Pound for pound, possibly the most underrated personality in music is the frontman and founder of the Legendary Shack Shakers, one Colonel JD Wilkes.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Jello Biafra of Alternative Tentacles and The Dead Kennedays who called JD Wilkes, “the last great Rock and Roll frontman.” Robert Plant is also a big fan, personally endorsing their albums which are no slouch either, and handpicking JD and the band as openers on a European tour in 2005.
Yet when I went to see them on Saturday at Dallas’s famed Granada Theater, they were playing first out of three bands. The Granada might be the best place to see live music . . .ever. And after their set in the crowd, in the bathrooms, at line at the bar, and on a big screen where between bands The Granada projects their Twitter feed, people were raving about the Shack Shakers, and bewildered why they were booked first.
After their set I sat down with Col. JD Wilkes about why the secret isn’t out about them, about his side project The Dirt Daubers, his new album Agridustrial and about his involvement in the Lower Broadway scene in Nashville from about 1995-2005.
Triggerman: I’ve been tracking you for a while. I saw your movie Seven Signs. In the last few years, you seem to be taking some sort of intellectual. . . you’re coming across as an intellectual figure. Not pushy or pointy nosed, but more just letting the stories tell themselves.
The Colonel: I don’t want to come across as too intellectual cause its just rock n’ roll. Country music has always been working class music. I think it should retain a lot of that quality, and shouldn’t lose sight of it’s origins too much. We’re trying to push forward and create new things, but still embracing the past. That’s where the whole title Agridustrial is, is we’re pushing in new directions sonically, but at its core is a good old fashioned country song, hopefully, even though the trappings are a bit more abrasive and crunchy at times. At the heart of it is a country music melody. We don’t want to intellectualize it too much, but sometimes you have to point it out to people, given what is happening nowadays with corporate country and pop culture.
Triggerman: You’ve has some pretty big endorsements over the years, Robert Plant and Jello Biafra, yet tonight you’re playing first (out of three bands). There’s something inside of me that thinks, “This band should have a better following than it does.”
The Colonel: That’s just a sign of the times. The only way for a band like us to break into the mainstream is if we get lucky with a song placement on TV or something like that. That’s really the only way to break into the mainstream now that the major labels are in shambles. Every time someone steals a song from us, they’re keeping us in place, and maybe that’s where they want us because that’s “tragic.” We just have to get lucky now. All these cool people can drop our names all they want. We were born too late. Nowadays you gotta be rap, bubblegum, or some sort of Disney band… Being on our own label actually allows us to make more money. We own everything now so the labels aren’t sticking it to us anymore. One of the good things about the new digital era, you can control things better now if you want to go into your own business.
Triggerman: You’ve got a side project as well, I believe your wife’s involved in it. Called the Dirt Daubers, and it’s kind of taking that to an extreme, you’re just playing straight up, good old mountain music. How did that come about?
The Colonel: 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.
Triggerman: I’ve always been curious about the underground scene that existed on Broadway in Nashville between ’95 and 2005 or whenever. It seems like it has diminished significantly in the last few years. But there was a solid time there was a very rich scene of music down there. So how do you fit in?
The Colonel: BR549 started it all. There was a resurgence in that Lower Broadway scene. Before that it was basically run down old titty bars and saloons. And then it started to become this tourist destination. And it was wild, and it was an interim period where it was pretty lawless down there too. There was chicken wire in The Bluegrass Inn for real. It was free to get it, and it was free to leave, so you had to keep them in their seats playing four hour shows for $30 and free beer. It was thankless but it was like boot camp so the bands that played down there got real good and learned how to work the crowd, they learned how to connect with audiences and keep them entertained. That’s why we’re so clownish, we’re products of that lower Broadway boot camp. Keeping the yokels entertained. It might work against us now because everyone is so very serious in music now.
The first wave on Lower Broadway before The Bluegrass Inn opened up, we played at Wolfy’s across the street. The other side of the street was what was hopping. Across the street The Bluegrass Inn, which would later become the Mecca other than Robert’s. Robert’s and The Bluegrass Inn were the main places you wanted to see real music go down you went there. The Bluegrass Inn was called The Wagon Burner, and it was a singer/songwriter place. So when Joe Buck and Layla bought that place, they turned it into this straight up hillbilly hangout. And that’s when things really got moving. I basically lived in there. Survived on beer and weighed like 100 pounds. I was squatting in a barber shop at one point. It was very very raw, very primitive and feral and lawless. We were all in the same boat and had a great scene there.
At some point we had to get out of the honky tonk scene there to be taken seriously by the press and the people there. We sort of staged a coup. We made a really good record (Cockadoodledon’t) and started playing these showcases outside of Lower Broadway. We stared to infiltrated the more yuppie bars, like upscale LA hipster bars: the people that wouldn’t typically go down to Lower Broadway, they look down their nose at the yokels. We had developed this amazing show though down there, so we took it out of context, and we blew the roof off. It was like training for years and winning the Olympics.
Basically we exploded onto the scene, signed by a manager, signed by a booking agency, and signed by Bloodshot Records in a matter of like a week. We were very hungry and ambitious and pissed in a way. Because these hipster scenes infuriated us in a way and made us wanted to play harder. We were used to playing for folks, and now were were playing for snobs, so you had to work twice as hard to crack that nut. And we always would because ultimately you can’t say no to the beat, you can say no to those riffs and songs.