Songwriter Interviews

JD Wilkes of Legendary Shack Shakers

by April Fox

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At first glance, JD Wilkes seems like what Elvis Costello might have been if Costello had been born 20 years later in America's deep south, steeped in gospel music and electrified with far more energy than his diminutive frame should be able to hold. The bespectacled songwriter and frontman for the Legendary Shack Shakers is known for his raucous stage persona: hanging from the rafters, doing unspeakable things to audience members' possessions, and unleashing a rapid-fire staccato growl into the microphone that turns his Southern Gothic story-songs into something that would make your forebears turn in their graves while the rest of us danced up above. The resemblance to Costello doesn't end with the slight build and distinctive glasses; like Costello, Wilkes seems to write from a place far more cerebral than most: cunning and smart, wry and often darkly observant.

Wilkes' lyrics are spot-on, deftly capturing the spirit of the South - the real South, not this bedazzled and rebel-flagged version that's become so trendy these days. His respect for history and the culture of the region comes through on each of his albums, giving us songs that are expertly crafted and musically diverse, with an edge that sounds as if it has been honed next to a raging bonfire in a swamp somewhere, ready to tear the hell out of everything we know about modern music.

When we spoke with JD, he led us on a meandering journey from his earliest influences to his most recent album with The Legendary Shack Shakers, Southern Surreal, with a few unexpected and enlightening stops along the way.
April Fox (Songfacts): You were born in Texas, but you grew up in Kentucky.

JD Wilkes: Yeah, I was born in Texas but grew up in Kentucky; most of my family is here in Kentucky. It was a fluke that I was born in Texas. It makes me a Texan so that's kind of cool.

Songfacts: A lot of your lyrics cover what's really at the heart of the South: religion, good stories, a little temper. How did your childhood, growing up in the South, influence your music and your songwriting?

JD: I always had a penchant for folk music, gospel music, sentimental music - that's the records my mom played around the house. Children's records, old hootenanny folk song records for kids she played early on, and she played hymns on the piano.

It was a happy childhood, so I have a good association with that American music and country music - "Jimmy Crack Corn" and "Clementine" and these kinds of things. My mom used to play Lead Belly's "Cotton Fields" on the piano and I'd sit there and sing along with her. And then going to church, these hymns are really powerful. Whether you believe or not in all that, you can't deny how moving those melodies are, those heart-wrenching lyrics in those old Baptist hymns. Music and melody and the culture that runs through it is very strong and powerful and potent, and now people kind of laugh at it, dismiss it, but to me it's just as powerful as the gothic architecture, the cathedral - it's sublime and powerful and it's not to be sneezed at. The music is the same thing.

Songfacts: Who are some of the current influences on your songwriting?

JD: I really look up to Jamie Barrier of the Pine Hill Haints. I look up to Tom Waits, and I really like Dex Romweber.

Songfacts: It's interesting that you mention Tom Waits. Your voice at times has that same gravelly quality that his has, so much that my husband thought you were him when I was listening to you the other day.

JD: There's a lot of Tom Waits soundalike bands out there too, especially in the Muddy Roots world. It's one of the flavors in the garden, the gravelly - I don't really call it the Tom Waits voice, I call it my Jimmy Durante voice.

Jimmy Durante, Howlin' Wolf, Louis Armstrong, they all sing in that gravelly voice. Willie Dixon did that voice. It's one of those American character voices that you'll hear, like Satchmo. Tom Waits is probably the "white guy" [who people associate with it]; he and Jimmy Durante are the ones who made the most hay with that classic American character voice, and a lot of people just think it's Tom Waits' voice. I've heard people call it the Cookie Monster voice. It's just a cool gravelly hobo voice, and it's fun to play that character.

We try to mix up different vocal characters on the records so it's not just the same thing, the same sound, and even Tom Waits does that. I love his falsetto - it's really cool and strange. There's that high lonesome sound and we kind of tap into, that Roscoe Holcomb bluegrass voice. There's all these colors on your palette to play with, different flavors of sound that create an interesting overall work.

Songfacts: There are parts of the South where people take their religion very, very seriously.

JD: Yeah, that's called the South. [Laughs]

Songfacts: Exactly. And your lyrics are pretty irreverent sometimes. Do people ever give you a hard time about that?

JD: Yeah. I'm not sure if they're irreverent, it's what I do on stage that makes people think that what I'm saying is irreverent.

Ultimately I'm just telling stories. I guess there are a couple of tunes that are pretty irreverent, like "Ichabod" and "Where's the Devil When You Need Him," things like that. I don't typically like to play the anti-religion card, because that seems to be so cool now, but it's more daring now to embrace aspects of faith and religion, and it's more daring to not have tattoos all over your body. It's very easy to be accepted in this world as long as you have the right signifiers, and when you're being very blatantly and obnoxiously anti-Jesus and you have all these tattoos, you have all these easy signifiers. It's actually more brave to embrace tradition and religion. I think I've turned a corner to where I'm less about irreverence and more about tipping the hat from a reverent respect of those timeless archetypes. To me, there's power in that.

