Col. J.D. Wilkes of
the Legendary Shack Shakers, The TVD Interview

The term “renaissance man” is one that isn’t utilized a whole lot these days. In the case of Colonel J.D. Wilkes, the term fits like a glove. A bonafide Kentucky Colonel, Wilkes has been the enigmatic frontman for the Legendary Shack Shakers, a high-energy amalgam of blues, gypsy, twang, and just about anything else that they can fit in, for going on twenty years now. More recently, he partnered up with his wife Jessica in the Dirt Daubers, a more back-to-basics blues and rockabilly unit.

These two bands that Wilkes is most well-known for only scratch the surface of the man himself. Artist. Author. Musician. Filmmaker. He is doing it all in the name of preserving artistic elements of the South and keeping musical traditions alive and well. This is a man who is deeply proud of where he is from, and rather than yell “Yeehaw!” and rant about the War of Northern Aggression, he demonstrates the rich beauty and time-honored heritage of the unsung musicians who helped shape country and bluegrass music of today. Wilkes was a pleasure to speak with, and he could barely contain his passion for the music that is in his heart and soul.

How did the Shack Shakers decide to start back up again?

Well, our drummer had some heart issues that he got squared away. He got a pacemaker put in. I think it just came down to, the material was there, the desire was there, the health was there…the financial need was there. It was just a lot of things coming together at the same time, all those elements coming together. There’s also been offers for festivals and things. Europe’s come’a callin’. The demand is there. Timing, supply and demand, that’s what it’s all about. It’s a band, it’s a brand, it’s a product, and sometimes you have to go away before people can appreciate you.

Oh, yeah. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and all of that.

That is exactly right.

So are there any future plans for the Shack Shakers, or is it a “take things as they come” situation?

We’re planning a new record, we’re going to Europe next month. We’re planning on putting a record out in the summer of next year. I’ll also be with the Dirt Daubers, we’ll go out and play. I’ll be doing a solo banjo presentation, taking it to some coffee shops and things here and there. Some small clubs and opening up for some bands, just me and the banjo.

Like what you did on The Kitchen Tapes album?

Exactly, something like that. I’ll be talking about the book, maybe the movie, kind of a conversation.

“An Evening With JD Wilkes”…

Yeah, something like that. Something nice and low-key.

This year, you released “Kitchen Tapes,” a simple recording of old-time songs. Tell us a little about this album, and what influenced you to do it.

Well, I’ve been getting more and more into banjo, more into the roots of the music that I love, and I end up loving the roots even more. I want to know where all this music comes from—blues, country, hillbilly music, old folk music, old English broadsides, gospel music. I’m curious as to the origins of the elements that I’m trying to put together. It’s not enough that I just touch on a rock band. I want to get to the bottom of it, know it inside out, get it in my bones.

Very much a student of the music.

I want to be a student of it and carry it on in a pure way as well as a rock and roll way so that people who are into the Shack Shakers can dig a little deeper into our library and can discover a wealth of extra ideas, and music that will expand their appreciation for the brand as a whole. To learn the banjo has been sort of like this quest of mine, and it’s not enough for me to just take lessons from some hotshot from where I live or go on YouTube and take lessons. I don’t want to learn it that way, I want to learn it from the old timers.

Learn from some old guy on his porch…

Yeah, exactly! I just want to be something akin to those folks for my generation, and present it in a non-ironic way, and a way that isn’t punk, either. Very pure. Not pure in a Nazi kind of way, but from an honest place. Musically honest, musically authentic. The banjo has been my key in the door to this whole new world. It’s been the excuse I have to make these journeys and these trips to learn about the music. It’s kind of the tool I bring along with me, and in the process I’m getting better, and even since putting out The Kitchen Tapes I’ve gotten better at playing the banjo and I want to keep doing it. Now it’s just part of my lifestyle. Kitchen Tapes was basically just me field recording myself from the kitchen, with a tape recorder like what we’re talking on now. [Points to my recorder]

It had a very, very lo-fi feel to it. You can hear, at the end of each song, you clicking it off.

