by Jed Nussbaum
Col. J.D. Wilkes is perhaps best known as the fire-breathing frontman for The Legendary Shack Shakers, a Southern gothic rock-and-roll band that has been chewing up venues with their outrageous live shows since the mid-'90's. Far from being any one-trick pony though, Wilkes has also forayed into the realm of artist, author and filmmaker. His documentary Seven Signs explores the mythology and music of the American South, and his book Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky chronicles the rich history of folk music gatherings across his home state.
With the Shack Shakers currently on hold, Wilkes has turned his attention to the Dirt Daubers, a group he started with his wife, Jessica, in 2009. While the band's previous two albums were stripped-down, acoustic affairs, their latest release, Wild Moon, marks the band's growth from an acoustic roots project to an amped-up quartet, soaked with blues and rockabilly. The Dirt Daubers perform at the Missoula Winery this Saturday, and we caught up with the Colonel to talk about his music, American folklore and the craziest thing he's seen from the stage.
What prompted the Dirt Daubers' evolution from an acoustic roots band to an amped up, electric lineup for Wild Moon?
JD Wilkes: Jessica was writing some awesome new tunes and it quickly became obvious that the band would require a broader sound. I also had a handful of tunes that matched the intensity, so we expanded our sonic range to accommodate. We still play some of the old tunes too, but thanks to our wider range we can play all that and more.
It feels like you have a near-historian approach to the music you perform with The Dirt Daubers. What is important to you about recording sounds most people associate with a bygone era?
Wilkes: Our new record actually sounds quite fresh. Lyrically, though, it might be somewhat obscure...I mean, I'm writing tunes about Amish people and crib death. However, Jessica's tunes are especially powerful and fresh and resonate with the folks that are coming out.
You've played harmonica alongside some legends, like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams III. Is there a single performer or session that stands out in your memory?
Wilkes: Getting to record at the Cash Cabin was pretty great. John Carter Cash was at the helm and I got to meet and play alongside Sam Bush and Bobby Bare. There were a bunch of ostriches running around outside. It was surreal.
You're also particularly known for being a charismatic frontman. Is there a certain energy or inspiration you try to channel on stage?
Wilkes: There's no particular thing I'm trying to channel or copy...just the spirit of the song as it's being performed in the moment. "Getting into character" pretty much happens the moment the first note is sounded. After doing this for almost twenty-five years, it's just like starting a car.
You've delved in to a broad spectrum of artistic expression, from comics to movies. Does any one art form resonate deepest with you?
Wilkes: I guess music does. Nowadays I'm devoting myself to learning banjo. But my New Years resolution is to draw more. Maybe do some animation. Hell I don't know.
Much of your art has a pronounced interest in the gothic side of American mythology. What is it about the darker side this country's folklore that interests you so much?
Wilkes: When you grow up in a boring, small town one way to stay entertained is to dig into the dramatic history of the area. Researching those myths and writing songs was a great way to keep from going insane. A different kind of insanity set in though...one I've been able to spin into a small career.
Is there much in the way of more modern, contemporary art that interests you?
Wilkes: Jess and I both love mid-century modern design. But I don't personally care for much of what passes for culture and design nowadays. There is so much better music and art from the not-so-distant past (long before the distractions of television and Twinkies) that you can actually stay busy discovering new stuff for the rest of your life.
What do you think about the resurgence of acoustic or folk-oriented music in pop music?
Wilkes: Acoustic doesn't necessarily mean good. Timelessness, melody and a solid hook can be found in almost any style of music, acoustic or electric. However, there are some great old-time bands out there in the underground today. The Tillers and the Pine Hill Haints happen to be my favorites.
What do you see your role as in the American folklore that you document?
Wilkes: I occupy just a small niche in the music underground, so it's not like I'm reporting to the Smithsonian. But I live to serve the small circle of folks that are into my brand. If I can keep them entertained and intrigued, then at least I served some sort of a role during my time here on planet Earth.
You have earned the distinction of Colonel in your home state of Kentucky for being a notable figure. What does that mean to you and how important is it?
Wilkes: It's an incredible honor. Kentucky is my home and to get to promote its culture and music worldwide is a true labor of love.
Your band The Legendary Shack Shakers are notorious for some pretty wild shows. What's the craziest thing you've seen from the stage at one of your concerts?
Wilkes: Well there was that one time when some guy had a seizure during the Shack Shakers' performance of "Ghost Riders in the Sky". The ambulance arrived by the time we were wrapping up. The guy was gurneyed away to the strains of "Yippy Yi Yayyy!" But don't worry. He pulled through.
Other than that, just random fights, out-of-control mosh pits and some pretty hilarious white-boy dancing.
J.D. Wilkes, and his Dirt Daubers play the Missoula Winery Tue., Jan. 28, at 7 PM. 5646 W. Harrier. Doors at 7 PM, show at 8. $10/$8 in advance at Rockin Rudy's and ticketfly.com. All ages.