“I have musical ADD is what it is,” says JD Wilkes. A man with an abundance of talents – singer, multi-instrumentalist, author, artist – Wilkes seems positively possessed by the need for self-expression. “I like to stay busy and I like dabbling in a lot of different things. I guess it is like Attention Deficit Disorder because one thing will start to bore me and I’ll just go to the next thing, but I don’t go to the next thing until I’ve completed the last thing. That’s the trick, that’s the hard part.”
Five years since the release of their last album AgriDustrial, Wilkes is back with Legendary Shack Shakers to unleash a fresh blast of blues, country, punk, rockabilly and whatever else tickles their fancy, all shot through with a pitch black streak of Southern Gothic on their new album The Southern Surreal. Life and death permeate the lyrics, perhaps a reflection of the events that caused the long break between releases. “Even three years ago we were still touring on AgriDustrial,” says Wilkes. “We took two years off, one for burn-out reasons but mostly because the drummer, Brett Whitacre, had a cardiac episode. His heart stopped beating, he was pronounced dead a few times and they brought him back to life and put a pacemaker in him.”
While the Lazarus-like drummer was recuperating, Wilkes stayed busy with The Dirt Daubers, the band he formed with his wife Jessica Lee Wilkes. They released their most recent album, Wild Moon, in 2013. “It was hard to get that off the ground because nowadays there is such a glut of new bands, new musicians and everyone vying for attention,” says Wilkes. “But I thought Wild Moon was every bit as good as anything else, in fact that album is the best thing I’ve ever put out.” Now JD has returned to Legendary Shack Shakers, Jessica is touring with her own blues band. “I look at it like it’s the family business and we’re just franchising out,” he says. “It’s just what we do. It’s like if we were both bakers or cobblers. It’s a trade, it’s a weird line of work, there’s a lot of travel, we’re away from one another a lot now but that makes getting back together all the sweeter.” Wilkes compares life on the road to that of a travelling salesman, saying: “It’s lonely but it’s oddly fulfilling at the same time. Me and Jessica were talking just the other day about how weird it is. You live for that hour in the spotlight. It’s nothing but driving and waiting and packing gear, you sleep in hotels, but why do you do it? It’s for that hour on stage in the spotlight when you get to disconnect from the world. It’s like a Zen ritual or something that makes it worthwhile and keeps it all balanced. Everything frustrates you until you get to that cathartic release, but once you got it, it’s addictive. The bug bit her and I guess I created a monster, but she’s loving it.”
The trials and tribulations of a touring musician notwithstanding, the road is where Wilkes finds the inspiration to write. “It’s the travel part that should be inspiring to you – look out the window, look at the Americana as it rolls by, instead of stopping in McDonald’s go to a mom and pop place, take the road less travelled,” he says. “You might see an old road sign or some mural on a wall fading from time and that’ll inspire something. You just have to look in the right places. It shouldn’t be soul-sucking. It can be. It’s the downtime. It’s not the soundcheck and it’s not the gig and it’s not the exhaustion at the end of the night, it’s the time spent travelling to get there. There’s sort of a waking coma state.” The antidote is to sit with a notebook and a cup of coffee in the back of the van and take in the landscape as it passes outside. “I’m staring out the window like I’m watching TV, just transfixed on the countryside as it rolls by,” says Wilkes. “It’s all interesting to me. I think it’s important to stay fascinated with the world. I never have writer’s block because I’m just constantly fascinated with everything.”
The Southern Surreal was recorded with the band – guitarist Rod Hamdallah, bassist Mark Robertson and drummer Brett Whitacre – at Woodland Studios in Nashville then finished off at the city’s Wavy Cat Studios, where Wilkes did what he calls the “mad scientist tinkering” as he revels in the opportunity to create his own sounds. “It’s like I was saying about the fun part of touring, it’s the journey to the gig that is fascinating. Keep that sense of fascination in the studio,” he says. “Just because you can pull up an effect on the internet doesn’t mean you should. Isn’t it more fun to go and take a Tupperware dish and float it in the toilet, put a microphone in it and then sing full volume in the bathroom? Isn’t it more fun to get a coffee can and drop a microphone in it and holler into that, or play through one of these little amps the size of a cigarette pack, like a Pignose, drop that in a coffee can and play a Flying V through it? I made a point in the liner notes of saying all the shortwave sounds on this record I compiled over 25 years of being a ham radio [amateur radio] operator. All the signals that you hear fading in and out like creepy dreams, that’s all stuff I’ve experienced and captured because it’s fun.
I’m fascinated by it. This is a fun line of work, you make sounds and create movies in people’s minds with music. Why not just fully involve yourself in it?”
