I want to start this off by saying that I think that JD Wilkes truly is one of the most underrated performers in all of American music right now, and that he is one of the best frontmen in American music of all time. I also don’t think he gets enough credit for being a true pioneer and father of the current independent roots movement, as one of the brave souls that spent time down on lower Broadway in Nashville in the mid-late 90’s revitalizing an area Music City’s corporate citizens had abandoned. Along with BR549, Joe Buck, Hank3, and Wayne “The Train” Hancock, JD Wilkes and his band Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers deserve top tier placement on the country roots family tree.
Wake Up, Sinners! is the brand new album from JD Wilkes’ new/other band The Dirt Daubers, but it is a project that has been gestating and evolving for quite some time now. They released a homespun, self-titled album in October of 2009, and played a few shows with JD on vocals, banjo, and kazoo, his wife Jessica on mandolin, vocals, and pretty dresses, and “Slow” Layne Hendrickson on a gutbucket bass.
Though my love for JD really wanted me to get behind this project, at the beginning it seem to lack a punch. The authenticity of their approach was appreciated, but wasn’t necessarily translating into entertainment value.
I’m not sure if it was because JD got better with his banjo playing, Jessica got more confident on stage, or when the Shack Shaker’s Mark Robertson replaced “Slow” Layne on a stand up bass, but at some point The Dirt Daubers hit their groove. And when they hit it, they hit it hard, and that unique energy and style, along with the original authenticity that The Dirt Daubers was founded upon, is captured exquisitely in Wake Up, Sinners!
I love this album. You may look at the track listing and ask yourself why we need yet another version of “Wayfaring Stranger” out there. The answer is because the great Col. JD Wilkes has never done a version before. A perfect mix of classics and originals, don’t just pigeon hole this project as just another rag tag bluegrass bit, there a lot of hot jazz, rockabilly and blues mixed in with the old time string band approach, helped along by the male/female tradeoff in the vocals.
Another early Dirt Daubers development that concerned me was the presence of Mrs. Wilkes in the band. Significant others sharing a stage has long been my musical kryptonite, though adding a girl to the band if she actually fits the part can add a layer of legitimacy to the whole thing. With Jessica, it is the latter. She contributes excellent singing and swagger, and I can’t imagine replacing her with some swinging dick super picker that would misunderstand that this music is not about technique, but about channeling the long-held traditions of family bands that would entertain on back porches and community halls and blend the musical influences found all around them without prejudice. Jessica’s presence is essential to The Dirt Daubers success.
But speaking of technique, adding bassist Mark Robertson was key. It may have come at the slight expense of purity, but the music now has a heartbeat, and a backbone. This is music to get you moving. It’s fun. JD Wilkes’ banjo and Jessica’s mandolin work is not wowing; it would take away from the project if it was. But JD’s harmonica playing is. Most folks might see JD as an entertainer first, and then a musician. But I’d hold his harp work up against anybody, and his sense of tone on this album is spectacular.
Piano, kazoo, accordion, foot stomping, a little snare, backing vocals, and who knows what else custom tailored to each track makes Wake Up, Sinners! way more than just a recorded version of their live show. This album was really well done, with immaculate taste on every single track. Like a patchwork quilt, the various forms of American rural roots music are represented with pride and care in an experience that is wickedly catchy, accessible, though austere with its authentic approach. When I interviewed JD Wilkes a while back, he said about The Dirt Daubers:
I’ve always appreciated the roots of what we do. Sometimes I think the roots of it get lost in the rock n’ roll aspect. It’s just a way of breaking it down and making it a little more obvious. I also just indulging my appreciation for mountain music, string band music, jug band music, hot jazz. I just love that stuff and want to be a part of it. I feel sometimes the sheer volume of the Shack Shakers diminishes it at times. I want to be able to purely touch base with that.
With Wake Up, Sinners!, that is exactly what The Dirt Daubers do. I just hope it doesn’t mean the eventual death of one of the greatest live shows to ever grace the stage.
Two guns up!
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