James Mathus became an international star as front man for The Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose hopped up brand of half-century old ragtime music launched a mid-1990s swing revival that even the most prescient music analyst could have never foreseen. In 1997, Mathus took a leave of absence to record Songs for Rosetta, a stirring blues exercise that paid tribute to 1920-30s Delta Blues King Charley Patton and raised thousands of dollars for the legend’s surviving daughter for whom the album is titled.
From his home in Orange County, North Carolina, which is comfortably located “out in the country,” the charismatic singer/songwriter from Mississippi discusses his latest release. Recorded with his Knockdown Society and titled National Antiseptic, it is a coherent assembly of mostly self-penned Delta blues, rockabilly, country, roots-rock and bayou soul. It differs greatly from his Zippers material in that it surveys a broader horizon of musical vistas but it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his prior, collaborative efforts in terms of energy level, inventiveness and sustained quality. It may not be swing music, but it sure will light a fire in your gut and make you want to boogie.
What were some interesting anecdotes Rosetta Patton, your childhood nanny, has shared with you concerning her famed father, Charley Patton?
I guess the most startling thing she said about him was that she thought he was a real good father – that he would come by and visit her often. He’s made out to be … Backing up just a minute, I didn’t even know that she was Charley Patton’s daughter until 1991 or ’92 … the life of a blues man in the Delta, in the 1920s and ’30s when he lived, was not something people went around bragging about. A blues man is playing gambling houses, prostitution houses, drink houses … (he’s surrounded by) illegal activities of all kinds. Rosetta was a church going lady, her mama was a church going lady … Now, (her mama) had obviously gotten up with Charley at some point (chuckles), but it wasn’t the kind of thing you went around bragging about, if you get my drift.
I didn’t find out about it until some Japanese tourists came down to Clarksdale (Miss.) and found Rosetta at her house – they were on this blues pilgrimage from Japan and had somehow tracked her down. That caused some sensation in my hometown – that was when it all started coming out.
At the time, I was already into Delta and Mississippi blues, particularly Charley Patton, but it brought a couple things back home for me and really got me motivated to get into Patton even more and talk to Rosetta and ask her questions about (him).
Mathus pauses for a moment and sighs thoughtfully.
But, she didn’t ever really talk a whole lot about it. We’d sit there and listen to his CDs, and she’s got her favorites … of course, she liked the religious songs that he did the best: “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Jesus Is Dyer Bed Maker.” He did a lot of records under the name Elder J.J. Hadley, in which he was doing preaching stuff.
The things (Rosetta) taught me the most was a lot about the black people that lived all around me in Mississippi. Races tend to stay kind of separated, and she really opened my eyes. (As a youth) I thought she was one of our family. She really opened my eyes up to the other side of life that was right there in front of me … and it made a huge impact. I was never contented to just be satisfied with “white people go here, black people go here, black people this, white people that” – I never had that because I always said, “no, bulls–t. Everybody is the same.” You know? It set me off in life with an attitude about the races that was just different from everybody else’s down there.
Do you feel that racism is still a problem in Mississippi?
It’s still a problem all over the world – there’s no doubt about it.
Other than Patton, who are some other musicians that made an impact on you as a youth growing up in the Deep South?
Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams – those were the first musicians that I got a hold of. I started hearing a lot of blues when I was 18, 19 … Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Lemon Jefferson … Charley Patton.
Interestingly, all the artists you mention listening to while growing up pre-date rock ‘n’ roll, which would have been the music the majority of your peers were being transfixed by at the time. Who exposed you to performers such as Rodgers, who recorded the bulk of his material during the 1920s?
Through my family – they were all musicians interested in traditional music. They introduced me to Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Johnny Cash … all the good white stuff. I had my dad’s record collection from when he was in college – all records that were 15-20 years old at that time.
I first started playing mandolin at age six in the family band. I moved to guitar when I was 14. Along the way I learned the banjo, bass, piano … I play a little drums, dobro and slide (guitar), so when I started hearing a lot of the blues, a lot of the black music, I saw the similarity (it shared with country music) instead of the difference in it. I listen to more blues now than country music, but I still love country music. I still listen to it.
Describe playing guitar along side blues master Buddy Guy on his latest release, ‘Sweet Tea?’
