Memphis International Records
BluesWax Rating: 9
Last week, I told a friend, “I love Jimbo Mathus, but he’s so… weird.” And indeed, Mathus can churn out solid Hill Country blues, then turn around and bend the genre to the breaking point. At his best, he does all of that at once. Although he’s earned high marks as a traditionalist, that’s just the well from which he drinks. When he stretches the boundaries of the form, it stretches the listener as well in a sort of audio yoga that transcends expectations.
Mathus’ latest release, Confederate Buddha, has him backed by a full band, the Tri-State Coalition. Musically, the ensemble delivers a record full of rich texture, building on tradition and pulling together pure country blues, soul, and southern rock. Thematically, as the title implies, he’s produced an album with gravitas. Inspired by Alan Lomax’s book The Land Where the Blues Began, Mathus shares scenes from his travels across the South, capturing the voice of “these weird country people who are backwoods bodhisattvas.” “Bodhisattva” is a Sanskrit word that refers to enlightened beings, encapsulating wisdom as well as a desire to use that power for good.
The theme is most evident on the very contemporary “Wheel Upon Wheel,” which simultaneously draws on Hindu and Christian imagery while evoking Ezekiel’s wheel from the Old Testament. Mathus points out that the imagery is from Hindu teachings. “It’s not from that movie.” It’s thinking man’s blues if ever there was such a thing.
Continuing with the heavy themes, “Cling to the Roots” doesn’t specify its disaster, but take your pick: Katrina, the Nashville flood, last year’s oil spill, or even this year’s bumper crop of tornadoes. Even in the midst of such calamity, there’s a message of hope through it all.
With a signature move, the album closes with a simple number about the South. “Days of High Cotton” laments the current, poverty-stricken state of the Delta with words borrowed from William Faulkner alongside a strangely modern guitar solo.
Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. Just as quickly, the album takes sharp turns with the melancholy honky-tonk number “Town With No Shame,” the rocker “Shady Dealing” where the Tri-State Coalition earns its keep, and the uber-bluesy “Leash My Pony” where Mathus gives a heavy nod to Charlie Patton accompanied by a jump piano groove. For all the gravitas I mentioned, this is a fun album, too.
Every one of Mathus’ albums is different, but Confederate Buddha shows an amazing depth. I can’t help thinking that Jimbo has given us a gospel album of sorts.
Eric Wrisley is a contributing editor to BluesWax. He’d enjoy reading your comments below. If you like this review, please click on “Like.”
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