These days folks have forgotten the most important element of music and with the consumerist pop garbage that the industry keeps shoving down their throats, you can't hardly blame them. Think about it. These days, with the aid of overdubbing and the Satanic device known as Auto-Tune, it is possible to take an acoustic number by Bob Dylan and make it sound like Mario Lanza singing Puccini in front of the London Philharmonic, lacking only the heart and soul of both Dylan and Lanza. With our endless advances, we are marketing music that is technically perfect and emotionally dead. Beethoven once said that "Wrong notes are of little consequence, but to play without passion is inexcusable" and I'm pretty damn sure that everybody from Alan Lomax to Sam Phillips would agree. The most important thing- scratch that- the only important thing is whether or not it's real, if the singer sounds like he's lived and breathed every word and every syllable of the tune he's singing. The mark of good music isn't the genre, or the artist, or even the way it was recorded. It all comes down to whether you can stop hearing it and start feeling it.
I guess there's a simpler way of saying everything I just wrote. You can really sum it up in four words- "Cling to the Roots"- as Jimbo Mathus does on his new album Confederate Buddha. Those four words really represent the entire album and our entire world three years into the new Depression. The song is a darkly spiritual country tune about holding on to your family and friends, not changing who you are in the face of these changing times. As you listen to the lyrics and their dejected descriptions of real life natural disasters paired with that unheeded advice to "Cling to the Roots," you are reminded of Roy Acuff's "Wreck on the Highway," where a tragedy is made all the more tragic because he "didn't hear nobody pray."
The next track, "Wheel Upon Wheel," continues this theme of desolation with it's opening lines about "end times coming." Like the last song, though, this one remains ultimately hopeful while "waiting on the Avatar" (a Hindu manifestation of God).
Fans are likely to know Jimbo Mathus from his work with neo-swing-roots powerhouse the Squirrel Nut Zippers and, more recently, he has made some great music with the South Memphis String Band as well as other projects with Luther Dickinson. But while all of this is great, his solo work is a whole new game entirely. Here he continues to explore the roots of American music while also keeping an eye on the future. In doing so, he has created a quintessential modern folk album, with generous helpings of honky tonk, rhythm and blues, and Southern rock loaded onto the plate as well.
But while this album is a perfect summation of America and it's condition these days, it's also a celebration of where we've been and a celebration of the Southern culture Mathus comes from. Take the opening track "Jimmy the Kid" or "Kine Joe" for instance. Both songs are blues-based rockers, but they sound as if they could be traditional American folk ballads. The fact that they aren't speaks volumes about the album and it's music, which could fit on the shelf comfortably with either the Rolling Stones or Dock Boggs. Whoever tomorrow's version of Harry Smith is going to be, you can bet he will consider this album a goldmine.
When it comes down to it, Mathus's music is what you want to hear when you walk into the local bar instead of the damn Garth Brooks cover act they have playing every week. From the '70s rock-esque "Walks Beside" to the Wild West ballad "Aces and Eights," to "Town With No Shame," a honky tonk number that wouldn't sound out of place on an old Johnny Paycheck record, this is American music at it's finest and with the elegiac closer "Days of High Cotton," it becomes one of the best albums of the year. This is the type of album that, even now, I'm not completely comfortable writing about. I discover something new every time I listen to it and I know that later tonight I'll hear something and say, "I should have included that in my review." Too late. I'm writing it now and you can take it as it is. This secret has to be shared.