Jimbo Mathus was born James H. Mathis, Jr., in Oxford, Mississippi, to Jimmy Mathis and Jeanella (Malvezzi) Mathis. His genealogy is of Scottish and Italian origin. His early life was filled with music, as his father and relatives were skilled instrumentalists and singers. He began joining the family musical circle at an early age and by age 8 was proficient at mandolin. By 15, Jimbo had been taught the rudiments of guitar, piano and harmony singing. The family’s repertoire consisted of hundreds of folk, bluegrass, country blues and pre-recorded songs passed down through the Maths and Byrd families. His father was an avid outdoorsman, traveler and also raised hunting dogs and horses. Thus, Mathus’ early life consisted of much hunting and fishing in the Corinth, Mississippi, area.
Mathus was involved in rock-and-roll music in Corinth High School and was recorded first in 1983 at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, Tennessee, in a group called The End. He also helped found Johnny Vomit & The Dry Heaves, which was one of the first punk rock/experimental noise bands in the state of Mississippi.
He left home at age 17 to study philosophy at Mississippi State University and began writing songs and performing in the Starkville, Mississippi, area. He was recorded and records released in the mid-1980s under the name Cafe des Moines. In 1987, Mathus joined the Merchant Marines working as a deckhand and tankerman for the Canal Barge Company on the Mississippi, Illinois and Tennessee Rivers. He used his shore leave to travel the country extensively, usually alone, camping and sleeping in his pickup truck. Upon a chance trip to North Carolina, he decided to move to the Chapel Hill area and began his music career in earnest.
Educating himself in the libraries of UNC-Chapel Hill, Mathus learned Latin, studied theater, poetry, First Peoples culture, literature and medieval alchemy, as well as music. It was during this time that he changed the spelling of his last name from “Mathis” to “Mathus,” to reflect his respect for his and his mother’s Latin studies. He was first known in this area as a drummer, and his group—Metal Flake Mother—is recognized as one of the great bands of the 1990s on the North Carolina alternative music scene.
In 1993, Mathus met and soon married Katharine Whalen. Together they formed Squirrel Nut Zippers. This group utilized Mathus’ knowledge of theater, early American music and leadership and, along with Whalen’s fashion and vocal style, created an almost overnight sensation. Through the 1990s, they toured extensively worldwide, were awarded gold and platinum records and appeared at many prestigious events.
In the mid-1990s, Mathus’ frequent trips back to Mississippi led to his meeting Jim and Luther Dickinson, which resulted in Mathus writing and recording “(Jas. Mathus & His Knockdown Society) Play Songs for Rosetta”. This was a benefit project to aid Mathus’ childhood nanny, Rosetta Patton, daughter of the near mythical Mississippi musician Charley Patton. This rekindled Mathus’ interest in Mississippi music and set him on a new path. During this time, Mathus also began recording and producing on his own.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers disbanded in 2000 amid disastrous lawsuits filed by ex-Zippers Tom Maxwell and Ken Mosher. Left penniless by these events and after a decade of relentless work, Mathus and Whalen divorced in 2003, at which time Mathus returned to his home state of Mississippi.
Simultaneously, Mathus was gaining recognition for his blues guitar knowledge through his work with blues legend Buddy Guy. Mathus toured with Guy off and on from 2001 to 2003.
Mathus started his first studio in his mother’s hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 2003. Using antique ribbon microphones and tube pre-amp, Mathus set up Delta Recording Service in the abandoned Alcazar Hotel in downtown Clarksdale and recorded hundreds of artists there, including Elvis Costello. In 2007, Mathus relocated the studio to Como, Mississippi, where it remains today.
Through the mid- to late 2000s, Mathus performed hundreds of shows in the deep South, mostly in Mississippi. He is a regular and favorite performer at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and acted as bandleader for the National Public Radio broadcast of “Toast of the Nation” on New Year’s Eve in 2004.
2010 was tremendously productive for Mathus: He wrote and produced a successful historical musical revue entitled “Mosquitoville,” and he led the 11-person cast in performances for communities across the state of Mississippi. He also helped form the South Memphis String Band with long-time collaborators Luther Dickinson and Alvin “G.E.” Youngblood Hart and once again signing with a label. In this same year, Mathus married Jennifer White Pierce, an Arkansas actress and writer whose brother had introduced the two. Mathus and his latest group, The Tri-State Coalition, released their album “Confederate Buddha” on Memphis International Records in May 2011.
“God bless Mississippi and pass the antiseptic.” ~ J. Mathus
From a purely chronological standpoint, Leland Sundries—the musical project led by Brooklyn troubadour Nick Loss-Eaton—is relatively young. But lend an ear to The Apothecary EP, or check out Leland Sundries’ live show, and it is quickly apparent that this music is imbued with qualities that belie its tender years. Loss-Eaton’s plainspoken baritone has a weathered, lived-in quality. “The Band meets Lou Reed,” is how Boston Phoenix summed up their sound. His lyrics reflect a keen sensitivity for details and characters that less-seasoned souls might overlook. Leland Sundries’ take on Americana sits comfortably alongside contemporaries like Elvis Perkins, Jay Farrar, and A.A. Bondy, yet is informed by decades of history, too.
