:  (Laughs) I don’t think Junior is in heaven.  I’d love to meet him one day, but I don’t think its going to be there(chuckling).