For years, James "Jimbo" Mathus has shied away from rock 'n' roll. With his most notable band, the North Carolina ensemble Squirrel Nut Zippers, he delved into swing, and when the group disbanded, he dove head-first into the blues. Now, finally, he's ready to rock.
Mathus and his current band, the Tri-State Coalition, are attempting to inspire the same feeling as the original rock 'n' rollers. "I have a really great rock 'n' roll band with a great rhythm section," Mathus says. "They can peel off and do any Southern music you'd want to hear. In the Tri-State Coalition, one person has got to be swingin', one person has got to be draggin', and one person needs to be peeling paint."
Mathus says that back in the 1980s, when he was digging into his collection of Rolling Stones and British Invasion records, he knew instinctively that he'd end up playing genuine rock' n' roll. "But I knew that I wanted to come through it like they did — through the country-blues, inside and out," he says. "It seemed too easy to mess it up by simply jumping in and becoming a rock band. I did a lot of time in the blues, but making a rock 'n' roll band on my own terms has been a goal for a long time."
Mathus stepped away from the Zippers nearly 15 years ago, leaving North Carolina for a small town in his native state of Mississippi. He built several recording facilities and split his time tracking artists from around the world (like Luther Dickinson, Elvis Costello, and Buddy Guy) and leading various blues-rock combos. The Tri-State Coalition is the tightest and most focused band Mathus has led since his Zippers days.
The band formed a few years ago while he was living in Memphis. Comprised of bassist Justin Showah (a longtime Mathus colleague), keyboardist Eric Carlton, guitarist Matt Pierce, and drummer Ryan Rogers, the group veered away from straightforward Delta blues and ventured into country and soul territory.
Last year, Showah, Carlton, and Pierce contributed to the Coalition's countrified debut Confederate Buddha. Mathus described the band's sound on the album as "inner-planetary honky-tonk." This year, with a new EP of gritty rock anthems and ballads in hand, things aren't so country anymore.
In July, Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition will release a six-song vinyl EP titled Blue Light on Big Legal Mess, a subsidiary of the Fat Possum label. The band recorded the collection with producer Bruce Watson at Watson's Dialed Back Sound studio in Water Valley, Miss. The vinyl version of the EP will be pressed on heavy-duty blue vinyl.
The funky, mid-tempo title track on Blue Light is a gospel-rocker with a slinky rhythm, churchy backing vocals, and roadhouse piano. The rowdiest tune of the set is the Stones-y rocker "Fucked Up World," a foot-stomper with loads of boozy rhythm guitar, clangy tambourine, pulsating organ, and sneery cuss words. The band plays with a loose garage-rock feel on "Haunted John," and they get twangy on the heartbreak anthem "Burn the Honky Tonk," a song that effectively bridges the country leanings on Confederate Buddha to their current rockin' style.
"In a way, I'm up to my old tricks," Mathus says. "It's a Southern stew like I always do. But we're trying to elevate things. I think my songwriting gets better with time. I know I have a lot of experience that I can bring to the table with my songs and with my ability to lead a band."