Jimbo Mathus says he never planned to make money playing music. That’s a good thing, because by the time the first lineup of his band Squirrel Nut Zippers folded, it was all gone.
The Zippers’ unlikely 1996 hit, “Hell,” a wildly horn-driven, Dixieland jazz romp, earned them a Platinum record for their album Hot. But to their dismay, they were mistakenly swept into the retro-swing fad popularized by the movie Swingers, stamping an unfortunate commercial expiration date on the band’s greasy, brassy brand of vintage Americana.
When the juju ran out — following the divorce of Mathus and bandmate Katharine Whalen, and a lawsuit over royalties from two former bandmates — Mathus retreated to his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, broke and broken down, to regroup.
“I was just working in the clubs in the deep South, the catfish joints, wherever I could set up, basically,” Mathus tells Rolling Stone Country from New Orleans, where he splits his time with rural Taylor, Mississippi. “There was a time I didn’t have a band. I would just show up in town for a gig and ask the bartender, ‘Who plays drums around here?’”
Those days are over now, with both his solo career and Squirrel Nut Zippers back in high cotton, but his experiences on that journey and refusal to give up had a lasting impact on his music. Many of the songs on his new album, Incinerator (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum), out April 5th, originated from that time of uncertainty, and deal with life and loss from different perspectives.
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Incinerator has a compelling grandeur, trading the rocking blues of his recent solo albums for a reflective journey through tintype Americana. For the recording sessions at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi, with co-producers Matt Patton of Drive-By Truckers on bass and Bronson Tew on drums, Mathus stuck to piano and vocals, stepping away from the songs while his partners went to work.
Opening cut “You Are Like a Song” sweetly memorializes a lost friend with a sweeping eight-part harmony on the chorus, evoking an old Southern hymn and the sing-in-the-can era of acetate recordings. The album’s collaborative spirit went beyond his co-producers, too — former Zippers bandmate Andrew Bird wrote and played the string arrangement on “Really Hurt Someone.”
“Sunken Road,” the album’s centerpiece duet with Lilly Hiatt, is “the bottom of the story, the end of the line,” Mathus says. Lyrics like “postcards from the lost highway” nod to Hank Williams, while the story itself draws its imagery from the mysterious, overgrown paths that cut through many Southern forests. Beaten down, weathered and disused, today many of these paths don’t seem to go anywhere, but rather appear and fade like apparitions in the kudzu.
“Over time they became footpaths, to horses, to wagons, and over time it pushes the road down in the ground … and makes these steep banks on either side,” he says. “A lot of the sunken roads are abandoned. You’ll see an old wrecked Ford over there, and the ruins of a house. I took that and made a metaphor for somebody that’s on his last drive, somebody that’s desperate on the road.”
Patton, who had gotten to know Hiatt when she opened for the Drive-By Truckers, had the idea of inviting her to mirror Mathus’s verses on “Sunken Road.” Her intimate and soulful singing provides a high-and-lonesome counterpoint to Mathus’s impassioned performance.
“The whole song resonated with me,” Hiatt says. “I know that feeling well. What I took from his lyrics was an emotion that I related to — loneliness, and just needing help along the way.”
The song is also a tribute to his late friend, songwriter Robert Earl Reed, who shared Mathus’s love of the northern Mississippi hill country’s rural folk-blues.
“That was [inspired by] me and him hanging out a lot, running the truck in the river, sittin’ at deer camp and just hanging out in the country,” Mathus says. “Riding around on all these roads in his pickup truck, talking, listening to music. It was an ode to him. I wish he could hear it, but that’s how it goes. He’s now a song, you know?”
As a companion to Incinerator, Fat Possum will also release The World According to Jimbo Mathus, a documentary by J.B. Lawrence that follows him from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, and back to north Mississippi while telling the stories of his life and songs. The full documentary will be available April 5th.
Mathus has tour dates scheduled with the reactivated Squirrel Nut Zippers beginning April 12th, followed by solo-band shows in May with backing from Patton, Tew and others.
With Squirrel Nut Zippers:
April 11 — Maquoketa, IA @ Codfish Hollow Barnstormers
April 12 — Minneapolis @ Dakota
April 13 — Evanston, IL @ SPACE
April 14 — Ferndale, MI @ Magic Bag
April 16 — Warrendale, PA @ Jergel’s Rhythm Grille
April 17 — Ithaca, NY @ The Haunt
April 18 — Rockport, MA @ Rockport Music-Shalin Liu Performance Center
April 19 — Portland, ME @ Aura
April 20 —New York, NY @ City Winery
April 21 — South Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground Ballroom
April 23 — Boston, MA @ City Winery
April 24 — Fairfield, CT @ StageOne at FTC
April 25 —Ardmore, PA @ The Ardmore Music Hall
April 26 — Reading, PA @ Miller Center for the Arts
April 27 — Kent, OH @ Kent Theatre
Jimbo Mathus solo:
May 2 — New Orleans @ Ogden Museum of Southern Art
May 3 — New Orleans @ Hi Ho Lounge
May 4 — Mobile, AL @ Listening Room
May 17 — Oxford, MS @ Proud Larry
May 18 — Memphis, TN @ Bar DKDC
May 22 — Nashville, TN @ Acme Roots Radio
May 31 —Little Rock, AR @ White Water Tavern
June 1 — Tupelo, MS @ Blue Canoe
June 8 — Jackson, MS @ Duling Hall