I first heard about The Legendary Shack Shakers in 2004 during the hype surrounding their third record, Believe. Before a faculty meeting, a coworker of mine– a self-proclaimed connoisseur of roots music– was lost in an uproar about a band she’d heard on the radio that was advertised as the Great Hillbilly Hope, a flagship group for Americana’s next wave. Perhaps she was looking for another variation on the O Brother, Where Art Thou theme; the Shack Shakers weren’t that band. The group’s blend of pre-rock ‘n’ roll sounds and punk was this fundamentalist’s nightmare.
“Nothing my granddaddy would call music. All that noise sounded blasphemous,” my colleague complained.
“We were,” confirmed J.D. Wilkes, the Shack Shakers frontman, after I told him this story during our conversation.
Over the course of two decades and nine albums, Wilkes and the gang have been backing off the gas pedal. Mid-career, in-the-red offerings like Pandelirium, Swampblood, and AgriDustrial pushed the Shack Shakers into the frantic, if not dissonant edges of psychobilly. However, 2015’s The Southern Surreal and 2017’s sometimes-beautiful After You’ve Gone find the band’s approach more measured, more focused. These albums aren’t lacking in Wilkes’s gonzo tendencies and folklorist sensibilities– those are impossible to mute– but they are bristling with a different type of immediacy. Prior releases were characterized by dramatic flair and pyrotechnics, the storytelling tricks of a southern puckish persona; the Shack Shakers of late are world-weary, wiser, and human.
This year’s Cockadoodledeux commemorates the Shack Shakers’ 25th anniversary. The band is drifting further into more a traditional territory, exchanging frenzy for old school country’s grit, humor, and plain dealing. The vibe is casual and impromptu, the stakes low. Melody and musicality beget a joy that’s unfamiliar to previous releases. And if the mood is familial and loose, it’s because the record is a family affair featuring former bandmates and scene luminaries like Stanley Walker, Chris Scruggs, and Jello Biafra. Cockadoodledeux isn’t a retreat; it’s a band turning corners, finding rebirth in its roots.
I had the good fortune to speak with Wilkes not only about Cockadoodledeux, but also his fiction writing, his relationship with the south & religion, and Tom Waits. Wilkes isn’t a religious man, but he comes clean like a televangelist confessing his worldliness.
CF- J.D., I’m catching you on the road. What’s it like out there for you guys?
JDW- We’re on the beach at a pickup gig. We had a couple of cancellations because of some COVID scares among the staff where we were gonna play, and our friend who used to book at the DogFish Head Brewery at Rehoboth Beach got us a show, so we’re playing that place tonight.
Speaking of COVID, how has the pandemic affected you? How did you manage the downtime?
The quarantine last year? I actually enjoyed it! I enjoyed having time to recuperate from the year before, which was almost non-stop touring coast to coast, Canada, and Europe. We did all of the little legs and countries, and I was exhausted. So if you tour all year and then you got a year off, it’s like a balance, and it was nice. It was just a matter of, “Now what I am going to do?” So I ended up writing a lot on the second novel and doing banjo and harmonica lessons on Skype. Also picking up some art commissions. In fact, I’ve always done art. I’ve done it professionally long before I did music that way. I was an art major, so I was always doing art anyway. I defaulted to my first love. The internet social media and all this modern technology really helps with getting get the word out there and being able to afford a living. You’re not just selling to your own community; you’re selling to the world. I get these logos and t-shirt designs and album cover artwork commissions, and those really help. A couple of checks from the government here and there that everybody got didn’t hurt, so we were all right. If you live within your means, it’s amazing how much money you don’t need! Yeah, I enjoyed it. I’d just assume live that way all the time, really.