Yeah, clicking the tape off. It’s one of those tape things you get from Walgreens, you put a cassette in, you hit record. You put it on vinyl and it’s even more lo-fi.

Oh yeah. It gave it a very genuine feel, like it wasn’t in a big studio.

Oh, no. There’s going to be another release next year, me playing with one of the old-timers that I met in my journeys, Charlie Stamper. Brother of the late Art Stamper, who’s actually in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Charlie is the older brother, an eighty-four year old fiddler from Knott County, but he lives in Trigg County, Kentucky now, near me. I was able to record him for his own record, that will be coming out on June Apple Records this month, I believe. Then, next year around January, it will be a J.D. Wilkes with Charlie Stamper record, recorded much the same way as The Kitchen Tapes record was. It will be coming out on vinyl, too.

Is it going to be more of the old songs like Kitchen Tapes was?

Oh yeah, definitely. It will be called Cattle in the Cane. It varies from me jammin’ with Charlie to me just by myself in the kitchen recording. It will almost be a “part two.”

You talked about learning the banjo. You are also prolific on the harmonica, piano, upright bass, and kazoo. Did I miss anything?

[Laughs] Well, let’s see…I think that’s about it. I’ve been trying to play a little guitar lately, but I never was drawn to guitar, because everyone else played it. I always felt sorry for the squeaky instruments. For some reason I’m sort of sentimental towards the instruments everyone rejects. Guitar, though, it’s been good to kind of mess around with that, but it’s way too late for me to get good on that.

What’s one instrument you haven’t conquered but would like to?

I guess guitar. I’m not gonna “conquer” it, but I’d like to be able to pick it up and do something on it. I know bass, and I know how to pay banjo now, a little bit. I want to play in my own way, though. The variety you hear in a Mississippi blues guy, you know, one guy doesn’t play like the other. I like that they made up their own tunings, had their own way of phrasing and playing the guitar that was unique to them. That’s what’s missing in, I think, a lot of roots music, and a lot of music in general, is variety. Being self-taught and ignorant on something can be interesting. If everyone learns Earl Scruggs-style, no offense to anybody, but that just kind of tends to lead to sort of a pasteurized version of roots music. I like the old-timers that learned before there was a Grand Ole Opry, before there was the television or movies to teach them the quote-unquote “correct” way of playing. The variety that came with it, the ignorance, if you want to call it that, the authenticity and the uniqueness of those old crooked tunings and the misconstrued ways of playing.

Perfectly imperfect.

Perfectly imperfect, yeah! The music that’s gone horribly, horribly right.

I think you get that with any style. I mean, look at how often Jimmy Page was copied, and diluted, and pasteurized. I think that can happen with any popular playing style.

Oh, absolutely. This band that we’ve been touring with, [Whiskey Shivers] you could say he’s a Scruggs-style player, but at the same time, he plays just like himself. There’s nuances to even the standardized…everyone plays, ultimately, the way they play, and there’s no “pure” replication of Earl Scruggs other than Earl’s paying himself. I liked it when it was a little more obvious, before pop culture came in and sort of made everything the same. You’re seeing Southern accents disappear now. You’re seeing old expressions and old stories fade away. Now you have people in the South that sound like they’re from the valley in California, men talking like valley girls. You have people relating to one another about selfies, and pop culture references to movies…

Do you think a lot of that is pop culture creeping in, or transplants coming to the areas, or a mixture of both?

I don’t even think you need interlopers, now people are happily surrendering their culture to fit into the new pop culture of the industrial complex, and that’s just the way it is. In a way, that’s authentic. That is authentically what is happening in our modern times, but what I like about the Muddy Roots world, and what I like about our little niche, is that we can still be modern people, but we have a respect for our elders, which should be a natural thing.

Yes, it should.

You should be able to hear that in our music. I don’t want to pick apart our scene, because it’s important to play whatever you want to play, as long as you sort of tip the hat of where it comes from.

Tell us what it means to you to be an official Kentucky Colonel.

