Colonel J.D. Wilkes of
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
…has something original to say
“Colonel J.D. Wilkes” You may think you’ve never heard Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, but if you’ve seen the Geico commercial with the gecko riding in a car listening to some odd but catchy song on the stereo — then you have heard them. The tune is called “The C.B. Song,” off their second release Cockadoodledon’t, and it’s a good example of the Shack Shakers sound — a little Country, a little Punk, a little Blues, even a little bit of Polka thrown in. “Southern Gothic” is a term often used to describe the end product of this amalgam of influences, or “Junkyard Carnival Punk” as their bio suggests.
Based in Nashville, Tennessee the eclectic band of Shack Shakers are comprised of Colonel J.D. Wilkes on vocals and harmonica, David Lee on guitar, Mark Robertson on upright bass, and Paolo on drums. Each member adds a layer of color to the technicolor spectacle that is “the Colonel,” who transforms from the shy, quiet country boy that enters a room discretely, to a raging ball of sex and chaos the moment he hits the stage. It’s this Jeckyl and Hyde performance that makes this band, and Wilkes in particular, so damn fascinating.
Having previously toured as the opening act for bands like Reverend Horton Heat and Los Straitjackets, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers picked up enough fans along the way to hit the road for a headlining tour of small clubs in support of their third release, Believe. The album is their first for the Yep Roc Records label. I caught up with lead singer Colonel J.D. Wilkes before their show in Winter Park, Florida.
What was your first band?
It’s always been the Shack Shakers. It’s just been different versions of different guys coming through, but it’s sort of a reformed group with a new full head of steam. When it started we were playing rockabilly and blues, experimenting with roots music — just trying to learn it all. It was like our way of investigating, almost like a college course we were taking, starting from scratch with the Sun Studios sessions, learning all about rockabilly 101, country music 101, honky tonk, and hillbilly and all that. It was our valentine to the music. Our first couple records were pretty shakey, but it’s been 10 years now, and we’re a lot more creative in creating our own hybrid instead of relying on what’s been accomplished by others. We feel confident now about striking out on our own to put out something original for a change.
Do you all have different influences? You grew up listening to a lot of Chicago Blues, right?
Yeah. The other guys came from a punk angle, which is kind of foreign to me. I was never attracted to punk rock, I didn’t understand it, it just never sounded musical to me. But they’re helping me understand what it was all about. The aggression, and the power that’s behind that, but it — like blues — is a primitive form of music. It’s passionate three-chord music, it’s caveman music, that’s what I like about most of the music that forms this band now.
So what kind of punk have they turned you on to?
Well, like, the other night we went and saw Jello Biafra with the Melvins…
Wow… How was that?!
It was great…what a showman, and to find out that he’s a fan of us was really cool. We were in San Francisco and he showed up at our gig, and we showed up at his — it was like a mutual thing. It’s really neat to see someone performing charismatically, and not caring — I mean, caring enough for his audience to want to perform, but performing exuberantly. Like, not really caring how silly he comes across. That’s what I kind of like about my favorite singers and performers that are out there.
I read a quote from Jello where he referred to you as “the last great frontman in rock ‘n’ roll today?”
That’s hard to believe, but — yeah — he said something like that.
That’s quite a nice compliment.
Yeah, it is. Now that I know where he comes from… I mean, David and Mark — he’s been a hero of theirs since childhood… Anyone saying that… well… it’s an overstatement, but it’s flattering to hear.
“Colonel and his harp” Your performance seems to definitely come from the same type of place.
I think that punk rock didn’t invent that though. It goes back to the song and dance man… Elvis had it, and Jerry Lee. And the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz comes to mind — the physcial comedian, and singer, and dancer… and Emmet Miller… Those days it was about entertaining the masses, the blue collar masses. it was low brow entertainment and that’s what punk rock is, that’s what roots music is — it’s primitive music for human beings.
What do you think of the renaissance of rockabilly. At least locally, in Orlando, there are so many rockabilly bands and I don’t think that they all know where it comes from.
That’s definitely a problem. I just wish people could be comfortable in themselves enough to take their influences and create their own thing, even if it means parting with the fashion sense. Even if it means, ya know, incorporating something you wouldn’t expect. Instead of just learning covers and doing it the way Johnny Burnett did, or Cliff Gallup did, or Elvis… always just seems to be the same three influences, too. I love rockabilly, but it’s not what we’re doing. I don’t consider us to be that — it came out of that scene, and it’s important for everyone to learn that, but you have to be familiar with what they were listening to before there was such a thing, uh , ya know, roots music. Look into your blues music, hillybilly music, country music, polka — it’s all what informed them, and if you’re just taking what the end results of their experiments and not doing anything with it, than what’s the point? If I want to hear Carl Perkins, i’ll just stick in a tape… what are you doing, what do you have to say about it?