It was the honor of a lifetime. Buddy Guy was just tough all the way through, just a guitar playing man and just sweet and talented and hard working. He was in there scrapping with the rest of us – never put anybody off, never pulled any BS with anybody. I have nothing but respect for the man.
The album has been universally hailed by critics and consumers alike as one of his finest recordings in years …
Probably since his Chess (Label) days … some people say it’s his best ever. He steps out there and brings brings it all the way back to (the early 1960s) when Hendrix was watching him, and Clapton was watching him. I just think it is a career record for him.
In the mid-1990s, your other band, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, led the swing revival that made the music of the 1940s popular again with Generation X. Now, with your solo work, including stints with the Grammy-nominated North Mississippi Allstars and Guy, you are playing an integral role in the roots-rock/Americana revival that has been slowly building and seems poised to barrel onto the mainstream like a freshly shocked steer. Do you feel that your “raw, juke-joint sound” could become the next big thing with young people?
(Chuckling) I seriously doubt it (laughs again).
Hey, nobody would have dreamed that you could have sold 2.5 million ragtime records.
That’s true … that’s true. I don’t really concern myself with those kind of issues. I just follow my heart. The Squirrel Nut Zippers was a collaboration among a bunch of people. The Knockdown Society is just me – doing what I want to do. I wrote a lot of music for the Zippers and I came up with a good concept and role for what I was gonna do in there. It was a fluke that we had any success. We were just suppose to be getting together and having some laughs. It just took off on us. It’s great, I’m blessed, but frankly, now I’m happy with me just doing what I want to do – I’m not writing songs for anybody else to sing.
What does your wife, Squirrel Nut Zippers vocalist Katherine Whalen, do while your stomping around the country with your Knockdown Society brethren?
We got a 20-month-old baby, so she’s happy just staying home being mom while I’m gone. I’m home a lot with my baby, and wife, and I am “stomping out” some, too. But, you rest assured that if I’m home, I’m looking to go out, and if I’m out, I’m looking to go home (laughs).
How did your view of the world change after hitting the big-time with the Zippers?
Man, it did a world of good for everybody in the group, in the organization, as far as career wise goes, getting a leg up, making some money, seeing the world. It was great. It gave me confidence and time to just focus on music and not have to worry about a day job.
I suppose it compared favorably to working on the river barges as a young man?
(Laughs) How’d you know about that?
I can’t reveal my sources …
No matter how bad things get for me now, I can always look back and say, “well, at least I’m not out there in the middle of the river, in December, working 12-20 hours a day in the freezing rain.” It gives you a basis to look at life and be thankful for what you have.
Too bad more of today’s whiny rock stars don’t share the same view.
It gets a whole lot worse. If you think the music business is bad, try something else for real.
Growing up in the Bible belt, what kind of an influence did religion and gospel music have on you as a person and artist?
I had this record for like 10 years … finally I had to sell it. It was called Get Right With God and it was all this religious, gospel, sanctified music from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. It’s got some of the greatest gospel music on it ever … I wish I could find it again, I haven’t been able to since I had to sell it. Gospel music had a big influence on me … my family played a lot of gospel music – I understand the dichotomy (between secular and religious songs) pretty well because I played a lot of gospel music growing up.
At what age did you begin writing songs?
I first started writing back in … I guess as soon as I started playing … coming up with little things on my own, I didn’t know it was called ‘writing.’ I didn’t start putting words to it until I was 16,17. Then I started really getting into it heavy in my 20s. Now, in my 30s, I’ve started to chill out a little … kind of relaxed … I don’t wanna be all worked up about it. I just let the songs come natural … I don’t wanna be some tortured writer, you know?
Your new album has a raw, warm lo-fi sound that endears itself to the listener. How was this achieved?
I mostly pretty much use primitive recording techniques, it was all done live on state-of-the-art 1950s equipment.
What are James Mathus’ future plans as a solo artist and as a member of The Squirrel Nut Zippers?
My main focus right now is the Knockdown Society. I wanna put out some more solo records. I got another batch of songs ready to go, and I’m not in a real big hurry to do anything with the Zippers. We worked real hard for a long time and had a lot of success … if something lands in my lap, I’ll look at it. But, right now, I’m concentrating on the Knockdown Society.
- James Mathus and his Knockdown Society will be performing tomorrow night at Skipper’s Smokehouse. For tickets/info call 971-0666.
n All selections by Wade Tatangelo. He can be contacted at email@example.com.