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'Jimbo' Mathus Makes Waves on Blues Scene

  • Doug Levine

Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and … James "Jimbo" Mathus? As VOA's Doug Levine tells us, singer, songwriter and guitarist Jimbo Mathus has a lot in common with these legendary musicians other than just a passion for playing the blues.

Not far from where Jimbo Mathus was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, lies the notorious "crossroads," where legend has it Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Charlie Patton and other blues pioneers also grew up near the crossroads, adding to the mystique that Clarksdale and neighboring towns were where the blues were born.

Jimbo Mathus didn't follow the traditional route that most young guitar players take. He calls himself a Delta rhythm player at heart and that rock guitar was just something he picked up after he left Mississippi.

"I came from a rhythm background," he explains. "I started on mandolin with ensemble musicians, and everybody playing rhythm and not too much soloing … more like harmony singing and stuff like that. I missed all of the classic rock and the 'guitar gods' and all that stuff that most guitar players have. It took me this long to appreciate the greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend. It took me all this time to actually appreciate what they're doing and now I like it."

Jimbo's musical quest took him around the United States. He struck a chord with his group The Squirrel Nut Zippers, selling several million albums and even taking their hybrid of blues, rock and jazz to other countries. Luck reigned again when he was chosen to play alongside one of his blues idols, guitarist Buddy Guy.

"He's been one of the main inspirations in my life, getting able to work with him and listen to what he does night after night when we play on the road, and how he carries himself in the studio," he says. "I'd describe him as 'royalty' or like an 'ambassador.' He just has this very calm, very controlled skill. Great artist.'"

Moving back to Clarksdale, Jimbo started his own label, Knockdown South. It's also the title of his latest album, which he describes as classic Mississippi blues.

"Musically, it's been right along the same lines of what I've been doing for awhile with Knockdown," he says, "which is blending different styles of Mississippi music; everything from country to gospel, soul, R&B, and blues. It's all got its birthplace down there."

It seems Jimbo has planted himself in Clarksdale for the long haul. But that's just fine with him. He says he can't think of any place better suited for someone who loves the blues.

"In my mind I feel like the same conditions or atmosphere that created all the greats in the old days is still there. I really do. And I don't know what it is, but I feel like you can't really move it," he says.

During his recent concert tour, Jimbo Mathus stopped by VOA studios to talk about his latest album Knockdown South. He also treated listeners to an original Mississippi soul ballad, "Loose Diamonds."

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