BY T. BALLARD LESEMANN
Jimbo Mathus & Knockdown South
Fri. Dec. 2
10 p.m.
$7
Pour House
1977 Maybank Hwy.
571-4343

www.charlestonpourhouse.com

In 1995, guitarist James “Jimbo” Mathus was probably best known as one of the dapper players in N.C. breakthrough “retro/swing” act Squirrel Nut Zippers. In 2005, Jimbo’s probably better known by fans and critics as a bona fide enthusiast for traditional “Mississippi music”” — from the gutsy boogie and blues of Northern Mississippi to the honky-tonk and soul from down south. Miles and years away from the snazzy swing of the Zippers, Mathus seems happily anchored in a deeply Southern situation he likes to paint as part of a “knockdown South.”

“It just refers to a down-and-out situation,” he says, speaking from his home in Mississippi. “I like being the underdog. I like music that comes from a place you’re kind of fighting your way out of a corner. Something about that to me is just a lot more real. That’s pretty much the way I live. We live from day to day and from gig to gig most of the time, so as far as the label and the whole deal, ‘Knockdown South’ deals with the people I was collaborating with and resonating with.”

Upon returning to Mississippi from N.C. in 2002, Mathus found a suitable recording space in Clarksdale (50 miles down Highway 61 from Memphis) and opened the Delta Recording Service. Rather than embracing state-of-the-art digital studio equipment, he took a traditional approach to recording and built a collection of vintage ribbon microphones, old amplifiers, organs, drums, and guitars. It recalls the old Sun Studio days from 50 years ago, and ties right in with that “knockdown” spirit.

“We do everything from Buddy Guy and Elvis Costello to local church services to high school kids who want to sing and press songs for their mother’s birthday,” says Mathus. “It’s kind of like a co-op. I’m learning to produce and engineer as I go. It’s a good pace … a small-town feel. All my equipment is from the ’50s. The reason it sounds old is because the shit’s all old — and I ain’t scared to use them.”

Compared to his more collaborative “solo” releases, Knockdown South represents a major step ahead in a confident direction. It sounds like a hot jam session, with extended explorations and howling vocals. Some tunes amble slowly (“Loving Arms,” “Loose Diamonds”), some boogie hard ‘n’ heavy, a la ZZ Top’s take on John Lee Hooker (“State Line Woman”), and some bounce and shake with a sharp, funky rhythm (“Crazy Bout You,” “Rollin’ Like a Log”). “Boogie Music” could easily have been an outtake from Hendrix’s Band of Gyspys, while “Let me Be Your Rocker” and “Skateland Baby” tap along with the same boozy, country twang of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street.

“We tried to mix a lot of styles and not make it sound so herky-jerky,” explains Mathus. “I think the record holds together pretty good, going from honky-tonk weepers to heavy British blues stuff.”

Mathus has been touring for over a year with a trio configuration of the Knockdown South band, with Eric “E-Rock” Deaton and bass and Darren “Double D” Dortin on drums — both of whom played on the Knockdown South album.

“It sounds a little different from the recordings, but it’s really about the same,” Mathus says. “I just have to work a little harder on the guitar [laughs]. I like a big ol’ band, myself. If we had the money, we’d probably have an entire orchestra behinds us. This the Depression-era version … under the high cost of low-livin’.”