Over the past two decades, the roots music adventures of Jimbo Mathus have shifted with the regularity and rapidity of a slide show.
One night he might gigging with a blues great like Buddy Guy or a new generation contemporary like the North Mississippi All-Stars. Or he might be matching rural blues chops with Alvin Youngblood Hart and Luther Dickinson in the South Memphis String Band.
The Mississippi bred guitarist, singer and songsmith could be touring with his newest Southern-style roots music troupe, the Tri-State Coalition. Then again, he might just be playing a show on his own or performing behind another like-minded musical pal trying to bring rock, blues, soul and juke joint charm to the masses.
“I’m kind of a journeyman,” said Mathus, who will return to Lexington for tonight’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “I can play in a solo, duo or trio setting. I play drums sometimes. I play bass sometimes. Sometimes I’m even known as a mandolinist. I frequently play other instruments that I’m not known for just to pay the bills. It’s as simple as that. So my repertoire benefits me because I can get into any musical situation and do something that is appropriate
Much of that journeyman attitude is reflected in the music of the Tri-State Coalition, which touches on numerous roots-friendly styles in the course of a concert or recording. They might rip through a guitar dominate roadhouse groove in one song, switch to vintage-style honky tonk on the next and then wind up in a jam overseen by the primal Hill Country blues spirits Mathus grew with.
The job that Mathus confronts on the band’s two Fat Possum records – the 2012 debut White Buffalo and follow-up Dark Night of the Soul (due for release in February) – is to weave those inspirations into a cohesive sound of his own.
“We’re reconfiguring the basic components of this music, and Tri State is the band that can really roll with the punches I throw at them.
“I’ve never liked pigeonholing in one style in the first place. I like listening to Buck Owens as much as I liked listening to Muddy Waters. I’ve never seen the difference between the genres to where I would get classified one set way, and that has probably been difficult on my career – not sticking with one thing. I’m just not satisfied doing that.
“Predominantly, I’m an entertainer and a songwriter. With that, there certain topics I want to discuss in my songs but they need to be presented with a certain sound – be it through honky tonk or something heavier. I look at the genres of American music that I have at my disposal as pieces of a puzzle that have been laid out for us by our forefathers – be they white, black, Native American, whatever. They are all part of the canon and language that is American music.”
Piecing. together musical jigsaws is nothing new to Mathus. In 1993, he co-founded the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a roots music troupe that was essentially unclassifiable as a whole even though its songs referenced jazz, blues, ragtime, folk, swing and even vaudeville.
“The Squirrel Nut Zippers, if you look at the band, was an example of me searching the deepest roots of American popular music. We were starting with Stephen Foster. We were starting with Tin Pan Alley. That was what that group expressed. The research and the energy I put in involved taking the roots all the way back.
“People can call that a swing revival or whatever. It was not a swing revival. The Squirrel Nut Zippers were a roots revival band. It’s hard for people to understand that who aren’t as deep into this music as I am. It seems like a bunch of disparate elements from the outside to them. But to me, it all makes sense. And it all greatly impacts my music now. I know how to arrange for big bands. I know how to arrange for the ensemble band that I have now. I arrange for them the same way I arranged for the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Everybody has to play their proper parts.”
Perhaps more than any single dominating influence, Mathus’ newer music with the Tri-State Coalition (which will operate at WoodSongs as a trio rounded out by pianist Eric Carlton and bassist Stu Cole) is a product of heritage. A native of Oxford, Miss., Mathus feels artistic tugs from scores of artists, musicians and writers that have hailed from in and around the region. Even the landscape, he added, is an influence.
“There is everything from Elvis to Howlin’ Wolf. There is Memphis to draw from. There is the Delta. There is Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. There is every great writer you can shake a stick at, from William Faulkner to Larry Brown. The list goes on and on. The personalities, the character of the people, even the nature just resonates with me.
“It’s the history and the many issues we’ve had to deal within that history. Man, I couldn’t imagine being from any other place.”
Jimbo Mathus plays at 7 tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Cynthia Sayer will also perform. Tickets are $10. Call (859) 252-8888 or go to www.woodsongs.com