Americana Highways premiered a track, “Sunken Road”: http://bit.ly/2S3OW48
Jimbo Mathus has blazed a singular path as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and shaman for 40 years, recording and releasing more than 300 songs that are a testament to his hoodoo craftsmanship and to the sounds, sights and spirits of his inspirations in the deep South. His new album, Incinerator, which debuts on April 5 via Mississippi’s Big Legal Mess Records, is the epitome of that art — an incendiary reflection of his world in music.
Mathus describes the 11 songs on Incinerator as “a huge tapestry of my experiences, hard work and dedication to living a creative life. I really took stock of what I do and why I do it … why I weave stories and dreams and visions I have into songs. And I tried to squeeze every bit of meaning out of every note and every word I wrote and recorded. It’s impossible to separate this album from me. This is who I am.”
Incinerator was recorded in a burst of inspiration, with all but overdubs cut in just two days in Water Valley, Mississippi’s Dial Back Sound. Surprisingly, Mathus, who has produced dozens of albums, decided to hand the controls to Bronson Tew and Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton, who co-own Dial Back, and opted to play piano instead of his trademark guitar.
“I wanted to get to the soul of these songs, without distractions,” says Mathus. “So, I decided to play piano and record my singing live in the studio. It’s instinctual for me to plug in an electric guitar and rock. But I was seeking the kind of perfection you find in Romantic poetry. I wanted to hear the lyrics surrounded by space, and then add colors after I considered what was needed.”
The results are full of warmth and heart, with Mathus’ dusty Magnolia State-breeze of a voice at the fore. The opening track “You Are Like a Song” was one of the first written, and sets the tone for Incinerator. The tune has a bedrock of acoustic instruments and a harmonizing eight-voice chorus that, paired with Mathus’ rural landscape imagery and recollections of love and loss, make it seem like an undiscovered gem from the Band.
“I wrote ‘You Are Like a Song’ after really analyzing why I write the songs that I do,” Mathus explains. “I realized that they are all about people. Every person I’ve written about is, essentially, then a song. In this case, I was inspired by a dear friend who’d died.” Mathus also notes that “my music and the Band’s share chemistry that really shines on some of this album’s songs. It’s that amalgamation of roots music — gospel, country, blues — that we all grew up on in the South.”
Those same roots are exposed on the elegiac “Sunken Road.” On its surface, the tune seems a trucker ballad, as lyrics about stop signs, traffic lights and the burden of “gearing down on a heavy load” roll by, but with its allusions to transcendence reinforced by musical cues like electric sitar and a chord progression nodding to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” it’s clearly about a life nearing its end. Rising Americana star Lilly Hiatt reinforces the simmering emotionalism with her vocal turn on the second verse. The album’s other guests include violinist Andrew Bird — who also plays in Squirrel Nut Zippers with Mathus — and vocalist/guitarist Kevin Russell of Austin alt-country bands The Gourds and Shinyribs.
The raw-edged title track sprang from a vision Mathus had in his youth while working as a deckhand on barges cruising the Louisiana bayous. “The bright flames from the flare stacks of the refineries and chemical plants we’d pass made me think about the spirits of the dead,” he reflects. “I thought, after we die, our energy is released like that burn-off, and then, where does it go?” Aptly, the song’s apocalyptic lyrics — fragments alluding to transmutation — are wedded to a pair of clashing chords he found in a dream. “I woke up, dropped my hands on the guitar, and there was the song,” Mathus says.
“Alligator Fish” is the tune that revisits the spirit of Mathus’ previous two albums of psychedelic Southern-gothic rock, 2015’s Blue Healer and 2016’s Band of Storms. He chants its channeled lyrics — pure New Orleans street poetry — like a hoodoo man summoning Legba over a fat, funky sweet-potato groove that perfectly frames the song’s Crescent City magic. All the while, co-producers Patterson and Tew turn their guitars into a pack of howling canines.
“I knew Matt and Bronson would be perfect for the album, like they are on ‘Alligator Fish,’” Mathus reflects. “They’re not only great players, but we all have similar tastes and backgrounds, growing up with the church and the cotton fields, and the music coming out of both of those places, all around us. We also sing in harmony like brothers from different mothers. It’s a great match, and they’re going to tour with me behind this album, along with a band that’ll allow us to recreate all of the sounds on Incinerator.”
Mathus will also continue touring this year with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band the Oxford, Mississippi, native co-founded in 1993. Despite several hiatuses, the Zippers have continued to play their eclectic blend of gypsy jazz, swing, and Delta blues over the decades, and released their seventh studio album, Beasts of Burgundy, in 2018.
In addition to producing albums for J.D. Wilkes, Shinyribs, Ironing Board Sam, and many others, Mathus has a discography as a solo artist and bandleader that’s more than 20 titles deep — the last seven for Big Legal Mess Records and Fat Possum. He is also a member of the South Memphis String Band, with Luther Dickinson and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and his many session credits include recordings with Buddy Guy, Samantha Fish, and Amy LaVere. These days, when Mathus is at home in Mississippi’s hill country and Delta, he also leads a local blues band called Dirty Crooks.
“That all keeps me running like crazy,” he says, “but I have no intention of slowing down. At least,” he adds with a laugh, “not until it’s my time for the incinerator!”