By L. Kent Wolgamott
Jimbo Mathis isn’t from New Orleans. But the Squirrel Nut Zippers sure sound like they inhabit Crescent City on their current album, The Lost Songs of Doc Souchon.
“Most of my band is from there,” the Zippers founder said from his Oxford, Mississippi home. “It’s been a big part of my life. It’s just down the road. I’ve been involved in that city most of my life, mostly through music.”
In fact, The Lost Songs of Doc Souchon, which adds a strong New Orleans jazz flavor to the Zippers’ mix of early jazz, R&B, swing and jumpin’ blues, was recorded there two springs ago around shows Mathis was playing in the city’s clubs.
Who is Doc Souchon? And why should we care?
Well, the answers start with the late, legendary Memphis music man Jim Dickinson, who, among other things, produced The Replacements and Big Star. He also played piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”
Dickinson hipped the Zippers’ founder and frontman Mathis to Souchon, an obscure New Orleans musician, at a recording session a few years ago.
Edmund Souchon “grew up in the early days of vaudeville down there,” Mathis said. “He was one of the first to start preserving the old songs. Before the jazz revival of the ’50s, he made an album, just a few hundred copies, to sell around town.”
Mathis was told he had to hear the album and a few days later, Dickinson showed him his copy. A few days after that, Mathis was heading to New Orleans to record another album when he walked down Decatur Street and was bitten by fate.
“There used to be a lot of rummage shops there—lo and behold, on a table in front of one of those shops sat (Souchon’s) record,” he said. “There’s a lot of cool songs on there. It really is a spirit guide to early New Orleans jazz and the early roots of it.”
Souchon’s loose-limbed, swaggering “Animule Ball” opens the album that carries his name, and the trumpet-and-trombone, old-timey jazzer “Cookie” turns up near the end of the record that typifies the Zippers’ approach to its music.
“We always dug into that early era of jazz, vaudeville, cabaret and all that stuff,” Mathis said. “We were always a little earlier than what you would call swing music. We get as much inspiration from Kurt Weill and ‘Three Penny Opera’ as anything. … Even more than that, I’ve traced it back to Stephen Foster. My research in American jazz goes all the way back as far as I can.”
In fact, Mathis’ appreciation of the writer of “Oh, Susana,” “Camp Town Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer” can be heard on the Zippers’ 1998 album “Perennial Favorites” and on Foster’s “Summer Longing,” which closes the new record.
Foster “was the originator of what became American music,” Mathis said. “He was like the Elvis Presley, the Louis Armstrong, whoever you want to pick as the signifier of American music. Before him, we didn’t have our own music.
“It was European music,” he said.
That’s sort of what the Zippers have done since Mathis put the first version of the band together in North Carolina in the mid 1990s, spinning early jazz, swing, R&B with traditional pop and even Klezmer and Balkan music into a mix of their own.
Tagged as part of the swing revival, the Zippers had a hit with the single “Hell” from its platinum 1996 album “Hot” and found themselves playing President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration and at the Super Bowl.
But the Zippers imploded in 2000 and went quiet until Mathis heard suggestions to bring back the band in 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Hot.” He decided to put together a new version of the band—he’s the only original member in the current alignment—but not for commercial reasons.
“It just intrigued me again,” Mathis said. “I felt like it was a waste for it to be sitting on the shelf gathering dust. I knew I could put together another great orchestra and renew this thing, not just replicate what we’d done.”
Five years in, SNZ II has recorded a pair of albums and toured extensively—at least up through March 2020—exceeding Mathis’s expectations when he put the new band together.
“It’s greater than I thought it could be,” Mathis said. “The albums are fantastic. The shows are fantastic.”
The current nine-piece band that features three horns, a full rhythm section with piano and three lead singers, including Mathis, who plays guitar, will play a show that covers a quarter-century of Squirrel Nut Zippers music.
But it won’t include any Mathis solo material.
“The Zippers are just a different thing,” he said. “I keep a good rock ‘n’ roll band on the side for that.”
Mathis’ solo work, however, can’t help but be connected to the Zippers and his love for early American music, an exploration he began years before most of today’s deep roots music purveyors.
“I’m proud to have been a pioneer in that,” he said.
After his first stint with the Zippers, he put out a solo album—blues, rock and folk—and then found his way to electric blues, which he performed with Buddy Guy. What’s next is still a mystery, he says.
“I’ve been exploring honky tonk, rock ‘n’ roll, acoustic music,” he said. “You’re not going to know what comes next.”
The same holds true for the Zippers. There’s always a surprise track on the horizon. For example, Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” jumps off the new album in spooky calypso style.
That cover came courtesy of the band’s banjo player, a man known as Dr. Sick.
“That’s why the Squirrel Nut Zippers are a unique beast,” Mathis said.
Squirrel Nut Zippers Christmas Caravan Tour plays at 8 pm, Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Mystic Theatre, 23 Petaluma Blvd. No., Petaluma. Tickets are $33-$43 and available at mystictheatre.com.