For starters, there’s that curious moniker. It emerged during a road trip through the Deep South, when Loss-Eaton made a pilgrimage to Leland, Mississippi, the small town where bluesman Eddie Cusic resides. The octogenarian guitarist, who’d played with numerous R&B stars of his era (most notably Little Milton), was happy to spend the afternoon telling stories and playing music for an enraptured Loss-Eaton and his traveling companions. Having already seen the somewhat antiquated term “sundries” on multiple signs in that pocket of the country, Loss-Eaton fused it with Cusic’s hometown, as an homage to what the elder statesman and his life’s work embodied.
Loss-Eaton was also fortunate to work for a brief time at Smithsonian Folkways, the historic record label that has stewarded the legacies of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Alan Lomax, and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. “Working at Folkways was hugely inspiring,” he admits. Already a serious admirer of gateway artists like Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, blues greats such as Charley Patton and Son House, and the rockabilly canon of Sun Records, he traveled further down myriad tributaries of American roots music during his Folkways tenure. “I immersed myself in that music, learning about Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Dock Boggs, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.”
He nurtured a love for the mythology surrounding various icons, and developed an appreciation for how the timbre of a banjo or resonator guitar can call up images from the Dust Bowl and other bygone eras. He found the words and language of these performances equally compelling. “The lyrics of those traditional and pre-WWII songs are often strange and beautiful, and it felt like listening into something familiar, yet from another world.”
In addition to Loss-Eaton’s voice, one of the most distinctive qualities of Leland Sundries’ sound is use of harmonica. When he first began cutting his teeth, Loss-Eaton tried writing songs on the piano, “but it never felt like a natural instrument to me.” Back then, his guitar skills were rudimentary—as you can hear, they’ve improved considerably—yet the harmonica seemed to come more naturally, unlocking his compositional gifts. “I wanted the harmonica to be a big part of the sound, but it’s also a stylistic choice,” he concedes. “It is a really expressive instrument, almost like another voice.”
Like many great folk songs and traditional tunes, there is an immediacy to the melodies and chord progressions of Leland Sundries’ music that easily ensnares the listener. Those hooks encourage repeated spins and, subsequently, closer inspection. Time Out New York has favorably described Leland Sundries as “oddball storytelling with a lo-fi country sensibility,” but the music’s charms run deeper. “Hey Self Defeater,” with its quiet urgency reminiscent of Dave Alvin’s “4th of July,” and the crunchy “High on the Plains,” boast compelling choruses, a sense that these songs simply demanded to be written. Yet their lyrics, rife with images of bowling shoes, cinderblock villages, and oddball tourist attractions, elevate the everyday beyond the ordinary.
“Stevedored on the main line
Unloading tires and bait
The voluptuous girl transfixed us with her wobbly gait”
Loss-Eaton adopts changing points of view, but his observational skills remain a fixture throughout his catalog. On the punchy “The Man in the Giant Russian Overcoat,” the perspective shifts along with the narrator’s unraveling perceptions of reality. “That one has the sense of a slow, suburban breakdown,” admits the author. “There is this daily routine that starts getting stranger and stranger, until by the end, the main character has sort of a nervous collapse.” With these details as plot points and leitmotifs, the songs of Leland Sundries don’t just sketch scenes, but map out curious universes that the listener can inhabit, explore and expand upon as the imagination dictates.
Striking as his lyrics are, Loss-Eaton tries not to approach his craft with preconceived notions. “A lot of what I do is done without any particular expectations of going in a specific direction.” He may compose something, set it aside, then return later to harvest just one line—or even a single word—and re-purpose it elsewhere. “I try to be as loose as I can in my writing. Then, when the final song comes together, a big part of the job is to be an editor, to pull things together and cut out the trash.” Loss-Eaton cites Pulitzer Prize-winning scribes Sam Shepard and Richard Russo as just two of his favorite writers, and holds his own wordplay to exacting standards, even as he culls the best bits from cocktail napkins and hotel room memo pads.
While Loss-Eaton has been nurturing these songs for quite some time, the making of The Apothecary EP—which features Loss-Eaton on accordion, banjo, and resonator guitar, among other instruments—happened rather quickly. It was crafted at the Creamery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with bassist David Kross and drummer Adam Blake serving as the rhythm section. The former dairy creamery-turned-recording studio offers certain amenities, but alas, central heat isn’t one of them. “We would do a take, and then turn the space heater on, huddle around the space heater and listen back, then do another take.”
Loss-Eaton brings the same vivid imagination that fuels his writing to his live performances, too, engaging audiences on as many levels as possible. When he plays out, he brings along his harmonica and resonator guitar, but augments his arsenal with banjo, cigar-box guitar, sometimes even a bullhorn. “I try to throw in surprises, so that somebody sitting at the bar, who might not really know or care about what I’m doing, will look up and go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” Because no matter how much the music of Leland Sundries is informed by the past, and how well it ages down the line, ultimately, Loss-Eaton’s songs and performances are about being present, and appreciating life—as wretched or sublime or silly as it may seem—in the now.