Jimbo Mathus was born James H. Mathis, Jr., in Oxford, Mississippi, to Jimmy Mathis and Jeanella (Malvezzi) Mathis. His genealogy is of Scottish and Italian origin. His early life was filled with music, as his father and relatives were skilled instrumentalists and singers. He began joining the family musical circle at an early age and by age 8 was proficient at mandolin. By 15, Jimbo had been taught the rudiments of guitar, piano and harmony singing. The family’s repertoire consisted of hundreds of folk, bluegrass, country blues and pre-recorded songs passed down through the Mathis and Byrd families. His father was an avid outdoorsman, traveler and also raised hunting dogs and horses. Thus, Mathus’ early life consisted of much hunting and fishing in the Corinth, Mississippi, area.
Mathus was involved in rock-and-roll music in Corinth High School and was recorded first in 1983 at Sam Phillips Memphis Recording Service in Memphis, Tennessee, in a group called The End. He also helped found Johnny Vomit & The Dry Heaves, which was one of the first punk rock/experimental noise bands in the state of Mississippi.
He left home at age 17 to study philosophy at Mississippi State University and began writing songs and performing in the Starkville, Mississippi, area. He was recorded and records released in the mid-1980s under the name Cafe des Moines. In 1987, Mathus joined the Merchant Marines working as a deckhand and tankerman for the Canal Barge Company on the Mississippi, Illinois and Tennessee Rivers. He used his shore leave to travel the country extensively, usually alone, camping and sleeping in his pickup truck. Upon a chance trip to North Carolina, he decided to move to the Chapel Hill area and began his music career in earnest.
Educating himself in the libraries of UNC-Chapel Hill, Mathus learned Latin, studied theater, poetry, First Peoples culture, literature and medieval alchemy, as well as music. It was during this time that he changed the spelling of his last name from “Mathis” to “Mathus,” to reflect his respect for his and his mother’s Latin studies. He was first known in this area as a drummer, and his group — Metal Flake Mother — is recognized as one of the great bands of the 1990s on the North Carolina alternative music scene.
Squirrel Nut Zippers
In 1993, Mathus met and soon married Katharine Whalen. Together they formed Squirrel Nut Zippers. This group utilized Mathus’ knowledge of theater, early American music and leadership and, along with Whalen’s fashion and vocal style, created an almost overnight sensation. The group toured extensively throughout the 1990s, appearing at many prestigious events, including Prairie Home Companion, the Second inauguration of Bill Clinton, and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Over the years they’ve also performed on many on major television programs, including The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1998. Their albums have been awarded gold and platinum records by the Recording Industry Association of America, and Billboard chart history includes #18 for the album Perennial Favorites, and #27 for the album “Hot.”
Solo Career & The Tri-State Coalition
In the mid-1990s, Mathus’ frequent trips back to Mississippi led to his meeting Jim and Luther Dickinson, which resulted in Mathus writing and recording “(Jas. Mathus & His Knockdown Society) Play Songs for Rosetta”. This was a benefit project to aid Mathus’ childhood nanny, Rosetta Patton, daughter of the near mythical Mississippi musician Charley Patton. This rekindled Mathus’ interest in Mississippi music and set him on a new path. During this time, Mathus also began recording and producing on his own.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers disbanded in 2000 amid disastrous lawsuits filed by ex-Zippers Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher. Left penniless by these events and after a decade of relentless work, Mathus and Whalen divorced in 2003, at which time Mathus returned to his home state of Mississippi.
Simultaneously, Mathus was gaining recognition for his blues guitar knowledge through his work with blues legend Buddy Guy. Mathus toured with Guy off and on from 2001 to 2003. He also recorded with Guy on his album Sweet Tea, and the Grammy Award winning album Blues Singer.
Mathus started his first studio in his mother’s hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 2003. Using antique ribbon microphones and tube pre-amp, Mathus set up Delta Recording Service in the abandoned Alcazar Hotel in downtown Clarksdale and recorded hundreds of artists there, including Elvis Costello. In 2007, Mathus relocated the studio to Como, Mississippi.
Through the mid- to late 2000s, Mathus performed hundreds of shows in the deep South, mostly in Mississippi. He became a regular and favorite performer at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and acted as bandleader for the National Public Radio broadcast of “Toast of the Nation” on New Year’s Eve in 2004.
2010 was tremendously productive for Mathus: He wrote and produced a successful historical musical revue entitled “Mosquitoville,” and he led the 11-person cast in performances for communities across the state of Mississippi. He also helped form the South Memphis String Band with long-time collaborators Luther Dickinson and Alvin “G.E.” Youngblood Hart and once again signing with a label – Memphis International Records. In this same year, Mathus married Jennifer White Pierce, an Arkansas actress and writer whose brother–guitarist for Mathus’ Tri-State Coalition–had introduced the two.
Mathus and his current band, The Tri-State Coalition, released their album “Confederate Buddha” on Memphis International Records in May 2011 to much critical acclaim. In 2012, alongside musician/producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Mathus and Tri-State recorded the album “White Buffalo” at Delta Recording Services in February 2012. Mathus later dismantled and closed the studio in March.
Mathus released a six-song solo vinyl EP entitled “Blue Light” in July 2012 on Big Legal Mess Records. Mathus and Tri-State’s “White Buffalo” will be released on Fat Possum Records in January 2013.