By Jim Morrison
When Jimbo Mathus decided to relaunch Squirrel Nut Zippers in 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough, “Hot,” he moved forward, not back, sending out the call among his New Orleans friends to build a new band playing the old songs.
He was intrigued about taking music he wrote and arranged and starting again. “Could I keep the crazy lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry thing?” he said about reaching out to friends in the city. “I put the word out there on the street and, you know, like Marie Laveau, I got the people.”
The old members of the Zippers had largely dropped out of the music business. The new band spanned a generation. “Some of the players in the band actually grew up watching me on MTV,” he added. “It’s quite a youthful group. …The personalities just seem to click.”
They’ve been on the road since, touring behind the old hits and a pair of new albums, “Beasts of Burgundy,” and “Lost Songs of Doc Souchon,” inspired by characters from the history of New Orleans jazz.
Jazz is just one of the genres Mathus and the Zippers meld into a concert gumbo. Klezmer, vaudeville, folk, blues, standards — you name it, they may play it. Not to mention their take on a holiday album, the enduring 1998 “Christmas Caravan” album.” That disc brings them to the American Theatre in Hampton on Dec. 9.
“That record is a family favorite. It’s really something a lot of people pull out every year,” he said. “It’s kind of gotten into the lexicon of that season. And so that’s really cool. I believe this is the fourth year I’ve done the holiday tour. So, we’ve ironed out a lot of details. We do some of the secular and some of the profane. We also do the holiday-based material, which is also very cool, and kind of creepy. It’s not your normal thing. ”
Mathus grew up in Mississippi in an extended family of musicians. By six, he was playing with the family band led by his father, doing folk, blues, fiddle music, and country gospel. Eventually, he expanded his view to include the vaudeville jazz era. “I was fascinated with the style of it. Everything I just thought was great,” he said. “I thought it was very clean and just good.”
It wasn’t that far afield from early folk and blues. “That music is just contemporaneous with all the folk music that was going on in the 20’s and 30’s all being invented in America. There were a lot more similarities between all those earlier forms than a lot of people didn’t give it credit for,” he added. “Blues, hillbilly, vaudeville, jazz.”
They eventually became separate genres, but in the early days, it’s not a stretch to suggest they came from similar roots.
Mathus has been a fan of those roots for decades. He studied philosophy at Mississippi State University and began writing and performing songs. After a few years, he joined the Merchant Marines using his shore leave to travel the country. After a trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., he decided to move there. There, he dipped into the libraries at the university to study a broad range of the arts from poetry and theater to music.
The Zippers formed in 1993 after Mathus married Katharine Whalen and had a monster hit with “Hell,” starting a swing revival. But Mathus was restless. He’d loved all those differing styles of music since he was a child.
Over the years, he worked with Jim and Luther Dickinson, fellow Mississippians, spent a couple of years and won a Grammy recording with blues legend Buddy Guy and most recently reunited with former Zipper Andrew Bird to release a superb quilt of American roots styles titled “These 13.”
Where does the willingness to venture anywhere the music takes him come from?
“It goes back 50 years to when that started, you know. I was just absorbed and just fascinated by all the stories that were attached to the songs and the history that goes along with it,” he said. “I was extremely curious, and I just felt like I was put on a path. With every move. I took a chance to do something different and unknown and frightening perhaps. But it made all the sense in the world to me.”
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