Sometimes you need to get back to basics. That's what took former Squirrel Nut Zippers frontman Jimbo Mathus back to his Mississippi home.
"I just found myself going back to Mississippi more and more, and it seemed like that was where I needed to be," Mathus says. "There are a lot of like-minded, talented people down there right now that have the same idea about what they want to do with music."
After the Zippers broke up in 2001, Mathus released a solo album of juke-joint blues, "National Antiseptic," on Mammoth Records.
But his experience with the Zippers (which included a lawsuit by the candy-bar manufacturer from whom they took their name, and another by former bandmate Tom Maxwell over their hit "Hell") left a bad taste for the music industry in Mathus' mouth.
He moved back to Mississippi and began building a studio as part of his plan to seize control of his own fate. This year marks another milestone for Mathus with his new album with Knockdown South, "Old Scool Hot Wings," the first release on his personal label of the same name.
"That's kind of what got me going on this whole idea of having my own studio," he says. "I just got tired of dealing with all the rigmarole after the Squirrel Nut Zippers. It was a lot of fun and a lot of good music, but it got to be a pain in the ass dealing with other people's lawsuits and all that. I just got burned out on it, and so I thought, 'I'm just going to take it to the underground. Just do it myself.'"
The son of a musician, Mathus grew up around music. There were late-night hootenannies on weekends, and Mathus would join his father on tour as he barnstormed through the Southeast. But Mathus' father still was not thrilled to find his son going into music.
"Music is all fine and good, and we did a lot of it, but where I grew up, you went to work on Monday. That's something that never sunk in with me," Mathus reflects.
"I fully expected to be poor and unknown all my life, so now that I'm poor and unknown again, I feel I got what I expected. It pretty much worked out how I thought it would."
While Mathus may be enjoying a lower profile post-Zippers, he's kept busy. Besides releasing three solo albums in the last four years, Mathus played guitar on Buddy Guy's Sweet Tea and Blues Singer albums, helped out on famous producer Jim Dickinson's (the Rolling Stones, The Replacements) recent solo release, and produced sessions from Elvis Costello's "The Delivery Man" at his Clarksdale, Miss., studio.
Much like his father, Mathus finds himself part of a cadre of talented artists including North Mississippi Allstars' Cody and Luther Dickinson, and R.L. Burnside's progeny Duwayne, Garry, and grandson Cody. Not only do they play together and help out with each other's albums, but they influence each other's musical direction.
"Well, it is how I grew up. You'll generally find me running around with a pack of musicians. That's how the Zippers started," Mathus says. "It's more of a social thing and a 'hang' thing. It's something you do with friends for fun, and that's pretty much it."
Therefore, it's not surprising that after the North Mississippi Allstars' eclectic "Polaris" (which Mathus played on), Knockdown South helps to expand a bit on Mathus' ramshackle country-blues, adding elements of soul, gospel, and even straight honky-tonk.
"It seems like Luther and I are orbiting in the same atmosphere," Mathus says. "He's doing a lot of things that I'm getting ready to do on my new record. I think we kind of influence each other. I send him demos of stuff I'm working on. He's really been a big encouragement on me. We're both just loving that roots style. It's a juke-joint feel—amps breaking down, don't have a bass, playing on two drums or buckets. It's primitive, not too polished, but that's how we like it."
This story originally appeared in Atlanta's Creative Loafing. Jimbo Mathus and Knockdown South's new album "Old Scool Hot Wings" is available now from 219 Records.