Jim Mize leans forward over the table, slips off his glasses and rubs his eyes. It's a Friday afternoon at the Doubletree Hotel bar and the 57-year-old songwriter is explaining his decision to drop out of high school to join the Army during the latter years of the Vietnam War. "I think everybody does this from time to time, especially when you see a freeway," he says, signaling the waitress for another vodka tonic. "You're kind of daydreaming, and you go, 'I wonder where they're going? I wonder where they're going?' And then you realize there's a whole frickin' damn world out there. And here you are just in little old Arkansas thinking that's all there is."
He laughs. It's raspy and ecstatic, a smoker's laugh that makes everyone in earshot start grinning, and I can't help but think he's laughing because he was born in Conway and still lives in Conway today. ("We're in the country," he says of his house, which is surrounded by a swamp. "Matter of fact I seen a bobcat just the other day.") Over the years he's lived all over the state, in Little Rock, Marianna and Pine Bluff — Arkansas has been the major setting of his life. But Mize, whose third, self-titled album was released June 24, knows better than most that that's not "all there is," and the Army was his first attempt to prove it.
"It actually wasn't that bad," he says of his time in the service, shrugging. "I even got to go home on leave because I shot the best out of the whole company." He puffs out his chest with mock pride and nods, taking a big swig of the drink that's just shown up. "Southern boys are like that though, we know how to shoot."
Underage and restless, he was stationed mostly in Germany and Fort Campbell, a base straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee border, and it was here, he says, that he first started taking music seriously, so far as it goes. "There's bars, pawnshops and massage parlors all the way from Fort Campbell on down to Nashville," he says, mapping the route with his hands. "Plenty of places to play. They didn't pay much, but it was something to do." He'd play country and blues covers, every now and then interjecting something original just to see if anyone noticed. "It's a hell of a mixture of people," he says of these early shows. "From college kids to derelicts, you got all kinds. On a Friday or Saturday night, though, they all blend in. They just want to hear some noise up there."
Rather than try music professionally after the Army, Mize came home and got a sensible job as an insurance claims adjustor, surveying the aftermaths of various natural disasters. He's held onto the position for 33 years now, touring bars, making occasional albums and opening for bigger acts in his spare time. When he mentions the name of a town he's visited, it's often difficult to tell whether he was there playing music or interviewing the survivors of a tornado or hurricane. The distinction isn't all that important to him; it's about collecting experiences.
These days, though, touring appeals to him less and less ("I'm 57," he says more than once, "I've got to be comfortable."). He has other priorities, other interests. He says he'd like to "break into" the New Orleans music market, for instance, find a high-paying gig, but a few minutes later brings up a Mark Twain-inspired dream he's always had to float down to the city on the Mississippi in a tugboat. He seems a lot more animated discussing the latter prospect.
A few days before we meet, he was on vacation with his grandkids in Fort Walton, Fla. "What a hell of a week," he says, lifting his glass and shaking his head. He says there were "shark alerts" and that they were clearing beaches nearby, which reminded him of the last time he was in Florida, on the job. "I was down there working a hurricane," he says, "and they had a helicopter flying over the beaches. You had that aerial view and could look down and see it all." He narrows his eyes and smiles. "Let me tell you, man, those sharks are not that damn far."***
Mize doesn't like being called the "best songwriter in Arkansas," but it keeps happening. To be honest, the whole thing embarrasses him. "It's almost insulting," he says, taken aback. "Who the hell knows who's the best songwriter in any state?" But as with any cult figure, his fans tend to feel a nagging sense of responsibility toward him, like it's their fault he isn't better known. They become evangelical.
Also, and this may have even more to do with it, he writes some of the best songs in Arkansas. Either because of his long-standing affiliation with Fat Possum Records, his early interactions with Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford and CeDell Davis or his penchant for unhinged slide guitar, his music has often been labeled blues, but it really isn't that. In conversation, he talks reverently about Creedence Clearwater Revival, early Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young's albums with Crazy Horse, and this is his lineage — electric, regionally inflected redneck rock with glimpses of a kind of vulnerability that is frightening and adult.
There is a recklessness to his music that comes through most obviously in his guitar playing, which seems punishing and personal. "As long as I've been playing, I should be Chet frickin' Atkins," he says, tapping the side of his empty glass and gesturing to our waitress. "But I'm not. What I do play is my signature style, and I don't care. It's not fancy, but it's effective."
As a listener, you feel as though he gives away a lot of himself on his records, from "No Tell Motel" (2001) through "Release It to the Sky" (2007) and the new release, simply and a little ominously titled "Jim Mize." He has one of those ragged, potentially polarizing voices, a voice that never attempts to throw off its Southern accent and that colors outside the lines of good taste and musical notation. He hovers very generally around the themes of lust, emotional responsibility, regret and death.
