To be honest, when you just look at his pictures you think of words like goofy, odd, unusual.
He is quite odd in his manner of dress, he wore bright red sneakers with no laces and a red and white hat was perched on his head. He would lift the hat now and then and run his fingers through his hair as though he was grooming it, then pop the hat back in place. His hair is a bit wild, a lot like Albert Einstein’s hair. He has a small white goatee. Jimbo Mathus is a sight for sore eyes, there is nothing boring about his man.
The evening began with an interview led by his friend Frye Galliard. Frye is writer in residence at the University of South Alabama. He has many books published. His books are written extensively on southern race relations, politics and culture. I recommend “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and innocence Lost”. Look him up, he has at least 20 books to his credit.
As the interview began Frye said that he met Jimbo Mathus in 1996 or 97. Frye did a review on Jimbo in Oxford American (a quarterly literary magazine dedicated to documenting the complexity of the American South) In the process he followed Jimbo’s band “The Squirrel Nut Zippers” based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the time. The band’s current album went Gold, it was selling like “hot cakes”, he said. Jimbo is originally from Mississippi and his heart will always remain there, but his musical success took hold when he moved to Chapel Hill.
Jimbo Mathus (James H. Mathis, Jr) is a Mississippi boy through and through. The interview also revealed that he was born into a musical family. Surrounded by his dad, his uncles and a few cousins, Jimbo began playing the mandolin when he was only 6 years old. By the time he was 8-10 years old he could perform over 200 songs, remembering all of the lyrics and chords. He said if he ever messed up, he would get a thump to the back of his head…his head is still tender today from those thumps.
After only a year and a half living in Chapel Hill, he started the band Squirrel Nut Zippers as an art project. He never suspected the success they would reach. The spotlight shined on them right away. Some of the achievements include playing at the Olympics, playing on Sesame Street, Receiving a gold, and a platinum album; selling over 3 million copies.
We learned that he has a connection to a gentleman named Charley Patton. Patton was considered by many to be the “Father of the Delta Blues”. Jimbo’s family had a live-in nanny named Rosetta, she was “part of his family”. After he was grown and into music for a career, he came home to visit and was shocked to find out Charley Patton was Rosetta’s father. This had a profound effect on Jimbo, he went to visit Rosetta and learn all he could about her father. When Rosetta became ill in her later years, and Jimbo had come into a position of a little wealth; he made the decision to use that money (and other donations he was able to get) to see that Rosetta had a good safe place to stay with proper care. As he told the story you could feel his love for his former nanny and she was his family as much as any of his biological family. “You help your family when they are in need”, he said.
That told a deep and enlightening story of his true character and he won me over without ever singing one note.
Frye did an excellent job of interviewing. He used a little different style than the one used by David Calametti. Because these two (Jimbo and Frye), are longtime friends… “The World According To Jimbo” session was like two friends chatting and it was the perfect format for them. This completed the 3rd session in a series of interviews of “Interesting” people. There is a new session each month at The Listening Room of Mobile, so check it out.
After the interview ended there was a short break, then the music began. People called out requests and often Jimbo would say “Oh Lord its been years since I did that one, but I’ll give it a try.” He started off with a tune called “In The Garden”. He reached out and solicited our help to sing…”In The Garden” or “in the City” right after he sang it. The audience happily complied and it made for an even greater connection between Jimbo and the listeners.
Someone requested he sing “Blue Light”. Jimbo said that is one of his OUTLAW songs…he added that the police and he never really got along that well. “They didn’t like how I looked”, he said….”I guess I had an outlaw kinda appearance, so they suspected me of doing something.” I remember this line from “Blue Light”…”Tupelo in the dead of night, that’s where I saw the blue light”.
Jimbo sang many songs. “The Ghost of Stephen Foster”…he spoke of Foster’s well-known song “Camptown Ladies”….and he insisted in his song…”Camptown ladies never sang all the doo dah day!’ (he said the Camptown ladies Foster sang about were prostitutes).
His honky tonk song of the evening was “Fallen Angel”. To me it was probably the most country of his songs. He advised that this song is featured on the upcoming season of House of Cards…that is exciting. House of Cards is an intense, fascinating show on Netflix.
I personally loved “The Writing Spider”….lyrics “nobody asked to be born, nobody asked to be here at all.” “Some say Jesus is the answer, Jesus can set you free.” He took the blame for everything, even the original sin”…I took the blame on all the trouble I had back then.”
This was a night I won’t soon forget. I learned a lot from the interview, then I was interested in hearing his music. I enjoyed every minute of this very unusual, kind hearted, caring man who happens to have written over 300 songs and he remembers most of them.
Thank you Jimbo Mathus for being your quirky, fun, loving, talented self
Thank you Frye Gaillard for an excellent interview
Thank you Jim Pennington for making it all happen at The Listening Room of Mobile
Thank you to all who came to film, photo, sketch, write, and just enjoy the show.