A Brief Q & A with Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ J.D. Wilkes
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers Play Tulsa’s Unit D this Month
By Julie Wenger Watson
Colonel J.D. Wilkes and his Legendary Shack Shakers will be rocking the house on Feb. 23 at Tulsa’s Unit D, a very hip venue flying under the radar for some, but well-known to those who like their music with more than a little attitude. While punkgrassabillyblues, courtesy of the Shack Shakers, is on the main menu, you’ll want to arrive in time to catch The Dirt Daubers open the show. This trio, comprised of Wilkes (banjo), his wife Jessica (mandolin) and Mark Robertson (Shack Shakers’ bass player), will quickly win you over with their take on an old-timey, more traditional sound.
If you aren’t familiar with the Shack Shakers, you owe it to yourself to at least check out a video or two, then you really ought to consider catching the live performance. This is more than music. It’s Appalachian-Gothic tinged performance art at its finest, the theatrical sense of Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper with a darn good soundtrack. Part vaudeville, part circus sideshow, there’s plenty here to keep you entertained. The energy of the whip-thin, often bare-chested, Wilkes is palpable and contagious, especially when he’s wailing on his harmonica.
Intrigued, I couldn’t resist a recent opportunity to ask Wilkes, who is also a talented visual artist and filmmaker, a few questions by e-mail.
JWW: At the Tulsa show, you are effectively opening for yourself. Is it hard to make the transition from playing the more traditional music of the Dirt Daubers to the amped up, punked out version of the Shack Shakers?
JD: It was hard at first, but one of the reasons why I wanted to form the Dirt Daubers was to present myself the challenge of playing a stringed instrument on stage. I wanted the responsibility of playing an instrument that was integral to the songs as a whole. With harmonica, I’m merely embellishing what the rest of the band is performing. But in the Daubers, the banjo has to be played throughout the song, or else there’s a gaping hole there.
JWW: Bishline Banjos, who make some of Danny Barnes’ banjos, is in Tulsa and Rob Bishline is a friend of mine, so I have a soft spot for banjos. Can you tell me a little about your own playing? What kind of banjo you play and how you first started?
JD: I have a few banjos, but mostly I’ve been playing a Deering Boston. I recently acquired an Eastman “Whyte Laydie” from Bernunzio Music in Rochester, New York. It’s an open back, so it’s more in keeping with that old-time sound. I also just traded an accordion for a primitive, handmade Appalachian style banjo, akin to the types shown in those old Foxfire books.
A few years ago, when I discovered Dock Boggs, I realized that you don’t have to play like Earl Scruggs to own or play a banjo. There’s so much music out there that’s good but different. I’ve always been more of a fan of that primitive, bluesy clawhammer sound anyway.
JWW: What about the harmonica?
JD: My grandfather gave me one as a kid. It was an old “echo-tuned” antique Hohner, the kind with two rows of holes, which was perfect for playing simple folky melodies. Once I discovered blues music, I graduated down to a simple 10-hole diatonic, the kind you can buy at Cracker Barrel. That’s when I got really into Sonny Terry, Little Walter and Sonny Boy. And an obsession was born.
JWW: Your art and your music seem to take inspiration from the past. Can you talk a little about this?
JD: I find that the best music, art, architecture, cars, well you name it, came from that era before pop culture was born. There was more originality before the homogenizing effects of Hollywood and Madison Avenue came into full power. That’s why everything from that era is labeled “classic.” Things were better made before greed was deemed “good” by Hollywood (and Washington DC, for that matter.)
JWW: Can you try to describe what this show might be like for those who’ve never seen you live?
JD: Lively, catchy, wild. Exhausting, perhaps. Did I mention “fun”?
-With permission from The Current.