For a while now, Mississippi musician Jimbo Mathus has referred to himself as "the Arkansas Son-in-Law." The moniker always seemed to imply more than just his Arkie bride, however. The idea of a proud and talented musician from Mississippi not only acknowledging but embracing Arkansas's music had me intrigued. After all, Mathus' own artistic pedigree is a crazy quilt of notable endeavors. As a teen, he and Jack Yarber (a.k.a. Jack Oblivian, of legendary Memphis garage rock demolishers The Oblivians) formed the punk band Johnny Vomit & the Dry Heaves. He founded the platinum-selling swing/jazz/blues outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers (which performed at the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton). He lent his six-string skills to the masterful 2001 Buddy Guy album "Sweet Tea" and the blues great's Grammy-winning 2003 disc "Blues Singer." And since 2004, he's led the Tri-State Coalition, mining the rich musical history of his native Mississippi alongside players from Arkansas and Tennessee (hence the name).
With a fantastic new album called "White Buffalo" that's due out Tuesday on Fat Possum Records, it seemed like a good time to explore Mathus' background and connections to Arkansas. I started poking around and found stories and characters dating from the mid '70s to present. Eventually, I'd sit down to a meal with Mathus, 45, his wife, Jennifer Pierce Mathus (a Jonesboro native), and a dozen or so Kickstarter contributors who helped fund his new album. Fittingly, dinner was at Doe's Eat Place, the steakhouse/Southern tamale institution founded in Greenville, Miss., and with several Arkansas locations. Since then it's been a whirlwind of running down some of Mathus' Arkansas contacts, all of whom had a smile and a story (or several) about the wiry musician.
Mathus' association with the Natural State started while he was still in grade school. His dad, a five-string banjo player and a big fan of bluegrass and folk music, would haul a crew of family and friends from Corinth, Miss., to Mountain View for the folk festival. Picking on the Stone County Courthouse Square, the Mathus family quickly became friends with the Griffey family of Morrilton, and they would camp together on subsequent visits.
Becki Griffey, matriarch of the family, told me about what may well be one of Mathus' earliest public performances. She said Mathus had always loved music and that someone had given him an inexpensive mandolin that he'd been messing with for a little while. Finally one of the groups picking let him play, and that "skinny little kid stood up on a stump and played 'Fox on the Run.' "
The group took turns playing three or four more songs and when his turn came back around, young Mathus played "Fox on the Run" again. It was the only song he knew but he wanted to keep on playing over and over again, Griffey said, adding that the next year, he returned with a lot more songs (and had taken up a couple more instruments to boot).
Eventually the multi-family campsite near Sylamore turned into its own festival of sorts with people hardly going into town, if at all. At times the campsite would host nearly 250. It developed its own traditions, too, like Mathus' dad's annual blue recitation of "Piss Pot Pete and ol' Lil" and "grudge-picking," sort of a musical game of attrition and one-upmanship in which the only prizes were pride and the biggest of hangovers.
I asked Mathus via email about his time spent in Mountain View and the surrounding area, and he wrote of "the idyllic days of youth, the clear water of the White River, the scrappy beautiful trout, caught in abundance, the strange and exotic mountain people and the music — old women playing bass wearing sun bonnets, buck dancing on the plywood stage in the sweet summer evenings by the courthouse, little love affairs flung up around the bushes and walls of the square, dulcimers, banjo and fiddles ringing all over the country side. Just a beautiful idyllic age of my youth with family all around."