Jimbo Mathus is probably best known—unfairly, at this point—as a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, where he was a major contributor to that group’s ragtag take on hot jazz and swing.
Since then, he’s wandered so far and wide on the musical map that it’s hard to even believe he’s the same songwriter who penned songs like “The Ghost of Stephen Foster”. 1997’s Plays Songs for Rosetta found him taking on the Charlie Patton catalog (Patton’s daughter Rosetta helped bring up Mathus when he was a child), while later albums found him exploring everything from juke joint blues to acoustic Americana to southern rock. Over the course of the last decade, Mathus has shown himself to be a dedicated student of just about any music that was born in America, especially if it comes from south of the Mason Dixon line or his native Mississippi Delta.
His last few releases, like 2011’s Confederate Buddha and 2012’s Blue Light, have found him getting away from albums dominated by any one sound. Whereas an early album like National Antiseptic might have been Mathus’s barn-burning tribute to one style of blues, his more recent albums find him more concerned with bringing all of those influences together for a sound that he can call his own.
On White Buffalo, Mathus’s seventh solo record, the reference points are all there, but the guitar solo that recalls the Allman Brothers or the honky tonk lope that underpins “Poor Lost Souls” only make up parts of songs instead of sounding like their whole reason for being. “In the Garden”, with its mandolin and crunchy guitars, evokes straightforward rockers like Alejandro Escovedo or Bruce Springsteen, even as Mathus plumbs the symbolism of the song’s Garden of Eden imagery. It’s mainly a rock record, but it’s a rock record mixed with blues, soul, swamp boogie, cosmic country, and just a touch of spookiness.
It also seems like Mathus’s journey has also been represented by more and more personal songs. As fun as his Squirrel Nut Zippers songs were, its arguable they taught us much about Mathus other than he had a devilish sense of humor. Plays Songs for Rosetta had the personal connection because of Mathus’s relationship with Rosetta, but it was Patton’s songs doing the heavy lifting. White Buffalo, however, finds him singing songs about having a “Useless Heart” or about going to a family funeral in “Hatchie Bottom”. It’s unclear whether they’re his stories, family stories, or some mix of the two, but as Mathus has gone along, it seems like he’s become more comfortable with putting more of himself out there.
Mathus’s solo records have always sounded like the work of someone playing a style of music that he loves. With recent releases like White Buffalo, there’s also a sense of comfort, as if Mathus has finally found his own personal take on the sounds of the South.