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Eddie Owen Presents: Jimbo Mathus (opener: Schaefer Llana)

Sunday, February 19
Show | 8pm // Doors | 7pm
$0 to $30

General Admission: $30 adv ($35 day of show)


Jimbo Mathus | Delta Magazine, January-February 2022 

The Seeker 

How Squirrel Nut Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus discovered his path and found his way back to  Clarksdale. 

By Jim Beaugez 

Sitting behind the wheel of his pickup truck, James H. “Jimbo” Mathus was crisscrossing America in  search of something. Not for anything he could put his hands on, necessarily, and not for anything he  could see. But he thought he would recognize it when he found it. At 19 years old, he was looking for a  place to begin.  

His life to that point—his youth spent in Corinth and Clarksdale; his brief stay at Mississippi State  University, where he dabbled in philosophy; and his stint traveling Old Man River with the Merchant  Marines—were all preamble to the real Jimbo Mathus, the person he began looking for sometime  between thumbing a borrowed paperback of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and  dropping out of college. 

The ingredients were all there, thanks in part to Mathus’s father, who taught him the ropes of bluegrass,  honky-tonk and gospel music. Not to mention the blues he absorbed on visits to Clarksdale where his  grandfather, Tony Malvezzi, ran the Conerly shoe store chain. He motored through California, New York and Alaska, using his time off from the river barges to find a place where he fit in. Chapel Hill, North  Carolina, was funky and Southern enough, he thought, and it had a real music scene supported by local  record labels and the University of North Carolina student body. 

“I had a vague idea of what my career could be, but it was unformed,” Mathus says. “Chapel Hill just  resonated with me. As soon as I found that, just on one of my travels on shore leave, I called back to  Canal Barge Company on the pay phone, said ‘I quit,’ and stayed there. It was just one of those instinct  things, I guess you’d say.” 

Mathus’s intuition proved correct. Chapel Hill was not only a hotbed of musical activity, but also an  intellectual enclave where he could learn all he wanted for free at the UNC library. Rents were cheap  and minimum wage was relatively good for the era—$80 a month for a place to stay and five bucks an  hour for his labors—and he set out to find the like-minded musicians who would eventually join him in his new band, Squirrel Nut Zippers. 

“When I got up there, I was just wide-open,” he remembers. “I was trying to learn and trying to  understand American music, how I fit in and what I was going to do with it. So, all the resources up there  from literature to the music, it all helped me figure it out pretty quick.” 

Built around an unlikely but infectious melding of American music styles, Squirrel Nut Zippers drew from be-bop jazz, bluegrass, Dixieland, swing and rock ‘n’ roll and became a surprise hit in the mid-1990s. The  band’s 1996 album, Hot, sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone, and the 1997 follow-up,  Perennial Favorites, posted another half a million in sales. The Zippers played the White House, made  the late-night television circuit and toured the world. But the band was swept into the short-lived swing music revival, and when the fad ended their fortunes began to erode, culminating in Mathus’s divorce  from bandmate Katharine Whalen and a hiatus beginning in 2001.

Mathus had been making trips back to Mississippi for years by then, where he immersed himself in Delta  and Hill Country blues. He also learned of his connection to Charley Patton, one of the most influential  blues artists of all time, through family friend and housekeeper Rosetta Patton, who Mathus learned  was Charley’s daughter. The 1997 album Songs for Rosetta, credited to James Mathus and His  Knockdown Society, paid tribute to her with a set of Delta blues songs.  

“Rosetta is somebody I consider a relative, [and] I’m still close to her family,” he says. “Lo and behold,  after all these years, I find out that she was the daughter of Charley Patton, the king of the Delta blues. That’s when I really staked my claim and thought, ‘Okay, I’m up here in North Carolina. I’m very much  

known for this retro band Squirrel Nut Zippers, but I’m going to go ahead and stake my claim to  Mississippi music, where I’m from. I may not be living there right now, but I will be back there someday.’ Songs for Rosetta was like a manifesto for my future self.” 

His dedication to learning the craft of the blues landed him a gig backing Buddy Guy, which is where he  retreated when the Zippers imploded. Mathus threw himself into the work of touring on neutral ground,  so to speak, until decamping for Clarksdale in 2003 to start his next chapter as owner of Delta Recording,  a studio he set up in the storefront of the former Alcazar Hotel, where as a kid he watched Early Wright,  the first Black radio disc jockey in Mississippi, spin records for WROX on the AM dial.