I’m with you. I was fortunate enough not to lose anyone to COVID, so having the time to sit on the porch and read or listen to music, no pressures or obligations to interact– it was an ideal situation for a bit. A lot of the bands I talked to feel the same way. They had a chance to finally catch their breath after months or years where they felt they had to produce. It doesn’t mean you’re not a people person…
I have a people person aspect to me. I was shy growing up, but it wasn’t like I hated people. It’s just that I was insecure. I think I worked it all out in the early years of the Shack Shakers. I got it out of my system. It was a purging of my shyness. Now, I can take it or leave it. I find that if I’m home too much, then I get the itch to go out, and if I’m out too much, I get the itch to go home. Usually, it’s a month out or a few weeks out, then a month home. That’s how we paddle, like the canoe theory. You go straight by paddling on the left and the right. But this was a much more macro version, like always out for an entire year and then always home for the next year. It ended up being the same dynamic. I still feel balanced. Now it’s time to go out and sell this record, but it’s an interim, weird gray area that we’re having to navigate.
We’ll get to the record, but you said you’re writing again. Is this a follow-up to The Vine That Ate The South? I’ve used that book a few times in my classes when we discuss setting and dialogue. I was wondering if you had something else in mind, either something fictional in that vain or nonfiction like Barn Dances & Jamborees & Kentucky?
It’s a sequel to The Vine That Ate The South. It picks up where the last book left off, but it has a totally different tone. It’s not so much a poetic Southern Gothic tall tale. It’s a lot more straightforward and linear, more graspable. There’s a lot more action. It’s almost like a storyboard movie in my mind. I want to be able to use the right words to have it happen in the reader’s mind. I know that’s just what writing is. When the pace picks up, I want that to be sensed, and I want there to be neat things happening with action. That’s kind of hard to do. I didn’t even know I was a writer! I was writing lyrics to these songs, and I ended up thinking, “I’m not writing a hit here.” I didn’t even know I was supposed to be trying to write a hit. The whole time I was in Nashville, everyone was trying to write a hit, and it just sort of escaped me.
I’m trying to take a look back, and I think I was writing little stories– and songs are like short stories. They’re absolutely inaccessible to the mainstream because it’s not about booty and cars and guns and pickup trucks, you know what I mean? It never occurred to me to even try to pander that way. But I guess that’s what Nashville is set up to do. It never occurred to me that I should be at least trying to make them broader in their appeal. I was just coming out of art school where you do art as a form of therapy or fascination or you’re interested in something and then you delve into it. It’s almost like a selfish endeavor, really. Writing those songs, I thought, “Maybe I do know how to do this!” It turns out that I’m really writing in my own style.
The transition from songwriter to fiction seems like a natural progression. Before The Vine, I always wondered if you would make that leap given how your songs were more of a narrative than the typical pop song.
I just never gave myself permission to try it. I thought I might be good at it. But I didn’t know– and still don’t know– the literary world. It was too late for me to negotiate that with a young man’s energy. I do this out of love. I’m still fascinated with these things. Now, I’m more into the craft of writing, like making little movies happen in people’s heads. Before, I think I was cobbling together a lot of old folk tales that I didn’t want to die. I think that whenever you study folklore in college, it becomes very academic and argumentative, chasing dead sources, and citing them. It almost becomes more about the bibliography or the service of asterisks, the footnote, and the debate and not the joy of the story itself. So I just wanted to make those old folktales your grandma used to tell you about, the Boogeyman in the woods, the hook man, and all that. I wanted it to be fun. It’s like campfire stories. It’s supposed to scare you a little bit but be fun at the same time– the horror and the humor. I didn’t want it to be too academic.
The whole reason why I got into writing was because of Barn Dances. I would have never even attempted it if the book had already existed, had been written by someone else. I just wanted to see that topic. I wanted to see a book about it. I looked everywhere online, Googling it. I thought, “How has no one written this yet?’ Then I thought, “Well, I guess I have to do it!”
Both books are, obviously, works close to your heart. You mention academia nearly killing folklore for you. It’s remarkable you were able to distance yourself from that experience and approach the subjects with passion.
Anytime you take the subject and make it academic… You can take any subject, it could be the pop country scene in Nashville, old-time music, or rockabilly in the music world– and Civil War re-enactors, they get a little nerdy, they call them Stitch Counters– that’s not unique to any of these things. It’s a human trait of whenever you get a lot of repetitive guys together, and they think they know more than you.
That’s what kills record collecting for me– folks who are more concerned with the acquisition, the hoarding, and the supposed power than the actual music. I don’t care how much the record costs; I just like the song.
