A nice crowd turned out Friday evening for the signing and reading by Alan Huffman, author of the fascinating new book Sultana. He kept everyone enthralled with details from the sinking of the Mississippi River steamboat and the particulars of his research. After the reading, he signed a pile of books and regaled us with tales of woe — from the newspaper world, where he plies his journalistic trade in extremely uncertain times for print media — and wildlife. Someone mentioned that there were an inordinately high number of squirrels scurrying around this year — surely a sign that the end times are near — and Alan agreed that the squirrels had gotten out of hand at his own rural homestead in Bolton, Mississippi. We shared with him a fellow writer's strategy for squirrel eradication, and he in turn told us a story to illustrate how crowded the wildlife (mankind included) had become at his place:
"I had just finished a shower and was standing at an upstairs window when I noticed a squirrel digging around in the dirt to one side of a large tree. It looked up at me and froze. It was then that I noticed a deer in the woods, looking up into the trees. Following its line of sight, I saw a hawk, watching the squirrel. Then, when I moved, the squirrel jumped onto the tree trunk, frightening a crow that was also digging around in the dirt. The squirrel ran up the tree, the crow flew away, the deer turned and ran, and the hawk just sat its limb, no doubt muttering under its breath. I continued drying off from my shower, having interrupted the drama of the glen and foiled a hawk's breakfast."
With squirrels on our mind, we drove out to Carroll County Market, a fine eatery and music venue in the lovely and nearby town of Carrollton, where our buddy Jimbo Mathus was performing. If you're not familiar with Jimbo's music by now, you're behind the curve, though you may be unwittingly familiar with his work if you ever listened to the Squirrel Nut Zippers during the great swing revival of the 1990s.
Carroll County Market, which has done wonders to liven up the nightlife in downtown Carrollton, was the perfect setting for the new songs from Jimbo's most recent album, Jimmy the Kid, an homage to classic country music with Jimbo's own distinctive modern twist. Released late last year, it's been a staff favorite and enjoys steady rotation at the bookstore. We could go on and on about the album's merits, but you should probably just go ahead and order a copy, along with our all-time favorite Jimbo disc, Knockdown South, a rowdy modern Mississippi classic, recently thought to be out of print until bassist Justin Showah uncovered a hidden cache from storage. Also, read Alan Huffman's account of seeing Jimbo for the first time, as well as a flattering account of the bookstore, at his site.
As we've lamented in the past, Greenwood, despite sitting squarely in the cradle of the birthplace of American popular music, is not a hotbed of live music, so we often have to take it on the road when we get that jones. A couple of weeks ago, several of us loaded up and drove to Oxford to see another staff favorite, Andrew Bird, who, many are unaware, also used to perform with the Squirrel Nut Zipper. Jimbo had plenty of praise for his former band mate, a prodigy who learned classical music as a toddler and has plied his own trade with a Midwesterner's quiet dutifulness for years, and he now stands as one of the most unique artists in today's pop music scene.
We recommend purchasing his most recent album, Noble Beast, a collection of layered and fluid pop orchestrations that came out earlier this year on Fat Possum Records, the great Mississippi label who were known primarily, until recently, as a blues label (R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough). Stylistically, Bird forms a kind of bridge between the whimsy and lyrical prowess of top-shelf Beck with the dynamics and moody soundscapes of Radiohead, though the expansive sound of his album is created through acoustic instrumentation, including all manner of strings, percussion and his trademark whistling, used to great effect. (He's no peanut-gallery whistler, mind you; these are serious, bird-like melodies.) The total package is one of the most refreshing sounds around, and we were impressed to see how he pulled it off live during his fine performance at Oxford's new Lyric Theatre. His rock star qualities were not diminished by the fact that he totes a violin instead of a guitar, though, due to traditionally chatty crowds in Oxford, Bird and his band had to crank up to play over the din.