Living Blues — Living Blues #247
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Breaking Out: E J Mathews
Scott M. Bock

Backwoods all the way

by Scott M. Bock

The words authentic, unknown and original are seldom used to describe blues artists today, so it is most welcome when a musician arrives on the scene and these descriptions are just the beginning of the story.

Enter E.J. Mathews, who lumbers onto an Austin stage with a jumbo acoustic guitar that looks tiny in his hands. He is quite a sight—a man with huge arms and a giant belly. His floppy, black, wide-brimmed hat is pulled down to his eyes. His bleached white T-shirt could easily clothe two or three normal men.

The barroom, borrowed for the Eastside Kings Festival in September 2016, is filling up with curious patrons and the banter is deafening. Clinking beer bottles compete for volume, but only for the moment.

The band begins to set up for sound check—they cannot wait to get going. The four men find their places, tune up, and three sit down and take their place. One leans on an amplifier. They plug in and Mathews strums a couple of chunky chords on his guitar and it powers loudly through the speakers. Then, without warning, sound check is over and the men begin work more than ten minutes early.

Everyone now focuses on the stage. What they witness is unexpected. And, this is a knowing, blues-loving crowd that came out to the festival with high expectations of hearing great Texas blues bands. But this music might be described as more folk blues, or even alt country, than traditional deep blues.

The moment arrives—how many people will leave the room looking for something else? Mathews and his band have a fresh sound that is not easy to characterize. The music is feel-good, but it is an awkward few minutes. In the end, only a few people leave. This version of Mathews’ band shows off acoustic chords and a simple, Mississippi Hill Country–like rhythm section of bass and drums with little heard from the cymbals. A young guitarist weaves in and out of the rhythm with searing, rocky notes from an electric guitar. The musicians look relaxed and settle into grooves that cause involuntary foot-tapping and the inevitable head-nodding that comes with a tightknit band. Mathews’ vocals soon take over the room.

He sings with a deep rumble that pushes him well over the sound of the turned up instruments. He could probably do that without the microphone. Evocative, clever lyrics and stories roll out one after another—stories about the woods, swamps, trucks and food, and yes, women are mentioned a few times too. With his bottomless voice and huge physical presence, Mathews is intimidating, and comparisons to Howlin’ Wolf are inevitable. Mid-set, Mathews stands and paces the stage holding the guitar by the neck at his side like he is hunting with a shotgun. That is another Wolf-like comparison to be made by fans after the show is over.

Mathews mostly looks down on stage as if he is in a trance. And just when it all gets too intense, his lyrics become playful, and the mood in the room lightens. It all works as if the largely unknown Mathews has been performing like this all his life. In fact, he has been working at music a long time, but only in the swamplands near his home in Texas, until recently.

E. J. Mathews refers to himself over and over as country. “I was born there. Backwoods all the way.” Welcome to the Backwoods is the name of his self-released, 2015 EP. It sold out quickly and now clubs and festivals are calling him. But there is no record deal, yet. This relative newcomer to the limelight has begun to receive inquiries from all over the U.S. and overseas. And Mathews is having a great time. It is clear, those backwoods, swampy roots are no marketing hype.

Mathews explains that E.J. simply stands for Eddie Jr. And he has been called E.J. all his life. Born July 7, 1970, in Cass County in tiny Atlanta, Texas, he worked as a logging trucker for years. He lived in Midwest City, Oklahoma, during his high school years after his parents divorced. Otherwise, Mathews has been a Cass County resident all his life. “My mom was from Oklahoma, just across the line out of Texas. The day after graduation, I moved back to East Texas, back to the woods. I went home.”

For the past four years, he has worked in special education and loves working with kids.“I’m an educator. I teach high school. I went back to school. I got tired of driving trucks. I wanted to do something different. I had already had some school [college], so I went back and finished.

“I’m the kind of guy, I set my mind to things [and I can do them] except losing weight. [laughs] I gotta get rid of this gut. You know, country living is based on eating because people have neck bones and collard greens and black-eyed peas and cornbread. We got plum jelly that we make, peach preserves. That’s what life is revolved around.

Mathews’ home sits on Cato Lake in Texas. He says the area boasts a total of 40 residents. “I was raised up [there] and that’s all I know. Cato Lake is a little bayou area on the Texas- Louisiana line. That’s a place called Leek Creek [unincorporated]. It’s a little bitty place by the bayou with a lot of pine trees by the swamp. It’s in Cass County, right there on the line.

“We get together at functions and eat and drink moonshine and homemade whiskey. That’s country living in a nutshell.

“It’s a mixture of people. We’ve got black, white. I’ve known all the folks around there all my life. It’s a beautiful place. [Of course there are some racial problems] but things are changing with the younger generation. They’re always going to do what you tell them not to do. [laughs] So, now my cousin’s dating the Klan leader’s daughter. [laughs] That’s the way things are now. Yeah, I love it.”

Cass County is in East Texas, about an hour north of Shreveport, Louisiana, and three hours east of Dallas. It’s roughly 1,000 swampy square miles. Only 30,000 people live there.

Mathews points out that, despite its relatively small population, Cass County managed to produce two well-known musicians. The Eagles’ Don Henley grew up there and named one of his recordings Cass County (2015). T-Bone Walker was also from the area. Mathews recalls that his cousin played a bit with Henley who he used to see around town when he was growing up.

