This long-awaited collaboration between two versatile musicians and individually separate musicologists owes mostly to a deep, close friendship. Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird, come across so authentically on the first track of These Thirteen’s “Poor Lost Souls” and the entire album to leave one asking, “Wow! Do they really make records like this anymore?” With a little bit of folk, gospel, blues, and country of both the twang and Hill Country variety, it is unmistakably Southern. Most emphatically, though, it is heartfelt. Somehow, these songs run straight through you with a chilling effect that ultimately reminds how even the simplest music, two voices, and two acoustic instruments, can be completely stunning. The magic is in the pairing – two of the most unique artists of these times.
As former collaborators in Squirrel Nut Zippers they’ve known each other for over 25 years, but since the millenium they’ve grown accustomed to working apart, building their separate careers, explorative in each’s way. “Poor Lost Souls” shows how old friends can bring fresh perspective. On “Poor Lost Souls,” seemingly a cousin to the Flying Burrito Brothers” “Sin City,” they address Hollywood’s homelessness crisis through two distinct points of view. Mathus with a visitor’s stunning impression of the situation; Bird responds from the outlook of a local, before they both come together in heartfelt harmony. It all results in lyrics like this – “Look down and see the stars, look up and see the gold. Here’s a broken song for broken times…but there’s hope in it.” Lyrics such as these were developed this way as described by Bird, “…So, it’s been my dream for years now to make this record with Jimbo. Just guitar, fiddle and our very different voices. I wanted to make sure you can really hear him as if for the first time. Every one of these 13 songs were written in collaboration. Jimbo would send me a few verses and I would just complete the thought. It was that simple. That’s never really happened before.”
The album was written largely in 2018 via that note sharing and was recorded in two bursts, in early 2019 and early 2020, with just the duo performing live to analog tape and sharing a single microphone for vocals. Despite their instrumental gifts, their playing here is not flashy although Brid’s violin traverses lots of territory and moods. While the Squirrel Nuts Zipper fare was cheerful, upbeat vintage hot jazz, these songs speak to the opposite; mostly Southern tales of sorrow and regret, the kind of music that has long imbued their solo careers, particularly that of Mathus. “Sweet Oblivion” was the first single while “Poor Old Souls” was the second. Notably “Bell Witch,” with its refrain of “Tennessee” somehow evoking the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” has tinges of gospel and tear-in-your-beer country. “Stonewall (1863)” is one that best characterizes mortality and regret. “Jack O’ Diamonds” is livelier, the kind of tune you’d expect from a good old-fashioned hoe down where there’s plenty of liquid spirits being passed back and forth. “Burn the Honky Tonk” and “Three White Horses and a Golden Chain,” on the other hand, are delivered mournfully, conjuring up classic Southern imagery and mythology, as perhaps only these two can.
Here’s a bit more on how their approach went down. Bird found that Mathus would provide him with a “clear punchline,” noting how a song like “Dig Up the Hatchet” provided a neat, fun point to work from. “Everyone knows ‘burying the hatchet,’ so let’s ‘dig up the hatchet,’” he remarks.. “One of us would provide a complete sentence, then the other would offer the other side of the coin. You had two perspectives in a song, coming together.” Mathus says,
“We co-wrote everything, which is something we’ve never done before. These aren’t complex songs, it was a very workmanlike, rail-building action…I learned a lot, actually. It Helps to have a person to talk with, that you can get a hold of and work with, do interviews with. As a friend, it’s meant more than I ever thought.”
Both Mathus and Bird are drawn to underutilized language and cultural expressions, what they mean and how they can be used in a song. It’s what connects Bird’s conservatory background with the traditions Mathus was raised in.
The genesis for the collaboration hearkens back all the way to 1995, when Mathus and Bird first met at the Black Mountain Music Festival in North Carolina. Mathus was there with his swing-and-jazz ensemble Squirrel Nut Zippers, who were “launching in a big way.” Fresh out of college, Bird was there with what Mathus describes as “a little kind of Renaissance band,” a guitar-and-violin duo that would typically be found at a Renaissance fair. “I was 22, 23 and into all sorts of stuff — Irish, Appalachian, gypsy jazz — and I gave him a tape of me playing hot jazz,” Bird recalls. Soon after, Squirrel Nut Zippers was in Bird’s hometown of Chicago for a show and in need of a fiddle player. Within a few weeks of that, Bird was a permanent member of the band. “It was quite the fortuitous meeting and I’m so thankful, Andrew, you had that cassette,” Mathus says. “That was the power of cassettes; on tour, you spend a lot of time in the van listening to them. From that day forward, I was automatically drawn to him.”
A signature moment beyond their tenure in the Squirrel Nut Zippers came with Mathus’ 1997 solo record Play Songs for Rosetta. For Bird, playing on that album was his awakening to Mathus’ world. Rosetta Patton was Mathus’ childhood nanny. She was also the daughter of blues icon Charley Patton and never received any royalties or payments from the sale of her father’s music. Play Songs for Rosetta was an opportunity for Mathus to give back to an important figure in his life and pay tribute to the sounds that became part of his sonic palette. And it allowed Bird to delve into that Southern lore. Around this same time, Bird left Squirrel Nut Zippers and became bandleader of Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. But the experience he had playing with Mathus on Play Songs for Rosetta stuck with him, leaving him with a desire to see what they could cook up together in the future. Around this same time, Bird left Squirrel Nut Zippers and became bandleader of Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire. But the experience he had playing with Mathus on Play Songs for Rosetta stuck with him, leaving him with a desire to see what they could cook up together in the future. “It really turned me on,” he says. “I was like, ‘Someday I’d like to make a record with Jimbo, just fiddle and guitar.’ Twenty years later, here we are.”
Maybe this is not just a culmination but the start of something. The duo filmed a bunch of live music videos and on April 11 they’ll be performing a livestream set together. With touring up in the air there are no plans for live shows, but Bird would like to do a duo set at Newport Folk if that event can take place this year. Here’s to hoping. In the meantime, get comfortable with this album. It’s destined to be one of the year’s best and a monster reminder of how the simplest music, rendered by two masters, is often the best kind.
Photo by Reuben Cox