Mississippi Writers and Musicians
MISSISSIPPI MUSICIANS: James "Jimbo" Mathus


James "Jimbo" Mathus Rosetta Patton and Jimbo Mathus

Photo right: Jimbo Mathus with Rosetta Patton Brown

Major Works

  • Beyond the Java Sea (1991)
  • The Inevitable (1995)
  • Hot (1997)
  • Roasted Right (1997)
  • Sold Out (1997)
  • Perennial Favorites (1998)
  • Christmas Caravan (1998)
  • "Hell"(1999)
  • "Put a Lid on It" (1999)Songs for Rosetta
  • Jas. Mathus and his Knock-Down Society Play Songs for Rosetta 1997
  • Thrills
  • Stop and Let the Devil Ride 2003
  • National Antiseptic 2001
  • Bowl of Fire 2005
  • Knockdown South 2005
  • Old Scool Hot Wings 2006
  • Jimmy the Kid 2006 

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Jimbo Mathus: A Biography
By Chandler Arick (SHS) 2001

James "Jimbo" Mathus was born and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he often spent time listening to blues music in the Mississippi Delta.  Mathus joined a band called Metal Flake Mother until he met Katharine Whalen.  Mathus and Whalen were married, and James taught Katharine how to play the banjo.

Squirrel Nut Zippers, >From left: Stuart Cole, Jim Mathus, Chris Phillips, Ken Mosher, Je Widenhouse, Tom Maxwell, and Katharine WhalenIn 1993 James and Katharine left Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and started a band called Squirrel Nut Zippers, playing big band style swing music.  They attained the name Squirrel Nut Zippers from James's favorite candy bar.  The band became a strong musical act in the South. Mathus, however, has not limited his music to the South.  He played at President Bill Clinton's 1992 inauguration. Squirrel Nut Zippers even had their own brand of coffee.

When Mathus came back to Clarksdale in 1996,  he made a CD to help Rosetta Patton, widow of Charley Patton, with  whom Mathus had been friends since he was a child.   Jas. Mathus and the Knock-Down Society Play Songs for Rosetta is Mathus’s tribute to both Rose and her famous father. The money from the CD was enough to pay her utilities for a year, and now he is working on paying for Rosetta's granddaughter's tuition to college.

Squirrel Nut Zippers

To make the recording,  Mathus rounded  up a group of friends and acquaintances and headed for  Clarksdale.   Joining Mathus on the CD are fellow Zipper Stu Cole, part-time Zipper  Andrew Bird, Greg Bell (Chicken Wire Gang), Gut-Bucket
(Cody Dickinson, Paul Taylor, Luther Dickinson), John  Sinclair and Michael  "Hawkeye" Jordan on mandolin. They don't play  together regularly but they sound as if they've  been together for years.  Gut-Bucket is an exceptionally talented trio that features the  sons of the famed Memphis producer/pianist Jim Dickinson. They are part of the now well known band called the North Mississippi All-Stars. The only straight Patton song  "Some Of These Days," comes on the last track  with a reminiscence written by  Roebuck "Pops" Staples and read by New Orleans DJ John  Sinclair.  Staples is a well-respected blues guitarist and his  narrative offers a view into the world of street musicians and  house parties in the Delta during the early part of the century. Then Mathus and Bird (on  fiddle) perform the Patton tune.

Squirrel Nut ZippersJimbo Mathus was also a guest musician as part of the Carrboro Horns - (Jimbo Mathus, Tom Maxwell, Ken Mosher, and Je Widenhouse of the Squirrel Nut Zippers) on the first full-length Hobex CD "Back in the '90's," which was released in the spring of '98. The song "Groove, Baby" received heavy airplay on North Carolina triangle radio station G105 for almost a year. Mathus also performs on "Wisteria,"  the third Hobex CD from Phrex records, available through North Carolina-based Redeye distribution.  The second half of "Wisteria" is from an acoustic back porch session recorded by Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the trio of Andy Ware (bass,) Mathus  (guitar,) and Greg Humphreys (guitar and vocals). They do some of Greg Humphreys's  quieter tunes as well as a Mathus tune, "Stop Startin' Over," and a Sam Cooke/J.W. Alexander cover, "That's Where It's At."
Chandler Arrick, SHS

James Mathus plays a variety of instruments including guitar and trombone and also sings.  His music is a mixture of swing, new age jazz, and calypso with his band Squirrel Nut Zippers, but he performs with numerous other groups as well, including that of his wife Katharine Whalen and her band, the Jazz Squad (composed of a  Zippers Mathus, bassist Stu Cole, and trumpet player Je Widenhouse) who cut an album of vintage jazz nuggets (as well as one original, "Badisma," by Mathus) in the downtime after touring in support of one of the Squirrel Nut Zippers records. 

Photo above: SHS researcher Chandler Arick

2010 UPDATE: In additions to his work with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jim Mathus has pursued projects outside of the group (often under variations of his name, including James Mathus, Jas Mathus, Jimbo "Hambone" Mathus, and Jimbo Mathus). He worked with Andrew Bird on albums Thrills and Bowl of Fire. In 1997, Mathus, bassist Stu Cole, Mike Napolitano, and pianist Greg Bell formed the Knockdown Society and released Play Songs for Rosetta, a collection of bluesman Charley Patton's songs to benefit Patton's daughter Rosetta and her family. In late 2001 Mathus released National Antiseptic, a tribute to the electric juke joint swamp rock of the Deep South. This album was followed by Stop and Let the Devil Ride in 2003, and two years later Knockdown South. Mathus returned to the acoustic roots of Mississippi blues and country with Old Scool Hot Wings in 2006. Also in 2006, under the name Jimbo Mathus, the album Jimmy the Kid was released by Artemis Records. (Source: Heather Phares, All Music Guide). In addition, Mathus played a key role in Buddy Guy's Sweet Tea (2001) and Grammy winning Blues Singer (2004) as guitarist and arranger, and contributed vocals on North Mississippi Allstars 2006 Grammy nominated Electric Blues Watermelon.

In March 2010, Jimbo Mathus presented his musical Mosquitoville: Mississippi Songs and Stories at the Panola Playhouse in Sardis. He plans to take the production on the road around the state. Mathus, the leader of the TriState Coalition and the owner of the Delta Recording Service in Como, Mississippi, says the musical Mosquitoville is based on local history around the 1880's in Quitman County. The story is based on a journal kept by a man named John Parrot from Sledge, Mississippi, who worked at a lumber camp north of South Lake called Mosquitoville. The show includes a six-piece band and a six-piece chorus who perform indigenous music as well as music by Sid Hemphill, Stephen Foster, Jimmie Rodgers and others (Source: Scott Baretta. The Clarion-Ledger. March 4, 2010). Mathus hopes to help Mississippians appreciate their musical heritage.

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Related Websites

Read about Jimbo's relationship with Rosetta Patton here. Jimbo Mathus Knockdown South

Web site with all kinds of info about the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

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Bibliography

"Squirrel Nut Zippers."  Excite Music.  19 April 2000.  http://music.excite.com/artist/biography/6103

"Squirrel Nut Zippers." All Music.  17 April 2000. http://allmusic.com/cg/x.

Edgerton, Catherine. "The Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Hot Band in the Hall."  1997-2000.  Dream/Girl Magazine. 25 April 2000.  http://www.dgarts.com/content/musesnz.htm

Knight, John. "Jas. Mathus and the Knock-Down Society." The Music Monitor. 25 April 2000. http://pendulumic.com/MM/February/jimbomathus.html 

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Updated March 15, 2010
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