Music

A New Southern Album for Right Now

Mississippi’s Jimbo Mathus reconnects with his buddy Andrew Bird to make Southern sounds with soul

photo: Reuben Cox

Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird.

A few months ago, I rolled down the windows of my Jeep on the backroads of Lafayette County, Mississippi, and turned on “Poor Lost Souls,” the first track on the new album These 13. The sun was falling toward the horizon, the shadows growing long, and by the time the song had ended and faded into the next, I realized I was about to be saturated in something special. 

I was getting a sneak listen of the album, which comes out March 5. My friend, the rip-roaring Mississippi musician Jimbo Mathus, had sent me the album days earlier and told me about this collaboration with the violinist, singer, songwriter, and whistler extraordinaire Andrew Bird. Mathus wanted to know if I’d give their music a listen and think about writing some words to go along with the album design and promotional materials. 

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I could tell Jimbo was a little extra excited, and I knew of Bird’s reputation, so I had the notion I should take this one seriously. As I listened and drove the ups and downs of the North Mississippi hillsides, I was struck by how the album felt intimate, close. Like the company of a good friend. And it hit me how much I needed that—we all need that—with the isolation and separation we have all endured.

From the melancholy and soulful beginning of “Poor Lost Souls” to the old country echoes of “Burn the Honky Tonk” to the giddy-up of “Sweet Oblivion,” this album moves from one place to another with skilled and careful hands. These 13 lives with strings and keys and vocals, all stretched to their most hurtful and redeeming places. It feels like it is reaching for you, hoping to help you along, as Bird sings in “Beat Still My Heart:” My darkest night will turn to dust, let the daylight have what it must. I’m alone, but I’m free.

“There’s a theme here of bridging divides, red-velvet ropes, tight-rope walking to the other side, to that fatal shore, let us now cross over the river,” Bird says in consideration of the timeliness of These 13. “All of this was unintentional as we were writing it, of course. I just know that every time Jimbo would send me a song idea, I immediately knew how to respond from where I sat two thousand miles away.”

Despite the physical distance—Bird currently makes his home in Ojai, California, and Mathus lives in Taylor, Mississippi, Bird and Mathus have been connected as friends and musicians for twenty-five years. Mathus first reached out to Bird to collaborate with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus’s popular mid-nineties swing band. Bird appears on three albums from 1996–1999, and Mathus later returned the favor, appearing on three of Bird’s productions. These collaborations were also Mathus’s way of introducing Bird, who is originally from Illinois, to the South.

“Jimbo was my guide through this colorful, eccentric Southern world,” Bird says, recalling recording sessions in New Orleans and trips to the North Carolina hills and the Delta flatlands of Mathus’s hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi.  

These 13 illuminates that same eccentric Southern world. The music is a little bit folk, a little bit gospel, a little bit bluesy, a little bit Hank, a little bit hill country, but most emphatically, it is all heart. The album itself feels like an embrace of not only music, but of the churning of the human spirit as it navigates the world and reaches for others.

“The fact that we were able to record this pre-pandemic, just two humans in a room around a microphone, adds a very personal, up close interaction that we all really are longing for right now,” Mathus says of the 2019 recording sessions. After sending ideas back and forth for eight months, the two finally got together in the studio in Los Angeles. “You can literally hear and feel that interplay on the recordings, and I think that can offer some comfort and hope.”

Part of me wonders what these two have been waiting on. “I suppose I was busy building a reputation apart from the Zippers so I could show Jimbo to a new audience the same way he gave me a leg up all those years ago,” Bird says. 

Mathus doesn’t consider the space in time so much as he considers what draws them together, and its power. “It was inevitable,” Mathus says. “It was an itching to get back to some real deep American music roots and I thought that I’d be the way to facilitate that in the way Andrew envisioned. He’s definitely a visionary.”

No matter how long it has taken these two to create together again, it’s possible that like most things that feel right for the moment, These 13 is exactly where it needs to be—the perfect Southern album for a not-so-perfect time. “So much of what Andrew and I do exists on the psychic and intuitive level,” Mathus says, “and it’s not easy to find the right place and time for a collaboration like These 13.”

But yet, somehow, they did. Did it take a while? Yes. Will I roll down my windows and ride again, listening to the album and watching the sun go down? Many times.

These 13 comes out March 5. Watch the video for the lead single, “Sweet Oblivion,” below.