The Pursuit of Life,
Liberty and Catfish Music
Former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus now heads the Tri-State Coalition.
Story by casey hilder
Catfish, buffalo and possums are just a few creatures of the South that have a tie to the unique musical career of Jimbo Mathus. Jimbo recently took to the stage of The Brass Door on January 25 alongside the Tri-State Coalition for the album release party of White Buffalo, the group’s most recent offering. The little Irish pub in Memphis was crowded with fans and friends, and they managed to find plenty of space to dance and enjoy the Tri-State sound.
The album’s release comes on the heels of a rediscovery of Delta sound by Mathus, whose trademark lazy drawl and warm demeanor makes it clear that the Corinth native wears his Southern hospitality on his sleeve.
The album, produced by with Fat Possum Records of Oxford, represents the culmination of Jimbo’s rich musical career. With tracks like “Confederate Buddha” and “Who’ll Sop My Gravy,” Jimbo says he is finally able to perform his music, his way. Jimbo’s new groove, dubbed “Catfish Music,” consists of a slow, soul-driven Mississippi melody that moves crowds and shakes ceilings in small southern venues across the Delta.
Because of the Delta’s frequent association with the smooth, whiskery fish, Jimbo chose to forever connect his Mississippi heritage and his own unique musical sound. And his newest album, White Buffalo, does just that. The white buffalo is a rare animal because it is pure white, but not albino. It is a sacred omen to the native people, and according to Jimbo, the white buffalo calf named Tukota, which was born about one hundred miles east in the Tupelo Buffalo Park and Zoo, was the inspiration for the album title.
“I’ve been a student, a composer, a writer and a band leader — I’m always branching out,” he says. And as a former riverboat deckhand, the Mississippi culture runs deep in Jimbo’s veins. While his time as frontman for the 1990s swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers cemented Jimbo’s place in musical history, the band’s harmony came from a lifetime of musical study. “I just grew up with a lot of good pickers and singers,” he says.
Jimbo was raised around musicians and spent his formative years developing his own musical style and learning from his father and other relatives. Many of his recent tracks are the product of a youth spent singing and playing mandolin, drums, piano and bass guitar. “Guitar is my premiere instrument, but you could say I’ve given myself many musical degrees over the years,” Jimbo says. Jimbo originally left Mississippi for North Carolina because he initially thought opportunities to learn and play music were few and far between in the Magnolia State. However, throughout the years his interaction with other Mississippi musicians increased, which led Jimbo to realize that all roads were pointing him back home, specifically to the Hill Country and the Delta of the Magnolia State. “When I was seventeen, I left home to be a musician. It’s what I always wanted to do,” he says.
Jimbo first gained fame alongside his wife Katharine Whalen in the 90’s through a duo known as the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a cavalcade of sound that resembles a sharp, calculated fusion of blues, jazz and vaudeville swing. The band drew inspiration from pre-Civil War music and old big-band antebellum tracks to produce an uncanny modern sound unlike any other.
Together, Mathus and Whalen performed classic tracks like “Memphis Exorcism” and their hot 1996 single “Hell,” a tongue-in-cheek tune about an inviting tour through the darker regions of the afterlife. The group headlined several exclusive events, including the second inauguration of Bill Clinton and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, as well guest spots on a few major television programs like Late Night with David Letterman and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1998. Though the Squirrel Nut Zippers disbanded and he and Whalen divorced, he never lost sight of his passion for music.
Throughout the past two decades, he has ventured into a solo career path, opened and closed a Delta Recording Services Recording Studio, and played alongside the legendary blues strummer Buddy Guy. He also wrote and produced a successful historical musical revue entitled Mosquitoville, leading the 11-person cast in performances for communities across the state of Mississippi.
Now married to Jennifer White Pierce, Jimbo Mathus now proudly leads the Tri-State Coalition, a band whose title represents the area of musicians that it comprises: Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee. One might say that Jimbo has come full circle. Born and raised in Mississippi and now with an album supported by an Oxford-based record label, Jimbo says he grew up fishing, going to church and embracing a variety of musical sounds.
“I get asked a lot, ‘Hey, man, what kind of music do y’all play?’” Jimbo says. “I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a combination of all kinds of Southern music.”While it’s far from over, but it’s been quite a journey for Jimbo, from singing and playing music with his relatives in his early years to the fame he saw with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tri-State Coalition and musical jaunts.
“Celebrate your roots. For better or worse, that is your strength,” he says.
Upcoming dates for Jimbo’s White Buffalo tour include a performance at Austin’s South by Southwest conference and a stop in Clarksdale for the annual juke joint festival on April 13.