When James Mathus was 5 years old, playing with his cousins in the yard of his aunt and uncle’s home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he had no idea that the kindly woman with the long black face watching over him was a living connection to a world of juke joints and country picnics, of cheap whiskey and cheating women, and of a strange, powerful, even haunted music called the blues. Nor when he was 17 years old and picking out his first Elmore James songs on the guitar did he know that the same woman, named Rosetta Brown and now perhaps making him a sandwich in the kitchen, was the daughter of Charley Patton, a man whom blues mythology describes as the first great Delta bluesman and an undeniable influence on Mathus’ newfound hero James, as well as just about every other player of the form.
“I just had no idea,” says Mathus, a Mississippi native and the singer/guitarist/songwriter for the North Carolina swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers. “[Rose] worked for my aunt and uncle doing whatever. She did everything around the house “cooking, cleaning, taking care of babies, including me and my cousins. Every time I go back home, I go visit my aunts and uncles and Rosetta. She’s just one of the people I consider part of my family.”
But it wasn’t until 1991 that Mathus learned much about Rose’s own family, particularly her famous father. Charley Patton was one of earliest of the recorded Delta bluesmen, and before that one of the most popular and “with his percussive playing, eerie voice, and use of the slide “one of the most influential in the region. He also was the mold for the popular image of a Delta bluesman“ itinerant, hard-drinking, hard-loving (he reportedly had eight wives), and, sadly, dead at the early age of 43.
"It was rather shocking to find out this relative well, not really a relative but someone I considered a part of the family was this Delta blues legend’s daughter, and no one had ever known it,” Mathus says.
But now, thanks to Mathus and his new side project, they will. Jas. Mathus and the Knock-Down Society Play Songs for Rosetta is Mathus’ tribute to both Rose and her influential father. (Jas. is an old Southern way of abbreviating James and is, at last count, the third variation on Mathus’ first name, along with Jim and Jimbo. He prefers Jimbo, by the way.)
The spark for Song for Rosetta came from tragedy. Two years ago, the 80-year-old Rose suffered a stroke. Though she has largely recovered (“She’s just like she was, you know, dipping snuff just like she’s always done,” Mathus says), the stroke understandably left Rose and her family financially strapped.
To help pay the bills, first Mathus solicited donations in an article he wrote for the Oxford American which also recounted their story. But, as Mathus will tell you, he’s a musician, not a journalist. So, he proceeded to make plans for a tribute album to benefit Rose, gathering musicians and friends he had always wanted to work with (including Luther and Cody Dickinson and Paul Taylor of Gutbucket and the North Mississippi All-Stars and recent Handy nominee “Philadelphia” Jerry Ricks) to record tracks in Clarksdale and New Orleans.
The sessions produced 24 songs, enough for a second yet-to-be released record, and feature a mixture of Mathus originals and traditional blues tunes that Mathus thinks Patton would have liked; his daughter Rose has already put her stamp of approval on it.
The project has already done well enough that Mathus has been able to get Rose some money. And now he has put together a touring version of the band that will play a handful of shows in the South, including an appearance this Sunday at the Center for Southern Folklore, before Mathus has to return to work on the Zippers follow-up to their breakthrough album Hot.
But for Mathus Songs for Rosetta is about more than making money for an extended family member or even getting to cut his teeth on a different kind of music than he is used to playing with the Zippers. The project has also been about making that connection with one of his heroes, a bluesman over whose records he hunched over as a youth, trying to learn the songs.
“I learned a lot through this whole thing, about music and Rose and her father,” Mathus says. “Rose told me a lot about him. She said he deserted the family when she was 13, I think. He would come back and visit, though, pretty regularly. He would come back down into the Delta after all the cotton was picked and everybody had money. That’s where all the musicians would go. So, he’d go by and see them. She said he’d bring his guitar and he’d sing songs. She said he mostly sang gospel songs when he was around her. And you know how weird his voice is when he sings, she said when he talked he just talked like a normal guy.
“It was kind of cool to hear all that, to hear about a different side of him, because you always read how he was a drunkard, got his throat cut, cheated, and beat women with his guitar. Rose just had this other picture of him I’ve just never seen written about.”
The frontman of the Squirrel Nut Zippers talks about his new blues album, his experience recording with Buddy Guy, and the complexities of finding a new audience.
Those looking for the rooty-toot-toot jump style of the Squirrel Nut Zippers will need to be patient. Keyboardist Tom Maxwell, singer Katharine Whalen, violinist Andrew Bird, and guitarist/founder James Mathus have splintered temporarily, freeing the members to explore different musical paths.
