“When you electrify country music, you end up sounding like the Stones,” says Jimbo Mathus. But even though some critics have said that some cuts on Mathus’ latest release, Knockdown South, sound like ’70s Mick and the boys, Mathus didn’t set out to sound like the Stones. The former Squirrel Nut Zip is now back in his home country in Clarksdale, Miss., with a new sound that reflects the older sounds of that region. “A lot of my songs start out based on more like a Charlie Patton thing, or something older, and then just kinda soup it up a little bit.”
That souping up is done in a style that Buddy Guy called a cool quirk–just on the edge of a mistake, but not making one. Mathus calls his own style “a little anarchic, a little like it’s about to fall off the map at any minute.” Mathus has performed on two records with Guy, 2001’s Sweet Tea and the acoustic Blues Singer, which won Guy a Grammy last year.
When not touring or recording with Guy, Mathus runs his own studio and label in Clarksdale. Elvis Costello recently found his way there to record. “I was real blown away with his singing, his whole respect for the Memphis music and the ’50s music was pretty impressive,” Mathus says. “And it was just real easy. I recorded him just like I’d record anybody else–it was all live and a few mics. He didn’t want any pro tools or any isolation or anything–he just wanted to do it like I did it.” Lost Highway was so pleased with the record, Mathus says, that they released the whole session Costello did with him, calling it The Clarksdale Sessions.
But most of his clientele isn’t famous. He’s trying to attract the misfits who aren’t really interested in signing up and getting a bunch of money. “People whose hearts are in the right place and just want somebody to record ’em well and make a CD they’re happy with, and to feel something.” It’s a barter system, with Mathus recording aspiring artists for free. “If the CD’s good enough and the band likes to work and has their act together, they’re gonna make it. And if I can’t make it, maybe they’ll make it and loan me some money,” he says.
Jimbo Mathus plays Cat’s Cradle Wednesday, May 18 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.