Jimbo Mathus Zips Through Mississippi’s Music on White Buffalo

Anybody who’s under the impression that Jimbo Mathus is a wild-eyed ragtime performer would be right. He found his first exposure with the Squirrel Nut Zippers in the ‘90s. Those who identify Mathus with old-time fare are on target, too, since he makes the occasional album with the South Memphis String Band. And there’s no arguing with those who know him as the blues stylist and songwriter who’s lent his talents to the North Mississippi Allstars and Buddy Guy.

Mathus and his loose-limbed band the Tri-State Coalition crisscross an even wider swath of the southern musical map on White Buffalo, the first album he’s released on Fat Possum Records, which is based in his home state of Mississippi. Whenever and wherever he’s holding court, this restlessly intelligent old-school entertainer is in no danger of running out of material.

CMT Edge: The music you’ve made since you moved back to your native state a decade ago has drawn heavily on your Mississippi roots.

Mathus: It’s a never-ending source of wonder for me. (laughs) It first [started to show] around ’96 when I did Play Songs for Rosetta and I was still with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I did a record for my nanny, and that’s when I first met Luther Dickinson and the Dickinson Family. And it was all Mississippi-themed, you know. That was, like ’96, and that’s when I really started getting fired up on the trail I’m on now.

You’re a man of many talents. But it seems like people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the breadth of southern musical styles represented in your body of work. Why do you think that is?

(laughs) Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s just my own vision of what is out there is bigger. I think as an artist, it’s easier sometimes if you have one thing that you do. It’s not a conscious thing on my part. But I can understand why people have had a hard time wrapping their brains around it. (laughs) I mean, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it. But there is a point to it. There is a master plan, believe it or not. … It doesn’t stop at music. It goes to other types of writing, other types of visually composing things and collaborating on projects that have a bigger purpose.

Whatever kind of music you are making — whether it’s hill country blues or old-time string band fare or swinging ragtime stuff or countrified Southern rock — there’s something about your approach that sets it apart from purist, traditionalist recreation. Why do you think that is? Is it your sense of humor or showmanship?

Yeah, it’s kind of a sloppy approach in a way. I don’t want to be too serious about it. It’s so hard to say. … In my early 20s, I got really into reading about medieval alchemy, how things synthesize together. That kind of imprinted on my mind. It’s part of my aesthetic, I guess you could say.

I’ve never seen the divisions in the different genres of Southern music. You look at somebody like Sam Phillips — I don’t think he saw the divisions. You saw everything from Billy Lee Riley to Howlin’ Wolf that he equally cared for. I don’t see the difference between blues and country, or blues and swingin’ ragtime.

And yeah, I’m gonna be totally committed as a performer and as a singer because I write my own stuff. So I’m gonna believe it. Certain songs just need to be a honky-tonk song. There’s no way around it. And certain songs need to have harmony guitar parts played real loud. So the scholarly side of me sees what’s happening, but then the emotive, primitive side of me just wraps my whole heart around it and goes for it.

It makes for a good show. Even in the mid-‘90s, which were pretty much the height of aloof and angsty grunge bands, you were making entertaining, danceable music. Where did you get your sense of showmanship?

I would say a lot of that comes from my father, growing up with his band and his music. He’s a very extroverted, entertaining character. It was hard because I was a very introverted, artistic teenager, gravitating towards the mopey. But it was a conscious decision on my part back in my late teens to not take myself seriously as an artist. I knew I was gonna be doing it my whole life.

It took a lot of work to get to where I could just be jokey and stupid and start the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I love Velvet Underground and the dark side of the world. But I just didn’t want to be this introverted, mopey dude singing in minor keys all the time. With the Squirrel Nut Zippers we were able to get a lot of dark humor in there a whole lot.

We were highly animated, very passionate about our singing, but the lyrics had a lot of content to ‘em. It was great for me to fall into that Zippers thing and have to be that character for however many years I did it. … So in a way it fit in with my master plan, accidentally, of learning show business and the roots of music inside out. Look at Jim Lauderdale. He comes from the old school. Minnie Pearl. Hank Williams had to get up there and joke around. If you’re gonna do it, do it the right way, and that’s entertaining people. You can trouble them and entertain them at the same time.

You mentioned meeting the Dickinson family. Did getting to know the patriarch of that family, the late Jim Dickinson, teach you anything about being an eccentric southern songwriter and letting your freak flag fly?

It did. I met him at a great moment in my life. At first I didn’t understand a lot of what he said. (laughs) It took me years to start figuring him out, and figuring out more about what he meant when he said certain things. He had a lot of code in there.

He loved the Squirrel Nut Zippers. One time we played in Memphis, and he came. He was blown away that we had sold it out on a Tuesday night. He loved that. When we finally met and go to talk, he said, “Man, y’all remind me of this record Eddie Condon Jazz All Stars’ [Jam Session] Coast to Coast.” And I’m like, “That’s my template for the Squirrel Nut Zippers.” I’m thinking, “Wow. He called me out, in a great way.” So he understood what I was trying to do. He said, “Aw man, I love that vaudeville stuff with that huckster jive. Y’all are doing a great job.” Very complimentary. He was an encouraging man.

You’re a guy who deals in metaphors. You have me wondering what sort of meaning is embedded in the title of White Buffalo, considering there was a ‘70s western by that title, and the white buffalo is a figure of mystical importance in Native American culture. So who or what is the white buffalo?

This is just one of those things that is a treasure of living where I live, because I don’t have to reach very far to find my subject matter. The simplest part of the lyric — and it’s a very simple lyric — is about a white buffalo that was born on Tupelo Buffalo Park. He was one in a million. … He died. He got rammed by a cow in the field, and he hurt his shoulder and couldn’t heal. This was two years ago. His name is Tukota. It’s half Tupelo and half Lakota. … He’s an actual beast that lived up until two years ago. He’s buried there at Tupelo Buffalo Park. The simplest form of the story is right there.

There I was thinking in metaphor and you were writing literally.

But then you look at it closely. Of course, I study history, especially American history and southern history, in particular. The Indians and Native people, the First Nation people are the ones I learn about, read about all the time and have ties with through my music. People of different tribes have reached out to me because they have heard my music. … The story of the white buffalo is the white man coming in and taking whatever he thought he could get and piling the carcasses up. It’s still that way.

“Self” is a country-rock plea that I would expect to be addressed to and named for a woman, yet you’re singing to yourself. How’d that come about?

Man, I tell you, I think it’s the world’s first song about somebody breaking up with themselves. It takes a love song to a new level.

You know how I got that song? I dreamed I was sitting in on a recording session with the Replacements, and I was looking at [Paul Westerberg’s songwriting] notebook between takes. They had me playing like a concertina or something behind a little divider. I looked over at his notebook and there’s this title “Self” with a question mark. I didn’t get to look at the lyrics, but I thought, “Wow, what a great title. I wish I’d have thought of that.” Then I woke up the next morning and I said, “Wow. I did think of that!”

In a lot of my dreams I get songs. I get a lot of them like that. … There are two or three on the record that came to me like that. I mean, I don’t usually talk about it, but that’s what’s up. … Please don’t have me committed, but there you go. (laughs)