At first this is a far cry from Mathus’ recordings with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. There was a tight stateliness to the Zippers, even when they were playing at their most fast and furious. On Mathus’ new record Confederate Buddha, the music is relaxed and playful. What both bands share is the seriousness with which they take the roots music they play, whether it’s swing and string jazz or Southern music of the country.
Confederate Buddha is a loose record. It’s music that sounds best after the second cocktail around 4 p.m., and it covers the gamut from honky-tonk to piano-laced rhythm and blues to straight rock ‘n’ roll boogie and even mariachi. The steel guitars bend their notes like tears or laughs. The female back-up singers add depth as they complement the rough, tossed-off vocals of Mathus on the lovely, romantic “Walks Besides” or sass their harmonies on “Jimmy the Kid” like outtakes from 1970s Lynyrd Skynyrd sessions.
The lyrics contain simple images and sentiments like the “There’s too much water under the bridge” on “Too Much Water” or “Best be heading to higher ground / and keep your eyes on the horizon” on “Cling to the Roots.” They’re images that everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Mahalia Jackson to Charlie Patton have used, but Mathus’ voice and songs combine with these lyrics to give them a strength that goes beyond the clichés that they might be in the hands of someone with less conviction. Each person defines soul differently, but however you define it, this fine recording has it with lots to spare.