'Jimbo' Mathus Gives History Lesson

For those unfamiliar with James "Jimbo" Mathus' music, it would be surprising to learn that his new Knockdown Society album, "National Antiseptic," sounds completely unaffected by the popular music of

For those unfamiliar with James "Jimbo" Mathus' music, it would be surprising to learn that his new Knockdown Society album, "National Antiseptic," sounds completely unaffected by the popular music of the past 40 or 50 years. But even for the informed, it's no less intriguing when considering that the Mississippi-bred, Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Mathus grew up in an era when Duran Duran and Van Halen ruled the airwaves.

"I just wasn't into that stuff," says the 34-year-old co-founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. "When I was younger, the guys I was growing up with were listening to stuff like Hank Williams Jr. -- ya know, 'A Country Boy Can Survive' -- and Molly Hatchet and all that. There was a big FM station in Memphis that played the current FM stuff, but it didn't do it for me. I just thought it all sucked."

"National Antiseptic," which hit retail Oct. 23 on Mammoth, makes that quite apparent, as it -- like the Zippers' brand of big-beat revivalism and Mathus' first Knockdown Society set, 1997's "Songs for Rosetta"-- seems of another time. This time around, Mathus serves up a swampy, backbeat-heavy set of Fat Possum-style delta blues mixed up with the occasional country, bluegrass, and even ragtime-leaning number.

Featuring covers of songs by R.L. Burnside ("Snake Drive"), T-Model Ford ("Take a Ride"), and Lonnie Pitchford ("Drinkin' Antiseptic"), "National" carries a gritty, electric tilt that Mathus says was born out of hours spent listening to Fat Possum and Rooster Blues artists. "I really wanted to open up my sound where I could just jam, like, with a trio or something, but have the guitar be the main instrument," he says. Obliging Mathus in that pursuit, were Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. Their father, Jim Dickinson (Big Star, the Replacements), produced the set.

"It sounds as if he walked up in the woods outside of Chapel Hill and stayed there," says Don Van Cleave, president of the 70-outlet Coalition of Independent Music Stores.

Helping foster his love for roots music was a childhood spent in the North Mississippi towns of Clarksdale and Corinth, where Mathus grew up with a banjo-pickin' father who played Hank Williams, Carter Family, and Jimmie Rogers songs with relatives at parties and family functions. Having learned to play the mandolin at six and the guitar a few years later, Mathus would often join in.

Later, "Highway 61," a Saturday-night radio show broadcast out of Memphis, introduced Mathus to the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Charley Patton -- who, he later discovered, was the father of his babysitter, Rosetta Patton. ("Songs for Rosetta" was both a tribute to and benefit for Rosetta, who does not receive royalties on her father's music.)

"There's not only a real affection for this music but also a real knowledge and exhilaration on his part," Mammoth president Rob Seidenberg says. "You can really hear it."

Mathus began work on "National" just after finishing "Songs for Rosetta," recording songs in between Zippers tours and albums, as well as a brief stint backing Buddy Guy on the blues great's "Sweat Tea," a collection of tunes done in the Fat Possum, North Mississippi Hill Country blues style.

When he was recommended to the "Sweet Tea" project by friend/engineer Ethan Allen, Mathus says, "Honestly, I didn't really know that much about [Guy]. I just hadn't listened to that much of his stuff. But, man, he's just one of these people who can just really express himself exactly like he wants to. And that's a powerful thing to be around, just really moving."

Mammoth hopes to tap into Guy's fanbase -- as well as the Zippers' -- with "National," Seidenberg says. Both will be appealed to via E-mail and through Internet promotions, including free streaming of Knockdown tracks posted on mammoth.com.

With "National," Mathus says he aims to persuade people to do one thing -- boogie. "When you're playing this type of music, that's really your job, especially if you're a guitar man," he says. "I mean, that's the essence of it. If you're not doing that, you ain't doing something right."