Mathus' solo career, bubbling under the surface for the past five years, has recently exploded in a volley of deep, hardcore blues with his sophomore album National Antiseptic. His solo debut, 1997's Songs for Rosetta, was a benefit for Charley Patton's daughter Rosetta, who was Mathus' nanny when he was a child. Only moderately successful commercially, it nonetheless raised thousands of dollars for the woman and was a critical favorite. It also established Mathus as a legitimate Delta blues artist.
Three years later, Mathus was fortuitously tapped for the rhythm-guitar spot on Buddy Guy's dramatic (and Grammy-nominated) revival Sweet Tea. That experience, in addition to a longstanding friendship with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and their famous dad Jim Dickinson, who co-produced Antiseptic, led him back to the edgy sound exemplified by the Fat Possum stable of artists.
Like the Allstars' first disc, National Antiseptic is an uncompromising example of the revitalization of what Mathus describes as the "raw juke-joint sound." Fifteen cuts slosh in the Mississippi mire as Mathus plays guitar hero with a wicked tone - one derived as much from R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and T-Model Ford (who opened for the Zippers) as from Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, though Mathus says the latter had little effect on his sound. "I mostly get my influence from the original generation," he explains. "I go to the source."
National Antiseptic was compiled from years' worth of recordings. "I had done demos since Songs for Rosetta. Every time I got three or four songs, I'd get a band together in a studio somewhere and cut them. I sent Mammoth a collection of 30 or 40 [cut since 1997], and these were the ones they picked." The album's noncommercial sound is due in part to the lack of any postproduction sweetening. "Some of the tracks are just me and the drummer in my attic," says Mathus. "They just stayed as they were."
Not surprisingly, Mathus tackles a Charley Patton composition, nailing one of his best-known tracks, "Shake It and Break It." But he finds rearranging these tunes difficult. "His songs are hard. I'll work on one for a year before I'll even try to put something down. The songs aren't easy to internalize. I could copy them verbatim, but I want to add something. I still struggle with trying to bring more of his material out because it is already pretty complete."
The uncut blues, gospel, hillbilly, and rockabilly of Antiseptic is light years removed from the good-timey Zippers, and those who come to see Mathus live aren't anticipating a solo version of "Hell." "The response has been real good," he states matter-of-factly in an easygoing drawl. "Nobody that comes to see me is expecting something that I'm not doing. They've heard the record and know it's a different group with a different sound."
At least some of the inspiration for Antiseptic came from the Sweet Tea sessions, a turning point in Mathus' career. "That came about through Ethan Allen, a producer out of New Orleans I worked with in the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Dennis Herring, who produced the Buddy Guy record, called friends looking for a second guitarist. Allen knew what I was into and it ended up that I was the right man for the job."
The ad-hoc band had plenty of time to nail the sound Herring was looking for. "We had about a week before Buddy even got there where we rehearsed every day about 10 to 12 hours. We had arrangements and songs worked out, and then we worked with him for another week. The sessions were long and there was a lot of music played. The producer was going to get the takes he wanted and he made us work for it. He made us all work for it. And I think it sounds it on the record. I'm real proud of it."
Interestingly, much of Mathus' album was already finished when he headed into the Guy recording, but preparations for Sweet Tea brought a new appreciation for the Fat Possum style. "I had been listening more and more to T-Model, Junior Kimbrough, and R.L. Burnside. Dennis Herring sent me a CD with the original versions of the songs, and he wanted me to come in with a good idea of how to translate them to a band. So it made me dig in on that material, take the format that they were working in, but clarify it so it made sense to me and I could convey that to the band. It got me into the groove even heavier and got a formula for me that worked. After that record, I said, 'I gotta get a trio together and do this. I'm tired of waiting on it.' I had the music I was working on already, so I cut some more stuff like 'Snake Drive,' 'Boogie,' and 'Take a Ride With Me.' Actually, I have a whole set of music that I lean on now, and the live show is not even on the CD. It's mostly hard electric boogie."
Mathus and his Knockdown Society have expanded their gritty sound along with the set list, deepening the intensity as they head out to open a month of dates for Buddy Guy. "I just added a Hammond player," Mathus says. "It's been a trio for about a year, but I've got a four-piece now and I'm really happy with that. The response has been great and the band is really coming together."
By Mike Jordan & Hal Horowitz
All research, information and writings are all provided by Mike Jordan & Hal Horowitz