It's been nearly a decade since veteran roots musician James "Jimbo" Mathus left North Carolina to return to his home state of Mississippi, settling in Como, a small town that borders the Mississippi Delta. Looking back, he's delighted he made the move.
"Moving back was a great experience that affected my music a lot," says Mathus, who is best known across the country as one of the fancy characters in the retro/swing ensemble Squirrel Nut Zippers. "It's taken me back to the people that I grew up with. It meant a lot to me to reconnect with the national forests, the rivers, the hunting camps, and the good and the bad. Being back here has been a blessing to me. I went to Carolina to broaden my horizons and to be around new literature, art, music, and theater. But I wanted to get back to the roots here."
Back in Como, Mathus has built an old-school recording facility called Delta Recording Studio, and he has spent plenty of time recording artists from around the world — working with such luminaries as Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Elvis Costello, and Buddy Guy — while dabbling in various projects, including a loose blues-rock combo called the Knockdown Society, who recorded three albums together from 1997 to 2002.
Last year, inspired by a new-found love of traditional country music, he assembled a new band called the Tri-State Coalition with bassist Justin Showah and keyboardist Eric Carlton (both from Mississippi), guitarist Matt Pierce (from Arkansas), and drummer Austin Marshall (from Missouri).
"There are country tracks on all of my albums," Mathus says. " But the newer stuff is definitely more song-oriented. With the Knockdown Society, I used to roll into towns, pick up a drummer, and say, 'Here's the beat, Let's go.' But with these guys, we're very serious about rehearsing, writing, and performing. That's what we're doing now."
Mathus describes the Tri-State Coalition as "inner-planetary honky-tonk." While the tunes on the band's brand-new disc, Confederate Buddha, aren't totally different in style from Mathus' previous material, the vibe is certainly calmer, cooler, and more collected.
"I really wanted a sound with a lot of harmony singing," says Mathus. "Music should have a lot of harmony in it. I grew up with that, and it's something I always enjoyed. Justin's a great harmony singer. Matt's a fine Telecaster guitarist, and for a while, we kept doing the blues stuff, but I figured out there was a new sound we could do. We added Eric on keys, and I started writing songs to go with that."
Mathus' lyrics started focusing on personal experiences and cultural observations, too.
"The title is the perfect example of what I love about Mississippi and the Deep South," he says. "It's a juxtaposition of total opposites. I expected to catch some flack about it, but if you look at the artwork on it and listen to the music, you'll get it. A confederate is a rebellious anarchist, and the Buddha is a symbol of peace. It's an interesting phrase to me."
A balmy groove propels "Jimmy the Kid" with twangy accents from dual guitar licks. The boozy harmonies between Mathus and Showha resemble the shouty singing of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Stones' Sticky Fingers and Some Girls.
One of the more melodic tunes on the new album is one of the most traditional-sounding country ditties: the strummy, three-chord "Cling to the Roots." Songs like the road trip-ready theme song "Shady Dealin'" rock with rambunctious rhythms and cockiness.
"I feel like I'm reintroducing myself to the world with this sound," says Mathus. "People around [Como] know my songs and style, but I have great people behind me, and I feel like we're on a great campaign behind Confederate Buddha this year."
Musical detours have always allowed Mathus to dig deep into various styles, and he obviously enjoys the adventure and the chance to explore. His enthusiasm is apparent from track to track on the new collection.
"My whole philosophy is that it all blends together," Mathus says. "And that's just a real Southern thing. Looking at where the black and white cross, where the country and blues cross, and where the hillbilly comes in — that's where the soul of man never dies. That's how I want to hear it, and that's how I really want my sound to be heard, once and for all, for better or for worse."