I’ve literally said those very words. This is funny. I was roommates with this guy who was a rockabilly 45 collector. The point of his record collection was that they were very obscure. Well, that’s neat, and they’re valuable. He’d play them, and I would listen to them. I was like, “Yeah, it just sounds to me like Little Rock, Arkansas’s Elvis impersonator of the ’50s. There’s a reason why they’re obscure!” (Laughs) I mean, it’s not bad; it’s better than the music these days. But I asked him, “Do you like these records because they’re obscure, or do you like the music?” I expected him to have a knee-jerk defensive reaction to come back at me. He paused, and he thought about it, and it shocked me that he was that honest about it. I watched as his heart broke in two as he realized he was in it for the wrong reason. That’s never happened! Everyone usually gets real defensive. But then when he moved out, he left his records behind. They meant nothing to him. I took his whole life away, his whole reason for living. He’s like, “You know, you’re right!” I’ve never seen that level of honesty in a person.
Back to your role as a folklorist and recurring themes in your music, I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship with the South. Some southern artists I’ve talked to are wrestling with their heritage, trying to reconcile the past and present. Is your relationship conflicted? Celebratory?
I’m not conflicted at all because I know history, and I know human nature. And I know world history. It’s nothing new; it just changes forms. There’s all kinds of dynamics at play constantly. You talk about slavery, and slavery is an evil. It was considered a necessary evil because there was no machinery at that time, and people weren’t enlightened like they are now. We’ve caused a set kind of evolution of thinking too. It’s easy for us to judge all that from the 21st Century looking back. But really, it’s impossible to comprehend any time in the past and a zeitgeist that is laboring and ignorant and oppression. The ignorance and the oppression only change form as time goes on, so I don’t think that the South deserves any specific culpability, as it is that homo sapiens is just a terrible species. It’s constantly doing bad things. Just pick your poison.
I like the way that religion and music can… The integration of the races is really beautiful to me. And it did happen in the hothouse of the South where all these cross-cultural things were getting slammed together for better and for worse. It’s just you don’t hear about the better part of it as much anymore. But I can delight. I’m not a Southern chauvinist or a snob about it. What I found out after doing Seven Signs and talking to people all over the world is that it’s a sort of a Southern chauvinist film I made! But as I took it around and showed it, people were telling me, “Oh, that guy reminds me of so-and-so.” Oh, you mean here in Milwaukee?
You’re up here, out here. It was everywhere– regionalisms and idiosyncrasies, those pesky little things like the blade of grass pops up from the cracks in the sidewalk! Those things that escape the homogeneity of modern times and pop culture are the things that I admire and are drawn to no matter where on earth I am. So that is why I am a reformed Southern chauvinist if anything. I breathe and love and appreciate all the stuff everywhere I go, anything that survives in the face of this behemoth, leviathan, of this global stranglehold of monopolies and money and war. Anything that pops up somehow in the most unlikely places and exhibits that eccentric beauty, I’m all about it.
What about your relationship with religion? Obviously, it’s synonymous with the South. Your records are full of Biblical references and imagery. I’m curious what fuels songs like “Born Again Again” and “No Such Thing.” Do you mind talking about that?
I don’t mind at all. I think it’s the same as the history of religion. You know, it could be a good thing; it could be a bad thing. It was what was necessary, pre-science, and it’s still arguably necessary. I think it’s a necessity for traditional fundamentalist Christianity, which is what I was around. Its utility is diminishing as we become more technological, technologically savvy, and science allows more and more comfort and less fear of death and, and less warring among factions. I think it’s in its last death throes of traditional Christian fundamentalism. I think we’re seeing a gross version of it. Also, it can’t be around for much longer. It’s going to change. We’re actually watching it transform before our very eyes every day. Dogma is changing; the religious mindset is not. That’s something, again, that’s unfortunate about homo sapiens that we even need to have groupthink, the cult of personality, that we can’t just let our eyes look at the stars and wonder and let that be enough.
