The Arkansas Seer
By Dan Kimpel
According to Oscar Wilde, “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.” This phrase applies to songwriter and recording artist Jim Mize. In his day gig, the Conway, AR native is a property damage specialist at Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance of Arkansas where he reports on claims from disasters including hurricanes, tornados and fatal car wrecks.
With his latest eponymous release on Fat Possum Records—his third, in a recording career spanning 14 years––the 57-year-old artist taps deep veins of Southern truths and small town idiosyncrasies. “I’ve been doing it for years,” says Mize of his music career. “I haven’t made a lot of money at it, but shoot, I enjoy it when people enjoy it. Especially when the women come up and hug me.” Wielding a mean Telecaster, Mize summons a spirit both unvarnished and immediate. Bolstered by guitarists, John Paul Keith and Jimbo Mathus, the band echoes psychedelia and honky-tonks. Silhouetted on rural roads, against summer skies and full moons, Mize’s characters are brought to vivid life.
Arkansas is home. “Except for a little army tour, this is where I’ve lived,” confirms Mize. He recalls one trip to California, back in the ‘70s. “I drove out with this guy in one of those square Winnebagos with an air conditioner on top. We didn’t get two hundred miles ‘til we knocked that thing off, so all we had were oscillating fans. We ended up in Manhattan Beach with two sisters who worked at a racetrack. There was topless sunbathing and pot growing in the back yards.” Breasts and buds notwithstanding, Mize clearly prefers his hometown. “The South has a culture to it, and people are basically nice to each other.
“Songwriters, all of us, have got our antennas up,” observes Mize. His song “Eminence, Kentucky” details an unsettling relocation. “I saw the name of the town on a truck. I thought, ‘I like that. It’s a cool name.” For “Empty Rooms” he recollected the continuing plight of an old friend. “I bet he and his wife had been divorced five times and then got remarried. Sometimes we’ll be out and come back and there’d be a moving van at his house.” The details are stark, visceral and telling as a nosy neighbor peeks from a window and crayon drawings stain bare walls.
“Eye to Eye” is surreal and hypnotic, noting a woman who “came in with the carnival.” Mize says that these traveling visitors to his small town always made an impression. “The people who worked there just looked weird,” he claims. An older Mize song, “High” was recently included in the soundtrack for the Joss Whedon-scripted supernatural romance In Your Eyes. Mize likes the opportunity to pair his music to picture. Not that he knows how the song ended up in the film. “I guess the label sent it to them. I don’t know. But I love soundtracks.”
The label is Big Legal Mess, an independent record label based in Oxford, MS and distributed by Fat Possum Records. Mize considers the label’s Bruce Watson, to be his “sounding board,” as he says, “We’ve got a running joke. I’ll go in with six or seven songs and play ‘em, and he’s like ‘What else have you got?’ But I love the process.”
“Need Me Some Jesus,” is a rough crosscurrent of gospel and honky tonk. “I live right in the Bible Belt. I don’t want to sound preachy. But it’s always a battle between good and evil, isn’t it? There are different layers of that. My son passed away last year. He and I, we played a lot of guitar. The song came out of that.”
Mize is looking forward to a future when he will be seeing fewer calamities and more audiences. “I will be retired in a year or two, I want to dedicate full time to music. Hopefully I can get that palette right where that transition will be a little bit better for me. What I would like is for people to enjoy my music. That’s the juice.”
Contact Cary Baker, [email protected]