Best known as the brains behind Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band that spearheaded the swing revival of the '90s, singer-guitarist Jimbo Mathus started releasing solo albums later that decade. More blues and folk influenced than the Zippers, his solo efforts are eclectic affairs that sample a wide swath of American roots rock. For his latest album, White Buffalo, he teamed up with Eric "Roscoe" Ambel, a veteran alt-country rocker. Ambel showcases the array of Mathus's influences and brings out the best in Mathus, who spoke via phone from the road as he had just embarked on the Big Damn Blues Revolution Tour with Reverend Peyton and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Tell me about the concept behind this Big Damn Blues Revolution tour.
I think it's something that Rev. Peyton concocted. He's doing well with his concerts and he wanted to try this package tour. He's a fan of mine and Alvin's through the year and he has listened to our music and has been inspired by our music. He's bringing us to his audience. It's an old-school revue. We're interacting with one another's groups and trying to do collaborations on stage. We're looking forward to it. I think it'll be a good fit.
Talk about how your new album, The White Buffalo, came together.
It was going to be for the label I was on which was a little label in Memphis. It was going to be a smaller type release. We didn't have much of a budget and were approached by Eric "Roscoe" Amble. He was interested in producing it. He had a concept of what he wanted to do with my sound. He was rather expensive and we took a leap and did a Kickstarter fundraiser. We raised the money for him to produce it and beyond that, we ended up getting the attention of Fat Possum and we jumped up to a bigger label. They're quite excited about this. It ended up being really great for us.
His studio is in New York. You didn't record there, did you?
It was half and half. I did it at my studio and it was the last thing I recorded there before shutting it down. We mixed it at Cowboy Technical Services -- that's his place in Brooklyn. His recording style and mine are similar. He bent to my style on the recording and I bent to his style on the mixing.
You sound like Bruce Springsteen on the opening track. How the hell did that happen?
I'm not sure. It's just a simple song. It has a minor chord change in it. It's like a folk song that we put a backbeat to. It started out as a folk song in three-four time and I just manipulated it. I have heard people say that, that it sounds like some Bruce Springsteen stuff It's a compliment. It's a well-written evocative song with a simple, meaningful lyric. I try to put everything I got into the vocals and make them mean something. There may be that, too.
It's such a departure from the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Have any of those fans stuck with you?
We keep track of those things on social media. Most of my fans now are not Squirrel Nut Zippers fans, no. A few have stuck with me. But most of these I've earned since then.
What pushed you into a different musical direction?
My first record in 1996 was a mixture of blues and different styles of blues. There was country and electric music and songwriter-ly things. It was very diverse. My records have always been diverse, even though some lean more toward some one particular genre. I don't see this as one as being much different. It's just more potent and just well thought out and well done. It grabs you by the collar. Roscoe was trying to provide a good introduction to people who might not know who I am. It's just a powerful statement of what my band is and what my music is.
Did you grow up playing a variety of styles of music?
I did. I started music at age 8 and between 8 and 15, I learned mostly indigenous music. I played Mississippi folk. We had a family band and I learned all the folk music and gospel and all that. My repertoire of that is very immense. Then, I started getting into rock 'n' roll when I was 15. I started on mandolin. I was drawn to the edgier stuff I could find. I grew up in a small isolated town in Mississippi. In the early '80s, I got my hands on whatever I could get. I was listened to the Ramones and R.E.M. and everything I could find and anything that was out there that I could get my hands on. Over the years, I've explored every type of roots music that I could find, from stuff like the earliest American music, which is stuff I explored with the Zippers, to Creole jazz and Tin Pan Alley music and Stephen Foster and brass band music. I took it all the way back and over the years, I've discovered I love Charlie Parker and Charley Patton. I like all of it, as long as it's real and has a soul.
Your bio says you "walked the country alone." What year would that have been?
Well, several years. But it would have been the late '80s before I moved to Carolina. I was a riverboat deckhand, and I just wandered and traveled a lot. I loved hitchhiking and riding trains. It gave me time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to see things from the bottom out. And that's what I did. I still don't have a high falutin' lifestyle. I was drawn to what shit is like in a Greyhound bus at 3 in the morning on a deserted highway in the desert. What is that like? I met so many people and learned so many things at the time. I could go any way the wind blows.