Song of the South

Jimbo Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition highlight catfish music on a new album.
Jimbo Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition highlight catfish music on a new album.
Nov 08
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Jimbo Mathus chases down the slippery sound of catfish music on Confederate Buddha.

Jimbo Mathus partly answered a question by saying, “You have to be diverse in the gamut of Southern music and kind of be into history.”

Mathus, the Mississippi-born-and-bred musician who creates what he calls “catfish music for the masses,” was describing the membership requirements of his backing band The Tri-State Coalition but could be describing the music on their May release Confederate Buddha. Catfish music is an elusive sound that Mathus said he was always striving for, but a sound that remained just out of reach before Mathus solidified the coalition on the new album: Arkansas native Matt Pierce on guitar, Mississippi’s own Justin Showah on bass, Mississippian Eric Carlton on piano and organ, and Missourian Austin Marshall on drums. (Arkansan Alex Holeman is the band’s current drummer.) With Confederate Buddha, Jimbo Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition chase that slippery sound down, never taming it but clutching the free-spirited music for the 12 tracks and 45 minutes of the album.

So what is catfish music? It’s the songs of the South, an unruly blast of blues, country, honky tonk and rock ‘n’ roll with a hint of gospel, which means catfish music will raise Hades on Saturday night and quietly bow its head Sunday morning thanks to the honey-drenched harmonies of The White Angels on background vocals. On Confederate Buddha, catfish music also includes a bit of New Orleans funk, Ozarks folk and gritty Memphis soul.

But more than what the music sounds like is what the music is. It’s of the dark alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta, and the hellfire of a hill country tent revival. It’s a floorboard shaking juke joint on a raucous weekend night, and a late-night country drive beneath the towering oaks and kudzu. This is music of the land, and about it’s people.

Mathus is the scruffy-voiced leader of this band of merry music makers; the evangelist, possessed with the spirit and told he must spread the gospel of Mississippi-fostered catfish music. There’s religious overtones throughout Confederate Buddha, and the album’s genesis lies in a revival moment: Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition decided in the spring of 2010 that it was time for a rededication. And the mission was simple: Introduce catfish music to the masses. It was also the final step in Mathus’ path back home.

Mathus left Mississippi in the mid-1980s for North Carolina, a sojourn of discovery, but the knowledge Mathus upturned while there pointed back to Mississippi. “The longer I stayed up there ... everything I learned about music brought me back to Mississippi,” Mathus said. “It kept pointing the way back here musically speaking.”

Mathus found a sip of fame with jump blues and swinging jazz group Squirrel Nut Zippers in the mid-1990s, but by the turn of the century Mathus was back in Mississippi, working with artists such as Buddy Guy, Elvis Costello and buddy Luther Dickinson while recording a number of albums such as Knockdown South during the last decade.

Mathus played renegade roots music with a number of musicians over the years (Mathus and Showah have played together since 2000), but Confederate Buddha is the sound Mathus always dreamed of. The album covers Meters-inspired funk on “Kine Joe,” a country rock nod to Gulf Coast environmental disasters on “Cling to the Roots,” muscular rock on “Jimmy the Kid,” Marty Robbins-influenced country and western on “Aces & Eights” and soul-burning torch songs on “Walks Beside.”

“It’s the great Southern jukebox,” Mathus said. “You walk into the bar and every song on there just makes sense. I wanted to do something diverse, but not too jarring and disjointed.”

Besides the musical influences burrowed in the album, there’s also the looming shadow of folklorist Alan Lomax and his book The Land Where The Blues Began — especially the chapter on Mississippi folk/blues musician Sid Hemphill. Over the past few years, Mathus has immersed himself in discovering his slice of the South, a land that borders the wide-open Mississippi Delta and the dark hollers of the state’s hill country. The book’s influence is most apparent on the album closing “Days of High Cotton,” a tune that paraphrases William Faulkner while contrasting the deep poverty of the Mississippi Delta today with its salad days.

“I’m a big proponent of the South and Southern culture and a student of Southern history, and I’m always studying on the South and what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong,” Mathus said. “It’s real important to me. I think we are a region of big contrasts.”

Mathus ended by saying, “We just try to do good.” Mathus was discussing him and The Tri-State Coalition’s mission, but he could have been talking about the South, too.

SEE THE SHOW

Jimbo Mathus and The Tri-State Coalition come to White Water Tavern for a Friday show with the music starting at 10 p.m. Cover is $10 at the door.

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