When I heard the Legendary Shack Shakers were going to be halting their activities as a group, I fretted for a moment—but only a moment—because then I remembered that the centerpiece of the Shack Shakers was one of the most creative forces on the planet. The singer, songwriter, harmonica-blowing, banjo-picking illustrator, writer and filmmaker I knew as JD Wilkes would never stop producing quality material. Lo and behold, shortly afterward he proved me right by releasing a record with the electrified version of the band he started with his wife, Jessica Wilkes, The Dirt Daubers (now called JD Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers).
SLUG: What was it like transitioning the Dirt Daubers from a hot jazz/folk band to the band they are today?
JD Wilkes: The Dirt Daubers are the band that I started with my wife. I write all kinds of different songs and all of them aren’t acoustic and old timey, and my wife Jessica had written all these songs more the vein of rockabilly or R&B, and we wanted to include that. We also wanted to expand the sound so that we could be more impactful sonically, so we could hold our own when we play a punk rock bar, but then we can turn around and do an acoustic set for a festival or whatever.
SLUG: Do you look at each separate band and project as its own thing, or do you look at everything you’ve done as a whole?
Wilkes: It’s all under the JD Wilkes or Shack Shaker brand—we’ve just expanded it. Because we brought over Rod from the Shack Shakers, we’d feel comfortable playing anything the Shack Shakers played and anything from any of the Dirt Daubers releases. And in expanding, we’ve included another voice now that Jessica sings lead.
SLUG: How does all that affect recording the new record, Wildmoon?
Wilkes: Well, Jessica had already written a lot of the songs and we figured, “Why not just do them with this band?” and we are able to include a lot of textures and moods. So I started looking at songs that I had written and had been writing and picked out the ones that I thought would match in tone and in impact. We sat down and listened to each other’s songs and were able to meet somewhere in the middle and figured out ways for our creativity to overlap. The album being electric threw some people off, since the Dirt Daubers have always been the acoustic antidote to the Shack Shakers, but if this is the style that we are writing in then we certainly want to make a record that would reflect that.
SLUG: Will the next record be in the same vein, or do you think you’ll go in a completely different direction?
Wilkes: It’s hard to say. If, in a year, she and I are writing songs that are still similar to this, then it could be something closer to this, but we never do the same thing twice. I feel like now we’re able to go in any direction we want.
SLUG: As a front man, you’re known for your wild and crazy antics. Do you give the same kind of life performance with this band?
Wilkes: I don’t think you get the full-onslaught, punk rock performance, but there’s a lot of the same visual shtick, song and dance, that I do. Now that I’m back to just playing harmonica, that frees me up to be more energetic and to move around a lot. When I picked up the banjo and started playing in the Dirt Daubers, I fulfilled the need of wanting to be a part of a band to where if I stopped playing, there was a hole in the music. But being new to the instrument, I was forced to just stand there and concentrate, which some might think is very boring. So now that Jessica and I are switching off lead vocals and bass duties, I’m able to play both those roles.
SLUG: How did the book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky come about?
Wilkes: When I was making a movie called the Seven Signs, a documentary about the music of the South. I began researching and exploring the music that inspired the Shack Shakers. We went and filmed at these different barn dances and jamborees and I fell in love with them, and I knew I needed to learn about it and write about it and needed to get it into my bones, because this is who I am. I grew up watching TV and being influenced by pop culture like everyone else, but over time, I found that to be hollow, and eventually all you do is become a commodity to be bought and sold. But there is that undercurrent of culture that lives in every one of us—it’s indigenous, and we lose more and more over time. I love feeling connected to that history.
You can find out about everything that JD Wilkes does at jdwilkes.com. The Dirt Daubers will be playing At the Urban Lounge on January 30. Don’t miss the chance to get this music into your own bones.