Th' Legendary Shack Shakers are a Southern Gothic flirtation between heaven and hell that spills over the stage to engulf the faithful. But this ain't that hokey can-I-get-an-amen bullshit. It truly is a religious experience ... a rock 'n' roll experience. There may not be a God, but there certainly is a devil, and his name is Colonel J.D. Wilkes. A true showman, Wilkes is everything that's missing from rock music today: the balls, the danger, the nunchuck skills. He's a double-jointed, snake-charming, carnival-barking, gravity-defying oddity to behold. And he is one of the best harmonica players alive.
For 21 years, Wilkes and the band have traversed the globe playing its salaciously souped-up brand of swampy, bluesy, hillbilly boogie. And as a front man, nobody does it better. Antics like punching out lights with his bare hands, ripping out his own chest hair, and locking himself in a flight case, add an element of eminent danger. This isn't necessarily a safe show.
The band has a brand-new LP out on Alternative Tentacles titled "The Southern Surreal." It's a brilliantly unsettling slab of pure Americana full of Wilkes's disturbing noir lyricism: words that really tell the tale, and makes you re-evaluate your faith.
Wilkes checked in from the road to answer a few questions about getting the crowd drunk and dancing, bullet mics, and his flat-out refusal to model in his underwear. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
City: Give me a little background for the band.
J.D. Wilkes: We are into our 21st year. We started off in Murray, Kentucky, in 1995 and moved to Nashville in '96. Marriage and babies claimed the original lineup, but a steady stream of Nashville mercenaries followed thereafter. My current lineup are mostly Deep South lifers dedicated to the cause: Rod Hamdallah, guitar; Fuller Condon, upright bass; and Preston Corn, drums.
Have any of your onstage stunts backfired?
Just the other night we were opening up for the Reverend Horton Heat at a supper club in L.A. With all the folks eating at tables directly in front of the stage it made me feel like Chuck E. Cheese. So I climbed out on their table and started eating food off their plates.
They seemed to enjoy the antics so I turned it up a notch and started playing with some gal's ponytail. Well, the whole hair-thing came off in my hand and it fell in her food. It was a weave, or a falsie, or whatever they call it.
She was a good sport and said, "Don't worry," that most the things on her body were fake: hair, boobs, etc. I still felt like an ass.
What do you want your audience to come away with from one of your shows?
I want everyone to have a good time dancing. We've picked tunes in our new set that are good to groove to — that's an improvement in our set. Hell, the purpose of live music is to serve the audience, get them drunk and dancing. This is the history of live music, from square dances to barn raisings: Get 'em drunk and dancing! In fact, pay no attention to me and my antics at all; this is all about y'all.
What first got you into this type of music?
It was Muddy Waters' "Mean Red Spider" on the radio that first sent me into awkward, dancing convulsions as a 14 year-old white boy. (Think Steve Martin in "The Jerk.") My dad said, "Well you must like the blues."
"What's the blues, daddy?" I asked innocently, eyes glistening. That's when he showed me his old record collection from the 60's: Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, John Mayall, Yardbirds, etc. I was very fortunate to inherit that stuff.
What do the Shack Shakers do that no other band can?
Horrify, befuddle, bemuse, amuse, sanctify, befoul, and convert ... all while selling a lot of beer for a bar.
How has the band changed over the years?
We are definitely more bluesy than we've been in a while; vibeyer and danceable. We are less punk rock or "cowpunk," as they called us. The musicianship in this lineup now is through the roof.
How is it on Alternative Tentacles?
Why, it's just fine. Jello Biafra is a good friend and was kind enough to put our latest tunes out. He's a big fan of old and/or insurgent country music, which we're close enough to being for his tastes. He's great. Billy Bob Thornton is on the new album, too, by the way.
Is The Dirt Daubers a detour or a scratch for the itch the Shack Shakers can't get?
Jessica's [Lee Wilkes] new group has basically replaced The Dirt Daubers. She's doing well with that, and I've basically converted LSS to scratch that same itch the Dirt Daubers used to satisfy. Everybody's happy.
Any other bands or projects in the works?
I have a novel that will be published in April 2017. It's called "The Vine That Ate the South," and it will be heavily illustrated, too. It's being put out by a legit publisher, and there's a signing bonus and everything.
Any tips for would-be harmonica players out there?
Bullet mics; Fender tube amps; Hohner Special 20 harps; "Meat and Potato" blues hooks; that's all you need.
What's something you haven't done yet that you want to?
I want to sit for just one interview on NPR. Those people hate us for some reason. And I'm a thoughtful, literate guy! I just don't get it.
What's something you'll never do?
I simply refuse to be a male model. And I'll never pose for underwear ads in the Kmart circular. You can beg all you want; the answer is "no." So many "hot" music stars today could easily trade in their guitars and just do that for a living. I say, music was better when ugly people were allowed to make it.
What's something you wished you'd never done?
Heard "Mean Red Spider" by Muddy Waters and started down this road in the first place.