But, despite these two local recording stars, it was Mathews’ grandfather, Zan, who inspired the young Mathews to play music.“My grandfather was my biggest influence. He would sit around and play blues and do his thing and make up these songs. He was a blues musician from Butler, Georgia, and he always played his own music. I never heard my grandfather play covers. I’d sit on the front porch with him and that’s what I know.

“I played with my grandfather all the time, especially when his hand got bad. As he got older, his hand wouldn’t work as much, so me and my brothers—we’re a big musical family . . . In July we have big blow out in the woods for three days—so, we would sit and play with him when his hand got bad.

“He showed me how to play guitar. That’s how I got my style. Just doing my thing with him.”

Unlike Mathews, his grandfather used an electric guitar and a slide. The love of his grandfather’s music and originality influenced the young Mathews. “He always told me just to be myself. ‘Be you. Be original.’ So, I always have been.

“It was always people telling me I couldn’t play because I wasn’t traditional blues or I couldn’t do country because I wasn’t traditional country. I didn’t want to be none of that. I just wanted to be me. I just figured I’d do it my way. I’ve got my own style.”

Mathews has been playing locally, most recently about two hours due north, at Grateful Head Pizza in Hochatown, Oklahoma. But it was a couple of slickly produced, humorous videos on YouTube that got this man some big notice. “I wanted to get my music heard. I wanted somebody to hear it. That’s why I did videos. We have a couple of videos. I got some more videos coming out. I wanted somebody to feel what I was feeling. Man, that Ford truck video [really helped]. Now I got my Christmas video, too. I’m working on another one.

“I put out a CD on my own. It’s been going really good. Our music’s playing everywhere. A few magazines did articles on me. It just kind of took off from there.

“I never thought I [would play music at festivals]. When you’re around [local] folks, they don’t really see what you see. Your own folks are the worst [critics]. People done told me they didn’t want to listen to me because I don’t play Johnnie Taylor or I don’t sound like this guy or that guy. They’re not willing to think outside the box. They want to hear one, four, five and then the next band plays one, four, five. They all sound the same at the end of the night. I didn’t want to do that. When it came to me, I want to be E.J. Mathews.

“Anytime I pick up my guitar it don’t matter whether its 10,000 people or five, I zone out. I just want to play for them. It’s such a blessing they would even listen to me ’cause I wrote these songs in the back of a truck stop on the side of a highway, and now they’re on the radio. It blows my mind every day.

“It’s hard for me to listen to my stuff on the radio. That makes me weirded out. I don’t too much care for my voice. You never hear yourself like other people hear you.

“If I had to say one thing that really made me feel great about playing music, it was at the [radio station] KNON in Dallas, Texas. The guy at KNON had seen me playing in Dallas and he kept coming to my shows. I seen this little white guy walking around and I kept wondering who he was. He never said anything to me and then one day he said, ‘I like your style. I love what you do. It’s different from everybody else. Would you like to be on the radio?’

“Now, I’ve [been playing] in Dallas. I come down and did a show and they put me on the KNON Blues Fest with Lucky Peterson and Bnois King and R.L. Griffin and all these blues legends and man, we smashed that place. [laughs] We got a standing ovation and they were like, ‘Who’s this dude?’ So, ever since then, [festivals and clubs] been just calling me up.

“I’ve been going back and forth to New Orleans. They called me and put me up down there. I played for a couple of days and then they brought me back. WWOZ in New Orleans, they spin my record all the time. That’s been a blessing and I’m getting ready to go back to New Orleans. I play at the Ace Hotel and Chickie Wah Wah, and they’re trying to get me into the Jazz Fest.” In 2016 Mathews picked up a gig with the New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp bi-monthly concert series on the bill with local legend Lil’ Buck Sinegal.

The current E.J. Mathews’ band includes Mathews on acoustic rhythm guitar, Donnie Mathews on bass, Kameron Overturf on lead, electric guitar and Dwayne Berry on drums and percussion. “My bass player, Donnie, is my cousin. Kam, the guy with long hair, we met him in Oklahoma about five or six months ago. We were playing up there and he came out and played. He’s really talented. My drummer, we’ve been playing around for a few years. My other drummer was in a church band with his father and they traveled a lot so he couldn’t really commit.”

Mathews says he loves to write songs. For him, the process is natural. “I’m sure I’ve got more than 100 songs. I got songs on the back of water bills, even wrote one on the back of my daughter’s homework one time. I was laying on the couch and [a song] came to me and I scribbled on the back of this paper. It just comes to me. My daughter [wasn’t happy].

“Sometimes I’m just laying in bed at night and I’ll pick up my phone and just hum some bars into my phone and the next day that’s the song I write. Sometimes the whole song comes in like 30 seconds. I make up songs, and a lot of times they end up being really good songs like my Ford truck song [Down On the Creek (Ford Truck)]. I wrote that song in like two minutes.

“I will play [a few] covers. But, 98 percent of the time I play my own stuff.

“I want to keep doing this. Dialtone Records, Eddie Stout wants me to sign with him. He really digs my music. He wants to take me to Sweden in July. I have had invites to Israel and Poland but need to get my passport.

“The way I look at it, I made it. I made it in my book. I keep striving to make good music and keep going on. That’s what I want to do, make really good music.”