Sitting behind the wheel of his pickup truck, James H. “Jimbo” Mathus was crisscrossing America in search of something. Not for anything he could put his hands on, necessarily, and not for anything he could see. But he thought he would recognize it when he found it. At 19 years old, he was looking for a place to begin.
His life to that point—his youth spent in Corinth and Clarksdale; his brief stay at Mississippi State University, where he dabbled in philosophy; and his stint traveling Old Man River with the Merchant Marines—were all preamble to the real Jimbo Mathus, the person he began looking for sometime between thumbing a borrowed paperback of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and dropping out of college.
The ingredients were all there, thanks in part to Mathus’s father, who taught him the ropes of bluegrass, honky-tonk and gospel music. Not to mention the blues he absorbed on visits to Clarksdale where his grandfather, Tony Malvezzi, ran the Conerly shoe store chain. He motored through California, New York and Alaska, using his time off from the river barges to find a place where he fit in. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was funky and Southern enough, he thought, and it had a real music scene supported by local record labels and the University of North Carolina student body.
“I had a vague idea of what my career could be, but it was unformed,” Mathus says. “Chapel Hill just resonated with me. As soon as I found that, just on one of my travels on shore leave, I called back to Canal Barge Company on the pay phone, said ‘I quit,’ and stayed there. It was just one of those instinct things, I guess you'd say.”
Mathus’s intuition proved correct. Chapel Hill was not only a hotbed of musical activity, but also an intellectual enclave where he could learn all he wanted for free at the UNC library. Rents were cheap and minimum wage was relatively good for the era—$80 a month for a place to stay and five bucks an hour for his labors—and he set out to find the like-minded musicians who would eventually join him in his new band, Squirrel Nut Zippers.
“When I got up there, I was just wide-open,” he remembers. “I was trying to learn and trying to understand American music, how I fit in and what I was going to do with it. So, all the resources up there from literature to the music, it all helped me figure it out pretty quick.”
Built around an unlikely but infectious melding of American music styles, Squirrel Nut Zippers drew from be-bop jazz, bluegrass, Dixieland, swing and rock ‘n’ roll and became a surprise hit in the mid-1990s. The band’s 1996 album, Hot, sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, and the 1997 follow-up, Perennial Favorites, posted another half a million in sales. The Zippers played the White House, made the late-night television circuit and toured the world. But the band was swept into the short-lived swing-music revival, and when the fad ended their fortunes began to erode, culminating in Mathus’s divorce from bandmate Katharine Whalen and a hiatus beginning in 2001.
Mathus had been making trips back to Mississippi for years by then, where he immersed himself in Delta and Hill Country blues. He also learned of his connection to Charley Patton, one of the most influential blues artists of all time, through family friend and housekeeper Rosetta Patton, who Mathus learned was Charley’s daughter. The 1997 album Songs for Rosetta, credited to James Mathus and His Knockdown Society, paid tribute to her with a set of Delta blues songs.
“Rosetta is somebody I consider a relative, [and] I'm still close to her family,” he says. “Lo and behold, after all these years, I find out that she was the daughter of Charley Patton, the king of the Delta blues.
That's when I really staked my claim and thought, ‘Okay, I'm up here in North Carolina. I'm very much known for this retro band Squirrel Nut Zippers, but I'm going to go ahead and stake my claim to Mississippi music, where I'm from. I may not be living there right now, but I will be back there someday.’ Songs for Rosetta was like a manifesto for my future self.”
His dedication to learning the craft of the blues landed him a gig backing Buddy Guy, which is where he retreated when the Zippers imploded. Mathus threw himself into the work of touring on neutral ground, so to speak, until decamping for Clarksdale in 2003 to start his next chapter as owner of Delta Recording, a studio he set up in the storefront of the former Alcazar Hotel, where as a kid he watched Early Wright, the first Black radio disc jockey in Mississippi, spin records for WROX on the AM dial.
By Mathus’s account the building was in disrepair, with power that barely worked and drafty windows that blocked only some of the weather. In other words, “it was the perfect studio,” he recalls, and he recorded some 200 albums in the space. One of his highest-profile clients was Elvis Costello, who brought his band down from Oxford, where he was recording with Dennis Herring, and cut Delta-Verité — The Clarksdale Sessions, a seven-song bonus disc to Costello’s 2004 release The Delivery Man.
“It was just a really cool place with a lot of history to it,” he says. “I don't think anything like that could ever happen again. I got it at a cool time so it had the spirituality, the history of Early Wright being right there above it, and just a renegade vibe that really can't be replicated.”
Since those days in the early 2000s, Mathus has released more than a dozen solo albums and reactivated Squirrel Nut Zippers, which has become a popular draw across the U.S. His latest release, These 13 , is a collaboration with former Zippers bandmate-turned-solo artist Andrew Bird.
Following a central tenet of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that encourages a balance of rational and romantic impulses, Mathus spurned a scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy to pursue his own path. That journey has taken him many unexpected places, but none more important than his self-discovery of the artist Jimbo Mathus.
“I guess my whole thing has been like some sort of serendipitous, a fool following his folly,” he says. “It's not like I calculated anything, you know?”
The Squirrel Nut Zippers