We don’t do rockabilly covers and there’s no hiccupping vocals, and there’s no echo… We’ve got a heavy metal drummer and blues harp. It doesn’t make sense on paper, but the spirit is there, the spirit that informed the original guys. Rockabilly was this catch-all term for people that were playing around with roots music, the folk music of their time, they were folkies in their day. They didn’t all sound the same. Carl Perkins didn’t sound like Roy Orbison and Johhny Cash didn’t sound like Jerry Lee Lewis, they all had their own unique style. It was the press that gave them that generic name, so don’t let that generic tag limit you. Close your eyes and, with your own sensibilities and psychologies, come up with your own hybrid. There’s no need to be true, or pure with an art form that started out wild and rebellious. That’s the antithesis of rockabilly in the first place.
Cause it’s been done.
Right. And a lot of these people get so bogged down- rockabilly nazis, i call ’em — the pompadorks [laughs]… although that’s also a term for our fan club. It’s a self deprecating term I use, cause I consider myself to be one… but the original people that term was created for, they get so distracted by the history of it all, that they miss out on the here and now and what they can contribute. It’s like, be brave, or just don’t do it, don’t play music. There are so many bands already, just go away [laughs].
“J.D. and a fan” If you can’t come up with something original to say, don’t say anything at all.
Exactly. That should be the headline. That’s it, in a nutshell.
So. I’m curious about your interest in Circus Sideshow Art. How did that come about?
It’s really hard for me to remember what triggered it other than, I remember there was this episode of the Andy Griffith show where the medicine show came to town with the professor, or the colonel, or whatever. Also the Wizard of Oz, Professor Marvel’s sideshow and curiousity. I really like that scene where Dorothy’s in this voodoo counter, cabinet of curiousities — we even set up our merchandise to look sort of like that scene, with the skulls and the candles. So I guess it was scenes in movies and TV shows that first hooked me to it, and there’s something very Southern Gothic about it and I’m very into that vibe. It’s a bittersweet thing for me, born out of pain. That’s what the southern experience has been — the music, the literature, and the art that’s come out of that has a tragic/comedy quality that I can relate to in a way.
So it’s like a connection to your Southern Pride?
Not like “Southern Pride” as a redneck sort of thing. It’s just, I’m proud of where I come from in that I love the traditions and the mysticisms and the spiritual elements that cross cultural dynamics reveal through art and music, the sideshow, tent revivals, murder ballads, folklore… The Andy Griffith show has an episode of every one of ’em which I think is cool of him since he had creative control — there’s a freak show, medicine show, haunted house. Every kind of archetypal southern gothic image, he found a way to find humor in it. I know it’s silly to talk of the Andy Griffith show, of all things, but things like that I found myself drawn to — these certain kinds of shows, rotting my brain out. Now TV is pretty much worthless to me. I prefer the old variety shows because that’s the living legend of vaudeville. David Letterman, the Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien — that’s the closest thing to vaudeville we have today and they’re about all I watch… that and The Simpsons. They even had a medicine show episode where Grandpa Simpson’s a Colonel [laughs].
Speaking of “Colonel,” did you give yourself that name or how did that come about?
That’s a real title, giving to me by the Gov. of Kentucky. A lot of southern states have a honorary designation of “colonel.” Where people that are into arts, charity, or something admirable, or in the spotlight are recognized by the governor for their achievements. It’s not like getting a key to the city, but it’s along the same lines. It’s the same sort of honor, but it’s so much more common place in Kentucky, there are lots of Colonels.
You grew up in a lot of deep south states, right?
Yeah, I was born in Texas, and raised in Kentucky, we also moved to Louisiana and I went to school in Mississippi… I been all over. A lot of the cool stuff I missed out on cause I was too young, like I wasn’t privy to the old blues guys in Lousiana. but you kind of soak it in. There’s something in the environment that exudes it in a way… the swamps… For the most part I’m having to retroactively reimagine my time spent in the South and idealize it in a way. I mean, I was growing up in the ’80s, it’s so different than what it used to be in the ’40s, and ’50s. Things aren’t as innocent anymore, but it’s those innocent moments I’m always looking for. I like quaint, and the innocence of the Old South. I’m not into this modern version of southern gothic — celebrating trailer park pride, Jerry Springer dysfunction. To me, that’s redneck, I’d rather concentrate on the mysticism, the superstitions, the folklore, the dynamics buzzing around, there’s something electrical about that, and I think that the band is a lightning rod for that. To try to conduct those mystical forces. I’m up for the challenge of that.
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers: www.cockadoodledont.com