Well, it’s an honor. It means something because I’m from Kentucky, and it lends sort of an honor and distinction to who I am, which I always want kind of halfway maintain, especially if I’m going to be acting so crazy onstage. I want to have something that balances me out and gives me a little integrity. I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby, and I know that’s a shame. I’ve never worn the regalia, and any kind of ceremony…

Drinking juleps, hobnobbing…

Yeah well, recently I was tapped by my city to represent Kentucky in a cultural exchange with Dublin, Ireland. I actually got to don the string tie, and go over there and exchange gifts with the UNESCO sister city exchange. It was pretty cool, a nice photo-op, and another way for me to sort of present and exert my Colonel-hood.

So what kind of impact did the Irish culture have on you personally? What was your take-away from that trip?

I’ve been to Ireland many times, this time was even better. It was the coolest day of my life, actually. It was cool to meet with the people in the mayor’s office, then go to an old-time jam in an old Irish pub.

This is in Dublin?

This is in Dublin, that’s right. Paducah, Kentucky, who I was representing—what I was representing was the “quilt capital of the world.” I took a quilt to Dublin, then found out that quilting kind of started in Ireland, then came over here.

Full circle.

Yeah! That was cool to learn that, and of course, the beer’s always nice. The beauty of it all, too. You can really see how Kentucky and Ireland are, well they are literally the same, geologically. Geologically, we share the same strata of limestone that forms their island. It goes under the Atlantic Ocean, goes over and pops up and makes Kentucky. There’s a reason why so many Irish located there, it’s because it reminded them of home. That’s why we have a Dublin, Kentucky, a Glasgow, of course and Scotland. It’s all the same, it reminded them of home. Really, it’s the same soil. It shows you the geology of Earth, but it’s true.

You hear about the names of the geographical locations, but you may not realize the root of them, pretty amazing.

Yeah.

You pulled double duty at Muddy Roots Music Festival this year, performing with both the Dirt Daubers and the Shack Shakers. What was Muddy Roots like for you this year?

Wet. [We both laugh at the memory of the rain at Muddy Roots]

Yes it was!

It was great, it was fun. The Dirt Daubers set was really great, because it was in broad daylight, no rain, perfect weather. Shack Shakers got pushed to like three in the morning, so it was this ungodly hour. So ungodly would be another adjective I’d use to describe it. Ungodly is about right, any year they throw this festival. I mean that lovingly. It was good, we still had plenty of people stickin’ it out to see us at three in the morning in the deluge. As their pup tents are washing out to sea, cars are being upended and porta-johns are capsizing.

The Rio Grande of Muddy Roots.

Yeah! We had to rush across that river just to get to the stage, but it was worth it in the end. It was a good way to kind of knock the rust off of our act and get back on that horse.

What’s the dynamic like touring with your wife Jessica and the Dirt Daubers versus going out on the road with the guys in the Shack Shakers?

Jessica’s awesome to tour with. She actually is real chill, and very business-like. She’s really good at tour managing, kinda keeping it running. We all just laugh going down the road with our inside jokes and have a good time. Some people say, “Oh, how can you tour with a girl?” She’s way easier to tour with than some guys I’ve been in bands with. Who will remain nameless. It’s just really easygoing. This is an easygoing operation as well. We treat it like a job, there’s no surprises. Very few, the whole idea is to keep it runnin’ on the rails, and every day being pulled off as seamlessly as possible.

You’d say you’re in a pretty good comfort zone with the Shack Shakers?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a job. You can keep a band going for twenty years—we’ll be twenty years old next year—it’s not from going hog-wild every night. You do that onstage, then you mind the books, keep the van running. Everybody stays chilled out.

Not everybody subscribes to that ethos in this business.

No, not really, but how long do they really stick it out for? They burn out, and that’s it. They’re not what I would call “lifers.” The people who are partying real hard and going apeshit every night are the ones that are gonna burn out in a couple of years, and that’s okay, because half the time they’ve got a golden safety net to catch them, anyway. I don’t. This is my line of work.

You’ve been quoted as saying that you “realize your bestial nature” and “tap into basic primal instincts,” while playing live. Offstage, you are a pretty mild-mannered fella. Where do you draw that energy from?

