I get more out of it than it takes away from me 

Despite seeming evidence to the contrary, most musicians don’t like to go out on the road unless it’s really worth their while.

The hassle and energy it takes to pack up gear, travel, set up, play, tear down and return home is usually only mitigated by a long string of (hopefully) lucrative dates spaced a couple of hours apart.

That’s why they call them tours.

However, there are some artists out there who simply live to play. They’ll more often that not go through hell and high water just to get the opportunity to turn a new crop of people on to what they do. Jimbo Mathus is one of those artists.

Through a string of extremely diverse and noteworthy musical endeavors (some commercially successful, some not), this Mississippi native has demonstrated an extreme fascination with pushing the envelope of whatever genre he was operating in at the time – whether that be the chiming, British-influenced alternative rock of his early ‘90s cult band Metal Flake Mother, the hokum blues and Tin Pan Alley noir jazz of the multi-platinum selling Squirrel Nut Zippers, a high-profile stint as guitarist on two of Buddy Guy’s most acclaimed records (“the greatest artist I ever worked with,” says Mathus), or his latest effort as bandleader and frontman, the group Knockdown South.

That unit, a down and dirty backwash of Delta blues, Stones-y romps and churning, groove music that at times approaches the deep-fried psychedelia of early Captain Beefheart or the 13th Floor Elevators, is perhaps closest to Mathus’ heart, for it encapsulates most of what he adores most about music in general, while simultaneously providing something of a beginner’s course in the convoluted history of how hardcore blues slowly morphed into what we now call rock and roll and R & B.

Mathus lives – and loves – to play. That’s one of the main reasons he and his three-piece road band just drove nineteen hours each way from their home in Clarksdale, Miss., to Deadwood, S.D., to play a blues festival.

With no gigs in between.

I tell Mathus that I hope the booking was lucrative enough to make it worth all that time and effort. He shrugs off the question with a bemused chuckle.

“Well, you know... money’s money! (laughs) As long as you wind up makin’ more than you spend, I guess you’re doin’ OK. (laughs

These days, regardless of the size of his checking account, it would seem Mathus is doing more than OK. He’s lived and worked for the past three years in Clarksdale, a stone’s throw from where he was raised. It’s a move that he felt compelled to make after years in North Carolina (where both Metal Flake Mother and The Squirrel Nut Zippers were formed).

“A lot of the groups I played with in Chapel Hill... Well, I was just a Mississippi boy kinda fittin’ in where I could. People recognized that I was a musician, so I wound up playin’ drums or bass, or whatever. It was cool. That’s why I went to North Carolina in the first place – ‘cause it seemed like a creative place with a lot of different things goin’ on. A lot of the music I made up there was more like a sidetrack from what I really do, but I’m definitely proud of that time and all those records,” he says.

These days, Mathus devotes almost every waking hour to doing just what he wants to do. To that end, he opened a small analog recording studio in a desolate section of downtown Clarksdale, and when he’s not playing gigs with his band, or recording his own material, he’s busy tracking sessions for an astoundingly wide range of artists.

Some are locals (many of which he records for free or at cost in light of their financial hardships), who are glad for the opportunity to do high quality work close to home. Still others are established acts who travel great distances in hopes of having some of Jimbo’s trademark vibe rub off on their tunes.

It’s a vibe that is hard to pin down, but to say it’s a thick, swampy, morass of soul and groove would be something of an understatement.

Mathus feels a big part of that unique feel must have something to do with his studio’s physical location.

“We’re the only business left in this old four-story, hundred-year-old hotel. We’re in the ground floor. The top three floors are just full of pigeons. It really adds to the ambience! (laughs

There’s more to it than that, however.

“It’s where WRLX radio was located, and in its day, that was one of the biggest and greatest radio stations in the South. There’s nothing but ghosts and pigeons around us now... It’s a cool old building, and I’m really glad to be there.”

