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Photo by Elizabeth DeCicco.
How would you describe your role as a guitarist?
I was mostly on my acoustic. I was really just sitting there leading the band and singing. Most of the parts Matt Pierce played were on my demos—I’d drop his little sketch on there. He’s a very talented, hook-writing guitarist, like Roscoe. And sometimes they’d hash their parts out on the studio floor. By the time it got to the recording itself, I played just the campfire chords on the acoustic, because I like to have that acoustic on my rock ’n’ roll. I played the Les Paul that introduces “White Angel” and the lead on “Windows.” Matt plays the solo on the end. I do my work on the demo side, and on the record I’m worrying about my singing.
You can’t cut eight songs in two days without a great band. The casualness and intensity. I struggled to find the people I really wanted. Roscoe has been with me for about three years now. Matt is my brother-in-law, and he’s been with me about eight years now.
Is it hard to let go and let the other guitarists come up with their parts?
Man, it’s been a goal of mine since a very early age to remove the ego from music. It’s something I was able to do with the Squirrel Nut Zippers. That was a seven-piece band that had to be arranged so there was room for everybody to be heard. It reflects back to my beginnings in music—the big family gatherings with banjos, guitars, fiddles, etc. It’s an egoless process: It’s not my thing or your thing—it’s our thing! I was raised on the social aspect of music, and I’ve carried that idea ever since then. I can’t have it any other way, and it shows in the music. I’d rather quit than play with ego.
How locked in were the arrangements?
In this ensemble there’s really no room to improvise once the song is laid out. It’s a five-piece band, and everybody’s being careful to not clutter each other up. There’s not a lot of room to lose yourself in that spontaneity—but you lose yourself in the song.
Watch Jimbo Mathus and the Tri-State Coalition in action at Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Some players who also sing say they feel more connected when they sing and play at the same time, as opposed to recording an isolated vocal.
I totally agree with that. If you listen to B.B. King or Little Milton—or any of the guitarists who play and sing and incorporate the two together—that’s where you’re into a really heavy thing. Your whole body, mind, and soul are engaged.
The album is already getting some great response. What’s next?
We’ve got a huge tour booked. My hopes are that this is our year. I don’t think we can do better for rock ’n’ roll than we did with Dark Night.