Well, I don’t know if I would still call it “bestial,” I think at this point it’s kind of the illusion of chaos, the illusion of beastiness. I definitely let loose my id, but in such a way that over the years I’ve been able to control it and be theatric with it, and not just chaotic with it. When we first came out, it was chaos. Now it’s a controlled chaos, because I have to sustain. I’m forty-two years old, I don’t want to be exactly what I just described. It is sort of a delicate ballet between chaos and just showmanship.

Gearing down on a steep grade, if you will.

Yeah, exactly. I’m in control, I’m not out of control on the stage, but it’s just the illusion of spontaneity. A lot of spontaneous stuff happens, it’s just not coming from a bestial-natured part of myself anymore, I don’t think. It’s coming from the id, somewhere between the id and the ego. It’s an unusual thing, to sort of be unaware and yet aware at the same time. It’s an altered state, but it’s one that controlled by another part of the brain now that is exercised and developed.

One that’s maybe been honed over time?

Oh yeah. I can be in myself and outside of myself at the same time.

You mentioned to me earlier that the Shack Shakers albums are all released on vinyl.

Yep.

You run your own little shop with vinyl releases as well. Are you yourself a big fan of vinyl?

Oh, yeah. I’ve been buying vinyl since it was just what you bought. I inherited my dad’s vinyl collection. He was kind of a jazz, folky, beatnik guy in the ‘60s, so he had a lot of cool records. He listened to Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, all kinds of good blues stuff, country stuff. He’d have dixieland, all kinds of cool stuff that I inherited. I’ve always had a record player. I’ve never not had a record player. My dad had one since the ’60s, the stereo with a turntable, always playing vinyl. I remember buying vinyl at the mall, it was a Sonny Boy Williamson record. The next year, it was all compact disc, and that was it. Now, it’s coming back, which is awesome. It never went away for me. Jessica loves vinyl, we always buy records. I’m not addicted to buying vinyl, though. I’m content to also have the mp3s and things these days.

It’s a lot easier to travel with.

Yeah, taking it on the road. I’m not home enough to play records a lot. It is definitely the way to experience music. The full wave, it’s not a digital binary replication of music, it is the full thing, and you know when you hear it. You can tell.

Absolutely, I totally agree.

Yeah, I’ve always loved it.

In your mind, reach up and pull one record off of you shelf. What is it?

Hmm…

Totally random pick.

Huh…for some reason I just got a big kick out of Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons double record. I love that. It was the Stax session players, basically the Blues Brothers backing band, those guys. You know, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Jimmy Rogers, and Muddy Waters. It’s just a great record. A lot of stuff is on CD now, unfortunately. There are some 78s I grabbed too. I know that’s not “vinyl” vinyl, but it’s the same things.

Just a precursor.

Yeah. I would probably grab some of my Sun records, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Down the Line. I love that record. Hmm, trying to think…I’ll end up thinking of a bunch of ‘em. But Muddy Waters, Jerry Lee, that’s pretty good.

Yeah, that’s great. Such good stuff. Your book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, was released last year. How has what you discovered in your travels across the state influenced you creatively?

I’ve always been aware of those kinds of things. The first time I recorded music, I was in a weekend jamboree that had a recording studio there, on this kudzu-covered hill in Hardin, Kentucky. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by that generation. The World War II, Korean War generation. Their musical sensibilities were developed around the Depression, around the last throes of agrarianism, before pop culture took over completely and brainwashed everyone.

You still find little pockets here and there of people where it’s kind of like stepping back in time one hundred years. I’d say the Wildwood Flower in McKee, Kentucky was the closest I’d come to stepping back in time. There’s a ghost town in western Kentucky, not too far from Rosine, where bluegrass music was born. What I like about it is that it’s music being created for the right reason. It’s not for monetary gain, it’s not for ego, it’s to uphold the community. It’s a sort of communal get-together of neighbors, making music. A lot of times they’ll have a potluck, a cakewalk a fish-fry, or something like that. It’s good that that still happens in this day and age. People can still find it in themselves to fight the laziness and the distractions of gadgets and iPhones.

It’s keeping community alive.

