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In 1932, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “My Lost City,” his lament for the death of the nation’s jazz age, that “there are no second acts in American lives.” But, as the Chapel Hill band Squirrel Nut Zippers makes clear, in jazz, as in life, there are second chances.
In the 1990s, the Squirrel Nut Zippers was one of a handful of bands that gave a second act to the vaudeville, gypsy-jazz and swing music popular during the early decades of the 20th century. The band had the balance of lead vocalist Tom Maxwell’s swaggering stage presence, Katherine Whalen’s smoky vocals, Jimbo Mathus’ talents in songwriting and the backing of a jumpy, rip-roaring band of horns, violin, banjo and ukulele. The band was versed in rockabilly and boogie-woogie jump-hoodoo and, like a home-brewed bottle with XXX printed on it, the musicians had rejuvenated an old recipe that the world would drink down to the last drop.
Squirrel Nut Zippers’ original songs, “Hell” and “Put a Lid On It,” became anthems for the era of swing revival, and the band’s second album, “Hot,” went certified platinum. The Zippers toured with Neil Young, played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the band’s music featured in a computer chip commercial and in movies and TV shows.
But after four years in the pop-stratosphere, the band’s quick fall was as staggering as its rise. The original musicians recorded their last studio album of new material in 2000, among legal and financial entanglements—including disputes over the publishing rights to some of their hit songs—and personal in-fighting.
Following successful revival tours on and off over the years, Mathus—encouraged by renewed interest in “Hot” and its approaching 20th anniversary—wanted to breathe new life into the mostly dormant band. He assembled an ensemble of New Orleans-based musicians for touring and, in 2018, the revival version of the Squirrel Nut Zippers released a new studio album called “Beasts of Burgundy.”
“I realized I wanted to update the sound, and update the template of what we do,” Mathus says. “We got a bigger, nine-piece band instead of the six or seven pieces we had in the past. We have a venerable rhythm section, a three-part horn section, and I used my [New Orleans] contacts to get the cats I really wanted to be a part of the revival.”
The band’s Inevitable 25th Anniversary Tour kicks off in 2020; this month, the Zippers’ Holiday Caravan tour makes three stops in North Carolina, including at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre, playing a mix of holiday tunes and Zippers originals.
“The only person left over from the Squirrel Nut Zippers is me,” Mathus says. “I decided I wanted to put it back together in a permanent, lasting fashion, not just for a few reunion shows, but put something to keep the name and the brand alive.”
Mathus, who now lives in northern Mississippi, says he always looks forward to returning to the Triangle and especially to Chapel Hill, where it all began.
“I would never have been able to start a group like that anyplace else,” he says. “Definitely a special place. Zippers wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for that area. There were record labels, there were venues that encouraged original music and an active audience to check it out.”
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