One of the fragments that Wilkes brought to the album very nearly wrecked it. After recording at Woodland and Wavy Cat, the album was transferred to a digital format for mixing and mastering. And that’s when things got weird. “There’s a little piece I found online of an interview with a man who had encountered the Mothman, which is a southern folk monster,” says Wilkes. “It’s a real interview from the 1960s with a man who had been terrorised by this creature. I grabbed it off YouTube or something because this was something I wanted people to hear. When we put that into the computer, it ate the whole record. It basically destroyed our record. It’s almost like the Mothman struck again.” Fortunately everything was backed up, foiling the Mothman – for now.
For that hour on stage in the spotlight you get to disconnect from the world. It’s like a Zen ritual.
While there’s no shortage of Southern Gothic on the new album – witness the voodoo vibe of (Let The) Dead Bury The Dead – the darkest moment of the record comes with actor Billy Bob Thornton’s spoken word contribution The Dog Was Dead. “That gets really gothic, it’s almost hard to listen to but it’s such a heartrending thing, ultimately it’s a tale of mercy, it’s not just gore,” says Wilkes, who asked Duane Denison – guitarist for US rock band The Jesus Lizard and former Shack Shaker – to provide the musical accompaniment to Thornton’s tale. “I told him I wanted it to sound like the Sling Blade soundtrack, Billy Bob’s magnum opus,” he says. “I didn’t want it to sound like hillbilly music or cowboy stuff, I wanted it to be ethereal, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno-sounding. He was able to create that perfect atmosphere for that story.”
The unsettling subject matter about a mortally wounded canine came from Thornton. “I asked Billy Bob if he could help us out with a little spoken word piece and this is just what he sent me,” says Wilkes. “I sent him samples of songs that we were looking for dialogue for. He listened to the songs, I guess you’d call them soundscapes to use a pretentious term, and chose that story to go with one of the tunes. That was all Billy Bob. He was telling me about a couple of different stories; one of them was going to be funny, one was going to be dark and he gave us the dark one. There are two sides to Billy Bob – there’s Bad Santa Billy Bob and then there’s Sling Blade Billy Bob. I guess it just depends on how he gets up out of bed in the morning.”
The music on The Southern Surreal mines every conceivable nook and cranny of the sounds of the American south, revealing the richness of the region’s musical heritage. “Everyone thinks the south is just this one thing. Actually there’s a lot of variety there,” says Wilkes. “If you go to Louisiana you’re going to hear Cajun music, New Orleans jazz and clarinets, you’ll hear swamp music and funeral dirges and second line rhythms. You go to Texas you’ll hear polkas and Tex-Mex music and barroom blues and Americana. You get some bluegrass up in Kentucky, you get blues down south. There is a lot of variety and I’m interested in tackling it all.”
Wilkes describes the Shack Shakers’ sound as “a good mix tape on a great road trip across the south. Everybody loves a good mix tape. No one talks about how it’s a bumpy ride and everyone listens to it from end to end and has a good time. That one band is creating the sounds shouldn’t be a problem. We’ve been around 20 years. We’ve played honky-tonks, we’ve played prisons, gay bars, boot scoots, theatres, we’ve played it all. There is a lot of variety in our experience. We’ve been to Europe and Canada and travelled around. There is a sense of fascination that we wear on our sleeves. We love it all. It’s a multi-faceted world and a multi- faceted south and there are a lot of nuances there to be covered and explored and enjoyed.”
The Southern Surreal is Legendary Shack Shakers’ first release for Alternative Tentacles, the label founded by Jello Biafra, the original frontman of punk legends Dead Kennedys. Over the decades Alternative Tentacles has released everything from punk to country and even spoken word albums from left wing writer Noam Chomsky. “He’s been a fan for a long time,” says Wilkes about Jello Biafra. “He’s always had a place in his heart for insurgent country music. I think we fit right in there and he said some really kind things about the band and me over the years. The offer has always been on the table for Alternative Tentacles to put out a Shack Shakers record, he’s always let that be known, and now’s the time to do it!”
Legendary Shack Shakers have attracted a variety of labels over the years – rockabilly, roots rock, punk, blues and on and on – but for Wilkes it’s much simpler than that. “It’s American music, it’s aggressive and loud and fun and bluesy,” he says. “I play blues harp, that’s my main thing. I grew up listening to Sonny Terry and Little Walter, I played on stage with Junior Wells before he died. I met William Clarke a week before he died. I’m acquaintances with James Harman and Kim Wilson, that’s the world I came out of, so the blues thing was the first. Then when I went to Nashville I got into amping up the live show to keep the tourists happy.”
