Picking up Some Colonel Knowledge: J.D. Wilkes Plays Salt Lake City

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The Dirt Daubers (pictured) and The Legendary Shack Shakers perform on June 11 at The State Room.

Many call him crazy, some say he’s the stuff of legend, but I can tell you folks that J.D “The Colonel” Wilkes is every bit that and more. Even though he’s spent the last 14 years as the wild and rambunctious frontman of The Legendary Shack Shakers, Wilkes was unable to resist his urges to create another highly original band with his wife Jessica: The Dirt Daubers. Now touring simultaneously with both groups on the same bill, Wilkes is up to the challenge of bringing his dual musical visions to life night after night.
“We’ve been touring three months solid with no days off at all,” says Wilkes. “It’s more convenient to put the two bands together, rather than having them in competition. I think it confuses people sometimes, having myself open up for myself. Maybe people think I’m an egomaniac or something.”

The main characteristics of the more austere Dirt Daubers are far removed from that of the Shack Shakers, yet Wilkes’ personality and naturally substantial songwriting and performance link them together. “It’s hard to confuse the two. They’re different styles of music and they’re performed very differently as well,” Wilkes says. “The Shack Shakers serve as extreme, sweaty catharsis and then I can sort of claim back my integrity and humanity with the Dirt Daubers. They’re both different kinds of therapy.”

Wilkes has found that, at this point in his life, playing the Dirt Daubers’ more controlled style of old-time music has affected something internally that none of his other creative projects had. “There’s a challenge to performing in an all acoustic string instrument band with all three of us creating this music [in The Dirt Daubers] versus the Shack Shakers, which is more of a composition that I dance in front of, or ornament with harmonica. There I can do anything I want to and the band can keep going, but, with the Dirt Daubers, it relies on me just as much as the other two pieces to keep the song moving.”

Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers were mainly influenced by old hillbilly music such as the Alan Lomax field recordings and Roscoe Holcomb. As time has crept by, other influences have seeped in. “Recently, rockabilly music had begun to sneak in there, stuff like Sun Records, Charlie Feathers, Jerry Lee Lewis. Nothing stays pure for long in my world, there’s too much great music to be a part of and to create,” Wilkes says. “We don’t want to make the same record over and over again, so now the Dirt Daubers are starting their own story arc and morphing into something new.”

Wilkes has also kept the Shack Shakers rolling, not even letting recent personnel changes keep them from touring and bringing the best possible live show they can. “Duane [Denison] is stepping aside for awhile, if not permanently, to play with his other band Tomahawk. You’ll get to hear our new guitarist, Rod Hamdallah, who’s a Jordanian blues guitarist, a real soulful player from Atlanta,” Wilkes says. “With him, we’ve started playing songs we’ve never played live before. He’s got a great ear and I’ve enjoyed hearing his take on things.”

Not limiting his creativity is important to Wilkes. His 2008 music documentary Seven Signs, which sheds light on the remaining genuine southern culture, was just an indication of what was to come. He’s constantly working on new projects, pushing himself in new directions, never allowing his visions to become stale. “I’ve got some short films I’m working on, and I’ve got a comic that I write and draw, Grim Hymns Volume 2, that’s just four pages away from completion. I’m also trying my hand at writing some fiction as well,” Wilkes says. “It’s just a way to keep things moving for me, so I don’t get burnt out on any one thing.”

Even musically, Wilkes is looking to the future searching out new unexplored territory. “I would like to try producing other artists, but it’s never been something I’ve had time for,” Wilkes says. “I’d also like to look into a more theatrical presentation for something musically, whether that be a solo thing or with the Shack Shakers, but it would involve costumes and props, and we could incorporate storytelling and little bit of acting—have it be almost like a tent revival-type of thing and really bring it into my world.”

Whatever Wilkes turns his attention to, you can be sure the product will be fascinatingly original. He’s been able to carve out a career doing precisely what his own machinations have led him to do. Wilkes is bringing both the Dirt Daubers and Legendary Shack Shakers to the State Room on June 11—two great bands, one great night.