Picks and Pans Review: Spotlight On...
SWINGING THE DREAM
"I FOUND A RECORDING OF BESSIE SMITH singing 'St. Louis Blues,' " recalls Jim Mathus. "I thought I'd found religion."
It's not surprising that the musical inspiration for Mathus, the vocalist-guitarist-trombonist for the North Carolina-based Squirrel Nut Zippers, should come from an LP bin at a yard sale. After all, the septet specializes in taking something old and giving it a new home. What is surprising is that its new home is on the charts. Hot, the Zippers' second album of '20s- and '30s-style jazz and swing, spiced with rock and roll, has made the Top 30 in Billboard; the video for "Hell" is in regular MTV rotation, and the band is packing clubs across the country.
The Zippers, who are all in their 20s and who named their band after a caramel nut candy, were formed in 1993 after Mathus moved into the Chapel Hill, N.C., farmhouse of his girlfriend (now wife) Katharine Whalen and taught her the banjo. They met vocalist-guitarist-saxophonist Tom Maxwell and discovered a mutual love for singers like Smith and Cab Calloway. "We started out playing informally, in a bistro, but it seemed like there was an audience for this type of unamplified music," says Mathus.
And whether or not they remain as hot as Hot, "this is a style we'd like to stick to," he adds. "We'll do this no matter what's fashionable in music. There will be no Squirrel Nut Zippers rap album."