CD Review: Jimbo Mathus “Confederate Buddha”

Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition

Confederate Buddha (Memphis International Records)

By Devon Wendell

Mississippi native and Squirrel Nut Zipper founder Jimbo Mathus has always been  fearless in his pursuit of purity in the realms of country, blues, and Southern-fried soul.  And that’s certainly the case on this gloriously under-produced, upcoming CD (scheduled for release today, May 24).

The album takes a mystical trip down the river through cotton country with a definitive band sound delivered by Mathus’s latest group of cohorts, the Tri-State Coalition: Justin Showah, bass and harmony; Matt “Pizzle” Pierce, Telecaster and harmony; Austin Marshall, drums; and Eric “Carlos” Carlton, piano and organ.

Mathus and company kick off with the high charged Southern rocker “Jimmy The Kid,” featuring stinging, twang-filled guitar riffs by Mathus and a no-nonsense pedal steel guitar solo by Forrest Parker.  The perfectly delivered, sloppy backing vocals and lyrics that flood the listener with images of a train-hopping “Son of a gun” bring to mind the sound of The Band’s earliest work, but with more warmth and sincerity.  Mathus’s gin-soaked vocals are also reminiscent of Levon Helms, with just the proper sprinkling of Hank Williams, especially on “Town With No Shame”  and “Glad It’s Dark.”   This is real country music with no effort to repackage or water it down for pop and rock audiences.

The harmonies on the album are outstanding. “Wheel Upon Wheel” features wonderfully crafted backing vocals by The White Angels (Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Gin Gin Carlton, and Rosamond Posey), which weave in and out of the delicate acoustic and steel guitar tracks. This taste of true Southern folklore is one of several highlights, along with the mournful ballad “Walk Beside,” which, in addition to its fine harmonies, also features some sweet guitar leads by Mathus and pedal steel player Forrest Parker. There’s a sadness and longing to Mathus’s vocals which shadows this track and most of Confederate Buddha.

Mathus is not only a skilled musician but also a powerful and underrated lyricist who knows how to tell compelling stories: about escaping deadly floods on “Too Much Water” and “Cling To The Roots”; tales of gamblers and outlaws on “Aces & Eights” and “Shady Dealing.”  And he does so with the sort of clear and imaginative imagery that many of today’s song writers lack.  “Days Of High Cotton” is a sentimental tale of better times not forgotten. The track features Mathus’s most melodic and soulful lead guitar playing as well as his most heart felt vocal delivery.

Oddly, the most disappointing number on the album is a rendition of Delta blues father Charlie Patton’s “Leash My Pony” which feels more like a milk-toast, pop-friendly cover a la The Rolling Stones, Taj Mahal, and The Black Crows.  What it lacks is the true grittiness of such other Mississippians as Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnson, and John Lee Hooker, who have previously covered this blues classic with more purity.

But that’s a rarity in this otherwise fascinating CD.  Mathus’s former comrade, legendary producer and musician Jim Dickenson, once called Jimbo “the singing voice of Huck Finn,” which is the feeling the listener gets throughout Confederate Buddha.  As his song suggests, Mathus “Clings to the Roots” of Americana music with soulful harmonies, love and devotion in a manner that is refreshing and true for these times.

To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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