Jimbo Mathus grew up in small town Mississippi in the 1980s, but it might as well have been the 1970s, ’60s, or even ’50s, for that matter. Surrounded by “rednecks, radical Pentecostalism, and moonshine bootleggers,” Mathus killed time watching The Lone Ranger and listening to his father and his friends belt out beer-fueled country and gospel songs on the front porch.

It was the start of Mathus’ lifelong love of Southern music and his tough, rambling youth—which included a stretch in jail, followed by a job on a river barge that dropped anchor each week at raucous river port cities like St. Louis and New Orleans. “I had a lot of time to think out there on the river and work out the path I was going to go down for the rest of my life,” says Mathus. “I always had a guitar with me, a Gibson J-45 that was my Dad’s, and I started writing a lot of songs just based on what I saw out there.”

Improbably, within a few years, Mathus would be selling millions of albums as frontman for ’90s swing-craze hitmakers Squirrel Nut Zippers—a band that spent 1997 at the top of the charts, outselling the likes of U2 and Aerosmith.

These days, Mathus splits his time between Como, Mississippi, where he runs an in-demand recording studio, and Memphis, where he is getting back to his earliest musical roots with his new band the Starlite Wranglers. Part Sweetheart of the Rodeo, part Salvation on Sand Mountain, the Starlite Wranglers’ shows carry on the great Memphis tradition of mixing backwoods country and deep blues—fitting for a band whose name is cribbed from Scotty Moore’s pre-Elvis combo. Though Mathus can at times recall Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, at the band’s heart is the loose, boozy country gospel of the Mathus family front porch, transported to the Gibson Beale Street Showcase without losing a bit of its soul—despite the swanky club ambiance.  

“A lot of the Mississippi music I make is just back alley, moonshine shack music,” Mathus says with a sweet Southern twang. “It ain’t supposed to be in the city. It’s just a country thing.”

You’ve played so many different types of music over the years, but your work with the Starlite Wranglers really brings you back full circle to your childhood. You’re back to making country music.

Pretty much. It’s come all the way around because the Starlite Wranglers are based on tight harmony singing, but also I mix a little more of the Memphis element in—where you sort of mix the black and white music. And, of course, gospel is a big part of both of those. I call it beer-drinking gospel—that’s what I grew up on. Because my dad and his friends would drink a lot of beer and when everybody would start getting tight they’d bust out on these four- and five-part gospel songs.

Do you feel like you’re a part of the Memphis family of musicians that have combined country and blues?

I certainly do. I’m from here. I grew up in music. The music was just part of our entertainment. In my generation, there was no cable TV. It was still like it was in my dad’s generation basically. It was a blessing to me. I actually got to grow up in a time sort of far removed from now, at least a generation back. It all fits into life, and it all fits into music. I learned a lot about harmony singing, about entertaining people, from my dad and his friends.

The Hill Country blues is so much more than just picking up a guitar and drinking some beer. It’s a whole life that gets put into that, and you get people’s respect, and you’re able to communicate with them with the music and give them what they need.

It’s more of a mind frame than the blues that evolved up in the cities. You have to know some things about life, and you have to be in, of it, a part of it. It’s the communicating. It’s talking to people through the music that you do, and that’s a pretty powerful thing.

You learned some things about life pretty early. Is it true you went to jail when you were younger?

[Long pause] I’d rather not talk about that. Some sort of extreme delinquent behavior. Then I went onto the riverboat as merchant marine. You see those barges that go up and down in the big riverboats? That was me out there. I worked for a barge company out of New Orleans for five years. I was in a lot of music towns, and I was walking off a boat with a pocket full of money so I was gravitating toward the music that was out there.

It makes sense that you’d settle in New Orleans. What does New Orleans music mean to you?

We could talk for days about that. It’s a town that uses music to celebrate—I mean, everything from death to life they have music involved. That’s one thing Memphis has to offer to the world too. Cultures clash and each brings its own element to the table, and they’re integrated—that’s when something really unique happens. It happened here in Memphis with the integration of Sun Records and also at Stax, when you had the white and black musicians coming together, and you get something like rock ’n’ roll or like New Orleans jazz.

What was it like being the lone white guy among so many famous black bluesmen?

I sort of stuck out of my own situation because I was never a person who was racist. I had friends—black and white, Italian, Chinese, whoever was around, and then again I was always drawn to music so I was always going to places where I maybe shouldn’t have been or where they weren’t accustomed to seeing white folks. I never really had any problems because I would just be cool. I could also play, and musicians are some of the least racist and judgmental people out there. If you can play, then you’re welcome, and they’ll take you in like a family, especially if you’re a good person.

And to get down with the country people and understand where they’re coming from, you’ve got to understand that. People like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, to see them in their natural environment—they were like royalty and they had the respect of the whole community. It’s a whole other thing. It’s very real.

You named your band the Starlite Wranglers, which was Scotty Moore’s band before he met Elvis. Do you feel a kinship with Scotty?

Yeah, I thought it was interesting that Scotty had gotten his start with a country western band—that’s not something you think of in Memphis, Tennessee. But it was a huge part of the culture at that time, and I just liked the name. I hope I don’t get in any trouble for using it. I sort of started Starlite Wranglers as more of an art project than anything, and it ended up we had some gigs and we’re trying to continue that now. I’ve got a core crew, and I like to do it like a revue style and bring up special guests, just try to make it fun for the audience, put on a show. Even if there’s two people there, we act like it’s the Grand Ole Opry. [Laughs.]

The Starlite Wranglers played their first show last month at the Gibson Showroom in Memphis. What was that like?

It was wonderful. It was on a Saturday night. We had a nice crowd, and the Gibson Lounge is just so cool, such a wonderful venue. Also, they’re probably the only place on Beale Street that lets you play original music. The rest of the clubs on Beale Street, you have a list of 200 songs and you have to pick your set list from it.

I’ve been focusing on the Memphis scene. People that I’m friends with, like Sonny Burgess, the Sun rockabilly artist, he did three nights with us. Jim Dickinson did one, and we had a guy from Nashville named Davis Raines, a great friend of ours and songwriter up there. And I did one night of Memphis-garage-goes-country with some of my friends that are in the garage scene here. It’s great. Gibson lets us do whatever we want.

Related Links

Gibson Presents Jimbo Mathus
Live at Gibson Beale Street Showcase
Memphis, Tennessee

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