Songfacts: Tell me about the book that you published, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky. What made you decide to do that?

JD: I started going to those places early on for fun because it was like an escape from the bar scene, these joints where they don't pay the bands, people just show up to have a good time, and people play for the right reasons. It's family-oriented, and it's like the opposite of a beer joint. They're wholesome family get-togethers - it was like an antidote to the punk rock lifestyle.

And you're also hearing old tunes and meeting people with cool stories from the past, from the Depression Era. All those people are dead now, but you're going back in time 100 years, and the music was less than perfect and there was something charming about that. All these little farm communities with their potluck dinners and their cake walks, their bluegrass jams, there just seemed to be something more honest to it. So I hopped in the car, and I went to Paducah and Pikeville, Kentucky and all points in between where I could find these little barn dances and square dances, jamborees, pickin' parties, cake walks, and all these things go on still in the 21st century.

This is a timeless kind of thing. There have been barn dances and barn raisings and polkas and ceilidhs since the dawn of time. There are even paintings from the 1600s depicting barn dances, so it's a timeless event that continues on to this day, and it's almost in reaction to and in rejection of the pop country music we have now that's so terrible. So to me, this is more punk rock than the people who are so blatantly, literally blurting out irreverent lyrics.

To me, the way that you fight it is to just play the good stuff. Don't make a big deal out of how you're sort of counterculture, just do it. It's more punk rock to embrace those traditions than to be so literal. There's something too literal about spelling out what you hate rather than embodying and living what you love.

The irreverence is what gets in the way of fixing what's bad about the world. It's more irreverent to not even acknowledge it and just be what you want to be in life, rather than having this obvious Facebook presence that's so anti-social or counterculture. The best way to be counterculture is to live a life embodying the things that you mourn the loss of without drawing attention to it in a literal way.

Whatever happened to the nuances, the lyricism of the old hymn book, the classic country music, the beauty of the language and the turns of a phrase, the poetry of country music? The American songbook - get that into your bones and write like that, rather than dropping names and being literal about how you hate that stuff sucks. Adopt as a discipline songwriting in a vein that you like.

I'm thinking about a certain scene when I'm talking about all this, a certain kind of "hillbilly" scene that has cropped up. It's born out a heavy metal and punk attitude - it's like the punk rock retirement plan where they just hate life and they still have the old trappings of the anger and that way of writing and behaving and relating to music. They need to let all that go and just get with the good stuff.

An audience member helps JD demonstrate
the ASL sign for the letter O at a show in
Asheville, North Carolina, March 2016.
JD Wilkes is in nearly constant motion on stage, but if you take a close look at the enigmatic frontman's hands while he's singing, you might notice something unusual: Wilkes uses American Sign Language (ASL) to fingerspell during some of his songs. We asked him about his use of ASL, and here's what he had to say.

"I've been messing with ASL since the '80s. There must've been a real push back then to teach it. I remember the 'I am Deaf' business cards that had the alphabet of hand signs on the back. I learned from that, I suppose. There was also an ASL alphabet diagram in the World Book Encyclopedia, which I pored over all the time.

It's another visual. ASL are basically hand gestures, so that's fun to watch if you're in the audience. But to me it's also 'secret information' being communicated, which is like my mystic, southern lyrics and garbled CB/auctioneer vocals. To me ASL is a visual correlative to the lyrics and a physical manifestation of the verbal content. It's perfect for a frontman, whose job it is is to physically and visually enthrall."
Songfacts: So thinking about writing and the good stuff and doing what you love, "No Such Thing" is a great song, very thought-provoking. If you listen to it in one mood, it says one thing, and if you listen to it in a different mood, it says something completely different. What can you tell me about that one?

JD: Well, it was recorded too fast. [Laughs] That is a very nihilistic song - it's like the anthem of nihilism. At the time, I was feeling very nihilistic, so it's honest about what I was feeling. At the time, I was trying to approach it in a poetic way. It was recorded too fast - we should have slowed it down. We perform it a lot slower, to where you can appreciate the lyrics more. But at the time, it was something about a girl, probably, "nobody loves me..."

Songfacts: Maybe I'll go eat worms...

JD: Exactly, that was my version of "maybe I'll go eat some worms."

Songfacts: It's a great song, and the cadence of it, the lyrics, remind me a little of Shel Silverstein's poetry. You were on a tribute album to him [Twistable, Turnable Man: A Tribute to Shel Silverstein]. What was that like, working with Todd Snider and performing Silverstein's work?