But I do enjoy the flavors of the quirky eccentric oddities of Southern fundamentalism, the Pentecostal, and the charismatic. I’m also horrified by it. I’m also a very Christ-haunted guy. Constantly, there is a love-hate tug of war with Jesus every day. But I think it’s a beautiful struggle. But it’s just a flavor of emotion. The Christ-haunted soul is a flavor of a southern person, of troubles and joys. So it’s not anything that I’m proud of, I just write about it ’cause that’s what I know. But dogma is never going to go away. It’s just updating is a slow process to watch. We will be dead before it takes form into this new paradigm. I think we’re seeing the beginnings of it right now.
Speaking of the timeless, I suppose this is a good spot to segue away to talk about the new Shack Shaker album! Your label would appreciate that (laughs)!
Well, this is all the same thing; it’s all a big gumbo (laughs)!
Twenty-five years! That’s timeless! When you first started the band, did you have any idea it would last beyond a few practices or gigs and become your life?
I just called whatever group of guys that I was with the Shack Shakers. As long as I want to play music, I might as well call it that because people already know that name. I didn’t start off with my own name; I started off with a band name. I can’t just be “J.D. Wilkes”. I’m trying, but it’s like to draw, [the promotors] have to write “Shack Shaker Guy” underneath [on the flyers]. If I’d started off with my own name, it wouldn’t be any time limit on my music career, but we have this sort of notion of meteoric rise and fame and fortune associated with bands. As long as I want to play music, the Shack Shakers is what it will be called, just out of convenience.
It’s not the Beatles. It’s like John Mayall. I’m basically the rockabilly John Mayall! He launched Eric Clapton, Peter Greene, and Mick Taylor. There are people who start their careers there, and there’s people who end their careers there. It’s an ongoing conversation with roots music, just like he’s doing. He’s out there, pushing eighty, taking these hot shots around. He’s like the MC of the next generation of blues players, and that’s kind of what I’m doing too. And I’m happy with that cause I learned a lot of harp from his records, and I actually did get to meet him too. But he’s doing it the way that I understood it to be. Maybe he’s the one who corrupted my notion of what a band is! I guess everyone else has the correct notion that you should have a band when you’re young and hot and then you retire. But I was always looking to blues bands that kept it going playing folk festivals when they were older. I was like, “Oh, yeah, that sounds like a good life. I’ll do that.”
At one point did you realize that you had a legitimate legacy, a genuine discography to pull from? When did you think, “Man, I’ve accomplished something?”
I never think that. I’m still working on my legacy as if I have none. I assume I don’t. I can’t let myself think that. Even if I did, I don’t believe that because I can’t listen to some of those records. Some of them are just unlistenable now. A lot like those blasphemous years, I’m just embarrassed about them, the grossness of what I would do to get people’s attention, but I was working through a mental illness, I think, at the time. I have no idea what that was, but it needed to happen. That’s how it came out, and I’m sorry, but there’s a lot of unlistenable stuff back then. I’m looking forward to making records that are pleasing and having shows where people dance and enjoy themselves again.
I’ve been revisiting your records, and as much as I loved the earlier stuff, I find myself returning to your last two, The Southern Surreal and After You’ve Gone. By no means are they mellow or gentle, but there’s something warm about them that appeals to me now. I’m not sure I would have had that same reaction to them a few years ago when I was a different person, someone who was more agitated, angry, and uptight. I wanted to ask you about that progression between the albums and what precipitated the change.
It’s the anger of the young man, the warrior youth male, the young twenty, thirty-something male– there’s an energy level there. We’re all guys who are specially programmed to go to war. This is what I’m learning from this book Sapiens. We’re talking about a millennia’s worth of wiring and why we are the way we are. And the reason why young men are the ones that commit the crimes, young men are the ones that go to war, they’re the ones that want to go hunt, to break things, spread their seed, you know what I mean? That’s what young men do, and the ones that channel that energy in the different ways are the ones that end up inventing things, but you have a lot of great things come out of that age group, that demographic too.
It has something to do with nature and how we evolved, a phenomenon that happens. It’s horrifying bursts of energy that can go terribly wrong– and mostly does– but it could go terribly, right, which is the rarity. But those are when we have these big leaps forward, and you have the bands like the Beatles. It seems like everybody when they age makes boring world music. They take a trip to Africa and sit down and learn how to play bongos. And then they come out and it’s this overwrought concept where it’s lame. Everyone goes to see Paul Simon or even Robert Plant. What they’re doing is they’re appreciating what they’re seeing, but in their minds, they’re just playing back the old days of when they were in Led Zeppelin or Simon & Garfunkel.