So too was Elvis Costello, apparently. The legendary songwriter spent a whirlwind afternoon cutting live demos at the Delta Recording Service in preparation for the more labor-intensive sessions which would make up his most recent LP The Delivery Man. Yet, when all was said and done, one cut from Jimbo’s place (“Monkey To Man”) made the final album sequence, and wound up being released as the first single and video off the record.

Not long after, Costello’s label – sensing there was something intangible but captivating about that afternoon’s document -- compiled all the loose, passionate sides from the Clarksdale session and issued them as a limited-edition disc.

Mathus says that twiddling the knobs for Costello and his band The Imposters surely stands as one of the highlights of his career so far.

“They were very cool. He and his band were right up there with the very best people I’ve ever worked with. They didn’t blow a single take, and what was really great is that they let me do things my way.”

He says that even a famously intense personality like Costello seemed to lay back and go with the flow once entering The Delta Recording Service. Mathus figures that’s because of the efficient and intuitive way things work at his place.

“Well, we get to rollin’ so fast that people don’t have a chance to think too much about stuff. It’s more of a fun vibe. Elvis was relaxed, and he seemed really into the spirit of it, or else he wouldn’t have been there. I mean, he could go into any studio in the world.”

Providing the same kind of service for unknown artists as he does for folks like Costello was one of the main goals behind returning to Mississippi and setting up shop – specifically there, in an historic city that unfortunately has seen much better days.

“The Delta is not doin’ real well now,” Mathus admits with a discernible trace of concern. “Most towns are either drying up or caving in, just ‘cause the economy sucks and the cotton industry is vanishing. Clarksdale’s no exception.”

He says, however, that despite such a bleak situation which in many ways brings himself – and the other residents – down, Clarksdale’s hardscrabble environment also serves to bring out the most resilient parts of their personalities.

“Something so strong is gonna have a serious upside and a serious downside,” he explains. “I’ll put it to you this way: I get more out of it than it takes away from me. I believe the spirit that created John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and Muddy Waters... It’s still there.”

Another thing that’s still there after all these years is Jimbo’s lack of interest in worrying about who may or may not like what it is that he does.

“We (in Metal Flake Mother) were totally unconcerned with demographics, and I still am today,” he says with gusto. According to him, that sort of mentality is inextricably linked to his birthplace.

“Everybody down here in the Delta has a bit of an outlaw personality anyway. Their natural inclination is to sorta... resist. There’s an African expression, where they say that roots cast no shadow. Well, these people down here ain’t really castin’ much of a shadow. (laughs

“I work for myself. I don’t like workin’ for other people. I don’t like nobody tellin’ me what to do. I like to have a good time and throw down some boogie music all night long! (laughs) So, I’d say there are some pretty hardcore outlaw tendencies in my nature.”

So, have those tendencies served him well or poorly in this business?

“I’d say well and poorly. I’m still here, you know? That’s kinda what I expected when I got into this whole deal. I didn’t think I was gonna make a lot of money or anything like that, so it’s all good.”

True to form, when our conversation turns to his upcoming appearance in Savannah, his devotion to simply throwing down and having a party comes to light.

I ask Mathus how long of a show his band will be playing, assuming that since they’re on tour, they’ll be sticking to an industry- standard seventy or eighty minute headlining set.

“How late’s the place stay open?” he asks with a laugh.

“We’ll play for three or four sets. Whatever it takes, you know. When I started checkin’ out the juke joints and doin’ my homework, I learned a lot about what bands are supposed to do.

“We’re like ‘goodwill ambassadors,’ bringin’ a little of the Clarksdale style to people wherever we go. The kind of music I like, you just follow the spirit, see where it leads you, stink it up good, and make sure you wear everybody out.”

Jimbo Mathus & Knockdown South play the Mercury Lounge Saturday night starting at 10 p.m., and ending whenever they get tired.

This free show is sponsored by the Savannah Blues Society.


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Jim Reed

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