JD: John Carter Cash was the engineer and I was at the Cash cabin - we did it there. Sam Bush played mandolin, so it was an all-star cast. Bobby Bare, Sr. was there, and Junior. It was great. We did it all in two takes. There was a fast version and a slow version, no overdubs, just everybody going at it at the same time. Todd Snider is a great lyricist. It was great.

Songfacts: "Where's the Devil" is one of my favorites. What can you tell me about that song?

JD: These are pretty irreverent songs. I didn't think about it; I'm on a big kick now, pretending like it never happened, but yeah, that's another one of those, "nobody loves me, boo hoo hoo" kind of songs. Girl left me, found someone new, I'm trying to strike up a deal with the devil to get even. I think the character in the song has actually passed away and the wife is moving on now to find someone new, and I'm spinning in my grave. I'm kind of a soul trapped in a coffin, trying to conjure the devil to get even with his widow.

That's the story, but it's all in the turns of a phrase. Tom Waits, what he does is he has all these clever one-liners and wordplay, and I'm also doing that. "The warlord of all bloodshed's under the floorboard of the woodshed." That's one of those "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy" things. Those kind of things float my boat and I'm always looking for new ones, those little sayings that are fun to play with. I did one, "Old warriors tell ghost stories; old ghosts tell war stories" from "The Lost Cause." That's a good one. You know, the things you dream up.

Songfacts: "When I Die" is such a pretty song, and it brings to mind someone sitting up in the holler with a mason jar full of whiskey, just singing. What were you thinking when you wrote that one?

JD: That's a tune that came to me in its entirety in a dream. In the dream, Dex Romweber was singing it - he's the lead singer for the Flat Duo Jets, and the number one inspiration for Jack White. Jack White basically took the Flat Duo Jets model and made millions off of it, but he's very honest about where he got his inspiration.

Dex Romweber is a crooner with an amazing voice. He's from North Carolina, from the Chapel Hill area. He was in a great documentary called Athens, GA: Inside/Out and that's where I discovered him. He has just an amazing voice, and in my mind, in my dream, he was crooning that song. We really tried to get him to guest on the record and sing that.

The piano you hear on the recording is actually me playing it right after the dream. I woke up in the middle of the night with it still in my head, ran to the piano and taped it on a little Walmart tape recorder. So the piano you hear is me capturing the song immediately, with it still ringing in my head from my dream.

The lyrics I put to it later, kind of half-remembering what Dex was singing. It was just simple: three rhymes, three little lines, about not wanting to die alone. It's a very honest thing, it was like a song-catching from your own dream state.

A lot of songs on the new record, Southern Surreal, came to me in dream states. Surrealism is dream-inspired art, so it made sense to call the record that. There have been lots of songs that came to me like that, in a dream state. They sound glorious in your head but sometimes when you record it or you sing it the next day, it sounds terrible and you don't even remember why you liked it in the first place. And then sometimes, they're gems. I like to try to collect those.

Songfacts: "Southern Surreal" is a really good way to describe your sound. It fits it well.

JD: A lot of that Athens, Georgia sound is like that. R.E.M. is from Athens, and Michael Stipe's lyrics are kind of nonsensical in a way, but in a way they make sense. It's a strange sort of wordplay and stream of consciousness in his lyrics; it elicits a sort of Southern-ness without including any Southern signifiers. There's an intangible Southern-ness in what he's singing about, especially early on when they were young. They got away from that later, but I love that early era of R.E.M. It's not a cool name to drop, but I don't care. I like that band. In my mind, there's a very autumnal quality to their music that looks like where I live. When I listen to them it looks like the bare trees and the orange leaves and the winter setting in. It has a melancholy flavor to it; the monochrome of all that is in my music too, I hope. It's like a charcoal drawing: there's a flavor to it that inspires me, and that's what comes out in my dream states, in song form.

Or, I sit down and write something consciously. I like mixing it up, having different muses to influence what I'm doing, whether it be artwork, drawing - I do that too - or songwriting. I'd probably be a lot further along in my career if I'd just picked one character, one voice, and stuck to that: aped the Hank Williams' playing, and did rowdy beer-drinking music and sang about trailer parks and stuff. I think people prefer the kind of dumbed-down Southern stereotype stuff that's a little more accessible because maybe it's funny to them or something. That always bored me, to do the standard Hank Williams act. I love Hank Williams, but I'd rather hear him do it. What he was doing was true poetry, not a cartoon version of Hee Haw put on with no emotion. There are real emotions there, deep emotions that are nuanced. We'd be a lot further along if we were a jokey rockabilly band because people would know how to categorize us. But I like this. I like being ambiguous. I'm happy that the Shack Shakers are my brand, and that people want to come out and see us. I'm thankful. It can be anything I want it to be. It's been a million different things and it will be a million more.

March 11, 2016. Get more at legendaryshackshakers.com.
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