That’s why we like sports. We want to see these guys go out there and do amazing things with their bodies, put them through the air, just doing things on their tiptoes at the last second. We’re thrilled by this phenomenon. And frightened by it too. We like to throw a saddle over it when we can and call it a band or a team, but it’s a dangerous, delicious, horrible, great time to be a person, and then it’s over. And then now what are you going to do? Well, you can take what you learned if you survived it. As a young man, I listened to the music of older men like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Tom Waits, even old hillbillies playing banjos. I just like the sonic patina to their music that I thought I was appreciating and I wanted to be there, but you can’t be that unless you go through hell first. Hopefully, there are other people out there who are appreciative of that sonic patina. They can play those old Shack Shaker shows of Youtube footage in their mind as they watch us and tell their friends, “Oh, you should have seen them back in the day.” But I’m hoping they would be liking the music more if we provide a better-sounding soundtrack for their nostalgia when they get there.
What’s the story with Cockadoodledeux? How does this fit in with your evolution?
It’s getting more musical, I think. It’s not about heavy metal drumming, cranked speakers, me screaming– which was never really my style but I got tricked myself into thinking that we were psychobilly, or that we needed to keep up with something. You wrestle with this stuff, wondering, “What is it that I’m even trying to do?’ Plus, I got to thinking, “Just do what you want to do however you’re feeling, and dance with your fascinations at that moment and then move on.
You should always be interested in things. There’s too many things in the world that are interesting to ever get bored. I never understood the guy that could do the same record over and over like some rockabilly record that sounds like the last ten that they did. I don’t see how you can do that! I just don’t feel like I’m that kind of person. I literally don’t understand how you can do that and be happy, that you can regurgitate the same thing unless there’s something else going on there. I want to be able to do what the fuck I want because there’s too much in this world that’s interesting to waste a single day repeating myself.
There’s too much going on, and life is too short to not try to get as much in as you can. And then like I said, when I was doing the Seven Signs, I was going around learning that this isn’t a Southern thing. This is a human eccentricity thing that can pop up anywhere. You just have to know how to find it. Goodness, that just opened my eyes up! That is what I feel like I’m put here to do– to put a frame around the last remnants of individuality and culture before it’s all quashed.
We’ve talked about your sound getting more musical, more mature, and I was wondering if there are any bands that you’ve appreciated more as they grew up and changed their sound, perhaps becoming less raucous and raw but more interesting.
I don’t think I care for this narrative of maturing (laughs) because there are a lot of immature lyrics on this record. I’ll always be a little stinker. I’m giving them pratfalls, spit takes, and sight gags like I used to (laughs)!
Well, “less frantic” is the phrase that comes to mind.
“Less frantic” is better than mature. I think of some guy in an ascot smoking a pipe, playing a lute! You know, I still am in love with hell-for-leather bluegrass, ornery, ornery music, but I still like melody, and I always have. If you go back, that’s the common denominator of every record. I think it’s an earworm for me, and that’s why I made it.
I think the ones that have done the best maturing– I wouldn’t say maturing— I like the way Tom Waits changed. I think he actually went the opposite direction. He started off as sort of this sincere barroom bard, the piano guy, the “Thinking Woman’s” sex symbol or the “Thinking Fan’s” Billy Joel into being this art-damaged, Cookie Monster, cabaret monster himself. I like the way he went the opposite direction. He’s not doing crazy stuff, but I think he went from sort of a more conservative like “man and a piano” to this guy leading this Bizarro World Salvation Army Band. That’s a great little gear shifting he made there as he aged.
I just don’t want it to be like the Rod Stewart thing where, “Yeah, let’s see, the guy’s doing disco? Now he’s got a suit on trying to sing Sinatra?” I don’t like it when handsome young men, as they age and they lose their looks, they have an identity crisis and try to keep it going. It’s like hair metal: “Ok, it’s time to cut the hair, and let’s get you out of those spikes into something more sensible.” You got to act your age, you just do! You got to act your age and your weight. And if you get paunchy, dress accordingly. Or play accordion!