It didn’t make him want to chuck his guitars off a bridge or anything, but a recent revamp of his website, in particular his prodigious catalog of albums he’s made over four decades, felt a little disheartening to Jimbo Mathus.
After all, the musical Mississippi journeyman has more or less made an album a year since 1983, and the most recent under his own name, “Incinerator,” may well be his best. It’s an amalgamation of material, some going back 30 years, and a mélange of styles, all of it anchored in the roots rock and blues that was a bedrock of his Magnolia State upbringing.
Most casual fans, however, know him best for his association with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a retro Gypsy-jazz ensemble that made a huge splash in the late 1990s … if they know him at all. Sure, he’s got a dedicated group of followers who love his ability to do craft songs that run the gamut of contemporary sound, but in cataloguing all those records, one question kept coming to mind, he told The Daily Times recently:
“Why am I doing this? What’s the end game?” he said. “And it’s those kinds of thoughts that were permeating when I put ‘Incinerator’ together. I wanted to come out on the other side and feel good about what I’ve done, and feel that there’s a place for me out there. I love bringing the Zippers to people, but I just don’t think a lot of people who dig the Zippers understand what (my music) is really about.
“The Zippers, that’s a whole other ball of wax. It’s such a unique sort of sound and a template I set up for entertainment. My solo stuff is more autobiographical and more close to the heart. Every time I get a chance to put another one out, I want it to say something and not just be a collection of songs. I’m not just putting it out for the sake of putting it out, because the older I get, the better I get at writing and intentionally making a piece of art.”
“Incinerator,” without a doubt qualifies for such a descriptor. From the campfire sing-along of the opening track “Like a Song” to the ominous dirge of the title track to the piano-violin foundation stones of the bluesy “Really Hurt Someone” to the country lament of “South of Laredo,” the album veers smoothly from one lane to the next, driven by a guy who learned how to navigate those curves as a young hotshot brought up in a uniquely musical family.
After moving to North Carolina the multi-instrumentalist co-founded the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a hot jazz group that catapulted to stardom in 1997 thanks to the single “Hell” and the album “Hot.” But roots music was never far from his mind. After riding the Zippers’ rising star through four studio albums and playing for everyone from Jay Leno to former President Clinton, Mathus began to take time off from the Zippers to get back into roots music.
Over the past 20 years, he’s played with backing groups (Knockdown Society, the Tri-State Coalition), reunited off and on with the Zippers and continued to make music that pays tribute to the people he’s met, befriended and loved along the way.
“So many of my compositions, I realize, are a tribute to someone — someone who’s influenced me, someone who’s passed away,” he said. “So many of my songs that are important to me are monuments I’ve created as a way to process a relationship or an event, because when I write it, that’s when all the emotion comes to me. That’s when the processing gets done, in that three- or four-minute song.
“It’s a form of ancestor worship, in a way — making something live forever on an album. Is that a trivial thing? Maybe, but it’s important to me, and I can go revisit those songs any time. It’s like going to a cemetery and putting roses on the headstone of somebody you miss that you admired, or working out something that still troubles you because you haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Incinerator” isn’t complete and total absolution or resolution: If anything, Mathus added, he’s learned that the journey is more fulfilling than the destination. There in the cut is where the emotions rise up that give his songs heft and buoyancy, and while it’s not always a pleasant place to linger, it provides him with a place to gather the ghosts of his past and assemble them into songs of his present.
“The songs need to mean something to me now. They can’t just be something I think is cool, and just because I wrote it doesn’t necessarily mean I need to put it out,” he said. “Every song on ‘Incinerator’ gives you a real good glimpse of where I’m at. I’ve had highs, and I’ve had lows, and the highs were pretty high, and the lows have been incredibly low as well, but I’m still here. And I’m still just as passionate about what I do.
“I’m 52 years old; I’m still, I think, putting some challenging music together. I’ve got a lot of knowledge I’ve acquired, and if you look at the things that have come along in my wake alone, it’s pretty amazing to see the things that have sprung up behind me. Meanwhile, I’m still out here in this murder van, creeping around the country with a killer band.
“I’m like the catfish, just patiently waiting down at the bottom,” he added with a chuckle. “And I’m gonna keep doing it. I will not be deterred.”