That the essential seriousness of his music isn't always conducive to public, collective appreciation became immediately clear in May, when he played an outdoor stage at Riverfest. His set was sparsely attended, and all around us, young children ate funnel cakes and surfed slabs of cardboard down the hills along the Arkansas River. He closed with "Let's Go Running," one of his best-known songs. "Your mother's dead, still wears flowers around her head," he sang, as the mostly middle-aged crowd fanned itself and swatted mosquitoes in the heat. "Expecting your inheritance, all she left you were her debts." Afterward he walked off stage without a word and the sound system abruptly switched to Earth, Wind & Fire, a tonal contrast that was almost disorienting.
On the subject of love and relationships, Mize is consistently attuned to the difficulty and strangeness of the whole endeavor. Midway through our conversation at the Doubletree, his wife, Dana, joins us, and I tell her we've been talking about why his songs are so sad. "Not because of me!" she says quickly, and Mize laughs. "Maybe a long time ago I used to think, 'Is that about me? Or is that an old girlfriend?' " she says. "Now I understand that's just part of the songwriting process." Mize smirks guiltily, and says, "It's combinations, baby."
His songs often grow out of a single scene, whether observed or remembered. "Drunk Moon Falling," his most recent single, came from an overheard conversation at a bar in Austin, and he explains "Promises We Keep," one of the more devastating songs on his second record, in the form of a still-life tableau: "This is my vision of it," he says. "It's dark, you got your honey over here sleeping, only the hall lights are on. And you got this radio playing some song where you can't quite make it out, but you hear it. And you're sitting there just looking at her." He leans back. "And she wants it all."
He offers that the new record was influenced most profoundly by the loss of his son, Zach, a fellow Army veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and died last year. "Coming back from Afghanistan, man, he was wound up tight," he says. "They don't take care of them very good when they come back. They won't recognize that you might have your arms and legs and all this, but you might have left some of your heart and soul and mind somewhere else."
The album is dedicated to his son, and his presence is deeply felt. "There's a bridge to the other side, pupils growing wider in my eyes," Mize sings on "Need Me Some Jesus," the song he says he wrote most specifically for his son. "Him and I had a good relationship," he says. "We wrote songs a lot together. They said he was a good shot too, you know, Southern boys."
"Empty Rooms," the last song on the record, is a dirge, a haunted tour of a house where a family once lived but doesn't anymore. There are "whispers" and "crayon drawings on the walls." "I was like the wasp," Mize sings, "beating against the screen." I ask about this line and he says it's just a sound he remembers from his childhood. "The whole house is silent," he says, holding up his hands to frame the scene, "but you hear that chk-chk-chk, the wasp trying to escape."***
Later on in the night we're at the White Water Tavern, Mize's favorite venue, and the vodka tonics are still coming quickly and easily. Mize has come to see John Paul Keith, the Memphis singer-songwriter with whom he shares a record label (Big Legal Mess, a Fat Possum imprint) and who played lead guitar on much of the new album.
Before the set, he and Dana sit on the picnic tables out back, smoking cigarettes and reconnecting with a series of old friends. Mize talks excitedly about tornados, music and strange characters from his North Little Rock days. Someone who's never heard his records asks what they sound like and he hesitates, looks a little stricken, then says "Americana," and leaves it at that.
When Keith takes the stage, Mize watches from the bar with one arm around his wife. About an hour into the set, Keith unexpectedly calls him up out of the audience and backs off from the mic. Cheered on by the crowd, Mize steps in front of the band and they do a quick, sloppy rendition of "Drunk Moon Falling." Mize grips his drink in his right hand while he sings and the band stumbles over the chords, an effect that's somehow entirely appropriate to the spirit of the song. "Dreaming can be so damn hard," he sings, his voice straining to match the struggling rhythm section. When they finish, Keith tells the crowd to buy Mize's new album and asks him the release date, but Mize has already left the stage and disappeared.
The song is a brief, shambolic mess, but it's a glorious moment, and this is what Mize aims for in his music: brief, messy, glorious moments.
Earlier in the evening, he and his wife remembered the time they'd gone to see Bruce Springsteen in Boston two years before. His wife said she'd imagined it would be more intimate than it was, but Mize had obviously been blown away. "You remember that one lady who was peeing in her chair?" he said, almost shouting. "That's when you're damn good, that's when you know you've made it."
"I don't know, maybe she had too much to drink," his wife said, but Mize just shook his head and beamed. "I like to think it was Bruce."