Yeah. You know, really, it’s important for the young people to take their place one day, and some of these places, like at Wildwood Flower, you’ll see young, hipster college kids coming out and square dancing. It’s kind of neat. Actually, Washington, DC has one of the biggest square dancing scenes in the country.

Really? I’m unaware!

Yeah. It’s like the Virginia hillbilly culture meets inner-city hipsterism. Who cares what their motivations are. A lot of times, people get into it to be ironic or funny. By ironic, what I mean is sarcastic. They’ll eventually discover that there’s something in it that they’re really secretly craving, and just not prepared yet to admit it to themselves.

It’s like they didn’t mean to polish the silver, but there it is.

There it is, and they’re hooked, and that’s all that matters. It’s fulfilling something in them that they’re missing. They’re not getting it from Facebook. These are actual friends, actual neighbors. This is good music, not…crap, you know? Like, who’s that guy…I don’t know the rappers, but the guy who made the guy in the wheelchair stand up.

Kanye West.

Yeah, Kanye West. Can you believe that?

Yeah, “I won’t start the song until you stand up. OOPS.” [We are both laughing at this]

I mean, can he heal this guy? He probably thinks he can. The fact that he can fill an arena with that many gullible people, and then abuse them. People want more. It’s just sad.

It is, it’s really unfortunate.

All this [motions around] has to be in the underground, I guess. It’ll never be mainstream, ever agin. Until there’s a cataclysm that knocks us on our ass. I’m content with it being my own little happy place, and keeping it to myself. Sharing it with those that want to discover it, and I invite everyone to seek out your own little…it doesn’t have to be Kentucky, it doesn’t have to be the South. It can be anywhere, you’ve just got to get out of the cities. Or, it might be in the cities. You’ve just got to find that authentic flavor and feel of your community spirit, wherever you can grab it.

We’ve talked about your book, we’ve talked about your music. You created a documentary, you do artwork, I mean, you’re challenging Howard Stern for King of All Media title.

[Laughs] Nooo….

Is there a certain medium that you haven’t worked in, that you’d love to give a try?

Well, I’m writing fiction right now. I’m thirty-thousand words into a piece of fiction now. I would love to take all the stories that I’ve learned, and some of the song lyrics, the stories that have inspired some of our Shack Shaker tunes, and some of our Dirt Dauber tunes, and weave it all into one narrative. Why is it that fantasy novels are always set in medieval England or Europe?

You can take the setting of the past and recreate it.

Why is it always based on Norse, English, or Celtic mythology? We have our own mythology in the South. We have our own monsters to fight, we have our own demons and leviathan to conquer. Why not go out onto our own backyard, into our woods, and try to find things that might come alive out there. There’s all kinds of cool stuff, all kinds of woods, forests, and wilderness to go out and pretend something’s out there. Maybe it is out there, that’s what the story is about, is basically like Frodo and Sam going, but in the modern-day. A couple of guys on a quest to seek out the legends they grew up reading about. They maybe, or maybe not coming true, as they discover.

That sounds pretty cool.

Yeah! It’s a Southern fantasy.

Do you have an end date in mind for this, or is it growing organically as you go along?

I might be dead before it’s done, because it takes so long to go back and rewrite, and rewrite. I want it to sound epic, big when you read it. When you read it, I want it to be mind-blowing, and I’m not a good enough writer right now to accomplish what I know it should be. I’m hackin’ away at it and it might take my whole life. It’ll be something somebody discovers in a box after I’m dead.

A posthumous release?

Probably! [Laughs]

What’s down the road for Colonel JD Wilkes?

I’m just looking forward to playing more banjo, and maybe going out, just me and my banjo, in a car, on the road, and playing and talking about these stories. Maybe reading from the book, maybe the movie is playing behind me while that’s going on. I’ll try to have a multimedia event around Southern culture, and just culture in general. Community music,—remind people. Be a representative of that, going out onto the world, I think that would be kind of fun to do. Just wrap it all up into one event. Take it to schools, take it to libraries, into clubs and coffee shops. Anywhere they’ll have me.

Col J.D. Wilkes Official | Facebook
Legendary Shack Shakers Official | Facebook | Twitter
Dirt Daubers Official | Facebook | Twitter

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