If you’ve been doing this writing thing long enough, you can usually pick out the difference between those who tell you something they think you want to hear and those who really mean it. Jimbo Mathus is in the latter category, and when you ask him what those showing up to the Rodeo Bar in NYC this Friday and Saturday night should expect, you can hear in his voice that he’s the real thing.
“You’re gonna get a huge dose of good, American music with a band that really can’t be beat right now,” he said. “I’ve got a six piece band (The Tri-State Coalition), I’ve got Eric Ambel playing with me, and my regular boys are bad, bad men, so they’re gonna see something shorn of artifice, and it’s gonna be a powerful, and hopefully a moving, experience for them.”
It’s as strong a statement as Johnny Rotten screaming “We mean it, man,” one that doesn’t say ‘hey, we hope you show up and we’re going to party,’ but instead declares that Mathus wants you to be moved by his music, and in particular, his latest release, Dark Night of the Soul. If you’re talking powerful statements, you can’t get deeper than that one, first coined by Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross back in the 16th century. Since then, it’s almost been a staple for writers and musicians willing to tackle that topic, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Van Morrison.
“I write off of titles and it just came to me from a lot of the reading I was doing,” said Mathus. “It’s a very evocative title. The lyrics are very spiritual in nature, and I just felt like last year was a stressful year for the planet. There was a lot of mayhem, chaos, and ridiculousness, and I feel like we’re there, that we’re in a dark night of the soul. We’re getting a lot of things wrong, but that song is about how sometimes things are right, and sometimes things are wrong, and how the cycles that go on are not really up to us. Things will change, but right now I think they’re pretty f**ked up.”
That would be accurate when it comes to the world we live in, but musically, at least for Mathus and company, things are looking pretty sunny at the moment, with Dark Night of the Soul getting a solid reaction from critics and fans since its release in February.
“We feel like it’s getting heard,” he said. “It’s tough out there cutting through, but with the help of (publicist) Cary (Baker) and Fat Possum (Records), it’s getting heard. The next job is to come to town and do some great concerts and leave people with the impression that they’ve seen some real s**t going down. I’ve got an incredible band, so now we’re just on the road taking it to the people.”
You might say that’s an old school approach, and you would be correct, but it’s even more so in the case of the 46-year-old Mathus, a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers who isn’t just a musician, but a music scholar who takes all of this very seriously – more serious than most.
“My whole mission starting out in the 80s was to figure out the keys to the kingdom of American music,” said the Mississippi native. “With the Squirrel Nut Zippers, for example, I took American music all the way back to its first popular forms, like Stephen Foster and vaudeville and these types of things, and even the European roots of what made our American music. I did all that with the Zippers and put that all in there, and by learning that, it’s helped me make my rock and roll. And of course, I’ve had big experience in the blues idioms too to help make my rock and roll. So I’ve learned things halfway to get my hands dirty and halfway researching and tracking things down. This was in the pre-computer era when I was seeking all this stuff out, so it took quite a bit of research to get there in the 80s and 90s, but I do revere all the forms of American music, and it thrills me.”
Yet while you can tell the care that Mathus puts into every track, making it not only respectful to the form but new and relevant for the modern day, you can always hear that he’s done his homework. Is that the case with a lot of today’s music, regardless of genre? Probably not, but Mathus doesn’t denigrate those who think Charley Patton (whose daughter Rosetta was his nanny when he was a child) was a general and not a blues legend.
“I think everybody that’s doing music has got a different framework that they’re working under,” he said. “I can’t see how it would hurt any musician to know the roots of their trade and craft, but that’s just me and the way I grew up. I grew up amongst a family of musicians and so I learned it first-hand. I learned the banjo, the mandolin, the bass, the fiddle, the guitar, the piano, the drums, singing, and the whole social aspect of music. So I didn’t learn it from a computer. And what you’re hearing on me is not an artificial thing. I’ve come by everything honestly and there’s as much of life in my music as there is music. That’s my template. I wanted to be the real deal and that’s what I’ve fought for all these years – stay in the trenches, stay active, and keep fighting.”
Thankfully for listeners, he’s winning that fight.
Jimbo Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition, with special guest Eric Ambel, play the Rodeo Bar in NYC on Friday, April 18 and Saturday, April 19. For more information, click here.