Wilkes cut his teeth playing the bars on Lower Broadway in Nashville, a four-block area packed with music venues catering to the country crowd. There Wilkes and Legendary Shack Shakers learnt their trade playing marathon four-hour sets in the honky-tonks. “We’d play jump blues and turn around and play some rockabilly,” he says. “So the jump blues led into rockabilly and the rockabilly led into hillbilly music which led into country music, but it was all given this aggressive live show to keep the audience happy, because it was free to get in and it was also free to leave those honky-tonks. The live show, which became almost punk, developed that way out of necessity to keep the audiences in their seats and drinking beer. The Lower Broadway honky-tonk scene, that’s really what gave us that punk energy. It wasn’t for punk rock’s sake, it wasn’t thinking of punk rock or trying to be punk rock. It was the need to be charismatic enough and wild enough to keep people’s attention.”
So how did Wilkes survive playing four-hour sets with no breaks? “You just paced yourself and learned how to talk over the microphone and learned how to walk the tip jar around,” he says. “There was a dynamic to it, you were working your ass off but in such in a way that you could sustain it night after night. There was a certain art to it, the four-hour Lower Broadway set. They still do it down there. That’s still a lot of people’s line of work. It’s even crazier than when I was down there. It was how we developed and because it was Nashville the country music thing secreted itself on us and we absorbed a lot of that rockabilly stuff. But really it started off as a blues band with a lot of harmonica.”
We played to a yuppie crowd. Their faces melted, they were having panic attacks, spilling their drinks…
When the Legendary Shack Shakers finally graduated from the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway, they took those four hours of exertion and transformed them into a raging fireball of intensity. “We took that energy and went and played a showcase down on the other side of Nashville, on the better side of the tracks,” says Wilkes. “We blew the lid off that dump. Imagine four hours of energy compressed into three songs, playing to a yuppie crowd. Their faces melted, they didn’t know what to do, they were having panic attacks, they were spilling their drinks, and that’s the night we got signed to a management deal. Then we were on the road with Hank Williams III a month later and it just changed overnight. It turned on a dime. It was from taking that energy and getting out of Lower Broadway and going to a classier style of club, because we’d already put in our time. It was like boot camp for three or four years. It was time to move on.”
Nine albums and almost two decades later, JD Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers are still tapping into the transformative power of music. “There is something hypnotic about the blues that I love, the stuff from the Delta and the stuff from North Mississippi,” says Wilkes. “Before Jon Spencer ever discovered him, I saw RL Burnside when I was a teenager playing here in Kentucky with his family band. They’re all sitting in lawn chairs on stage and just creating this alternate universe with their music. It was transcendental, this droning, almost African-sounding blues. It put me in a trance. ‘Oh, that’s what blues ought to sound like, it isn’t the sports bar blues that I’ve been telling myself I liked. This is it. It gives me goose bumps.’ I’m a white guy, I’m a nerd, how can I create that sort of goose-bump transcendental feel without trying to mimic a black bluesman? How can I do it and still be unique to who I am?” The answer is Legendary Shack Shakers and their mind-altering Southern Gothic punk country blues. “That way I’m authentic to what I am, which is a weird southern white nerd,” says Wilkes. “But I still want to give people that feeling and these are the ways that I do it.”
The Southern Surreal is out now via Alternative Tentacles. The band’s UK tour begins in Brighton on Nov 10.
How JD Wilkes is taking his tales of terror from the studio to the printed word.
There’s more than a touch of the renaissance man about JD Wilkes. Not content with his musical success, he wrote the historical study Barn Dances & Jamborees Across Kentucky, he’s a filmmaker and he’s an artist. “I’ve been a cartoonist since I was a little kid,” he explains. “I put out a comic book a while back called Grim Hymns and we still sell it on the merch table. It’s basically a cartoon version of all my songs. I was a cartoonist for the Nashville weekly newspaper. I think I got fired from there or censored so much I quit. I used to draw my comics from the road, after the gig at the end of the night.”
Now he’s looking for a publisher for his first novel, The Deadening. “You know how Tolkien and these fantasy authors always set their stories in a medieval Europe or England?” he asks. “I thought, why not do a similar saga but put it in the deep south and have the monsters and folktales of southern mythology come to life? Instead of Grendel or orcs and goblins, have the Bell Witch or the Mothman, these hillbilly folktales that are just as interesting and cool as anything. So that’s what I did.”
A place called The Deadening really exists, just down the road from Wilkes’ home. “The legend has it that years ago a logger went out to ring his trees, that is to cut a swath out of the bark to bleed the sap out, therefore kill the tree making it easier for him to come back and harvest the forest later after the trees are all dead,” says Wilkes. “So he rung all his trees and killed them. The problem was that he died before returning to chop them down, so it left this dead forest standing there with these creepy talon-like limbs cowering from the sun as you walk among them. I thought it’s the perfect place to set a story. They say if you go into the forest you’ll lose your way and then have to spend the night. The next morning once you emerge from the forest, not just a day has passed but an entire year has gone by. So that’s the legend. There are a lot of things like that which are prime for the picking. Weave a thread of narrative through it and then you’ve got a story.”