Mississippi songwriter Jimbo Mathus sounds as though he was ripped from the pages of Jack Kerouac or Mark Twain, like a blues allegory or some half-remembered hillbilly hero from lore.
The former leader of vaudeville act Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band that crested to fame on the wave of the mid-'90s swing revival but never quite fit with it, Mathus is enamored with the American myth. He grew up surrounded by country blues, folk, and bluegrass, played by his father and family, before falling in love with punk. He fell in with the Merchant Marine for a spell after high school then left the University of Mississippi not long after enrolling — to travel America, exploring the South, making his way out west to Arizona, where he sought to purify himself in Hopi sweat lodges. He picked up musical traditions and lessons on the road. Somewhere along the line, he bartered himself a gold tooth, one that gleams in his wide smile.
"I did everything from jumping trains, walking, riding, working as a deckhand on the inland waterways," Mathus says by phone from Taylor, Mississippi.
It's raining as he speaks, and after a few minutes of competing with the pounding rain on his porch, he heads inside to be heard with more clarity.
"Traveling America was my college. You know, like the song, 'Looking for the places that only they would know,'" he says, citing Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." "It's the whole 'Dharma Bum' thing. I don't have to jump trains anymore, but the things I learned hitching, jumping trains, riding boats . . . I can't replace that."
Mathus gets a faraway sound in his voice, reflecting on his time on the road.
"It served the purpose of teaching me about the lonesome whistle," he says. "You know, the dirt roads, the shit that made up American music is about the nitty-gritty, right? The lowdown, making something out of desperation."
At times, Mathus comes across as someone from a tall tale, but his backstory doesn't sound like a bid for rootsy authenticity when he tells it. The road truly is where Mathus found his voice. Mathus doesn't just play American music; he synthesizes it, distilling disparate elements into one simmering sound.
On Dark Night of the Soul, his 2013 album for Fat Possum, recorded with his backing band the Tri-State Coalition, Mathus echoes lessons picked up from his mentors and patrons, "all the cats" he's worked with: Buddy Guy, the Chicago bluesman with whom he recorded and toured; Bruce Watson, owner of Fat Possum and the Dial Back Studio where Mathus records; and Jim Dickinson, who produced the power pop group Big Star and rowdy punks the Replacements with the same zeal as blues and roots explorers like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Ry Cooder, and his anthology of rural blues field recordings, The Delta Experimental Project. Mathus' music, like Dickinson's, treats blues, punk, country, and gospel as one thing, drawn from the same wellspring.
"Putting these kind of sounds together has been my life's work," Mathus says. "I'm not saying that it's a revolutionary thing, but to me it's important. It's not just sound and fury signifying nothing; it's an actual document. One of my big influences is Jim Dickinson, and he used to [liken making albums] to 'putting your cave painting on the wall.' It's your woolly mammoth that you killed. It's a primitive thing, and it's a primal thing to record yourself.'"
Dark Night of the Soul is at times a party record and at times a confessional worthy of Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross' poem "La noche oscura del alma," with which the album shares a name. On the its best songs, like the rousing "White Angel," Dark Night captures both vibrations, alternating between rowdy grooves worthy of the Faces or the Rolling Stones and celestial musings worthy of a sweaty Sunday morning service.
On "Writing Spider," an ambling country gospel song, Mathus delivers a brutal line, "Nobody asked to be born / Nobody asked to be here at all," and immediately follows it with a hopeful reflection, "I'm just watching this writing spider weave his story across my wall / I open the door for anything, just far enough to let light in, but I closed the door so many times from all the trouble that I had back then." It's Mathus at his finest, oscillating between the darkness of the blues and the elevation of redemption.
"I'm not just trying to make a song that everybody can get fucked up and get drunk and listen to — although that is part of my goal — but I'm trying to put some things into words," Mathus says. "It's about the process of seeking, searching."
The album is freewheeling and loose, a byproduct of the recording approach favored by Mathus and Fat Possum's Watson, who produced the album. The aim isn't perfection, Mathus says. "It's about getting that gris-gris together, that real feeling.
"When you do it old school, like we do with a live band, all going down on the floor, with a real producer, with a real studio — this isn't somebody's laptop, this isn't somebody's apartment — this is skilled people putting some shit together," Mathus says. "It's all about the moment, the intent of putting some real serious shit down. We're not going to fix it later. We're going to do one or two takes. We're gonna get it now or else we're never gonna get it, or else it's a bad idea."
The album shows off Mathus' musical roots, and touring in support of it gives him a way to reconnect with his traveling roots. He especially looks forward to coming out west. His parents live in Cochise County, Arizona, where they moved after raising him in the South.
"So much of Mississippi history is tied into the West, because we were 'the West' at one time," Mathus says. "There's something in us that draws us west, to that 'promised land.'"
But as a student of American traditions and history, Mathus says the West also represents the dark side of the America's western expansion.
"The Hopi, the Zuni, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Native people . . . [are] a constant reminder of what we've done wrong as a nation, and how far we have to go to fix things," Mathus says.
Mathus' music is about the combination of American roots, the intersection between the black and white South. To truly understand America, he says, you first have to observe it in all its ugliness.
"If you love America, you gotta learn about that. You gotta know your roots. You gotta know what we did wrong, to tell people how to do right."
It's this spirit that drives his music, a spirit of shared experience.
"You reach out across the borders. You shake hands with someone who's not like you," Mathus says. "You know, you talk to them, look at them in the eyes."