There are a number of live performances that stand out vividly for me one would be The Clash in Trinity College. Another would be The Legendary Shack Shakers in Paris Texas in Kilkenny at the Rhythm and Roots Festival. Both were hi-energy visceral performances and both Joe Strummer and JD Wilkes were compelling and vital frontmen. Since that time I have been a fan of Wilkes and his various musical endeavours as well as his writing and illustrations. After his recent solo appearance in Dublin Lonesome Highway asked him a number of questions which he graciously answered.
You have led the Shack Shakers since their inception. How has your vision for the band changed since then?
I reckon at first I just wanted a jump blues band to play in, one with a group of “brothers” who’d go tour with me. But it wasn’t long before we were switching genres to Western swing and losing a couple members to marriage and babies. The genre changes and old band members are now too myriad to number. But I’ve always just gone with the flow and let things unfold naturally as I go. I satisfy my musical ADHD and see who wants to join me next.
How deeply was that vision routed in the myths, legends and hillbilly and blues music of the South.
I’ve been writing about “local color” since the get-go. In our first demo, there was a local tavern, a cockfight club, some regional superstitions, etc. But I delved into the myths and legends more right around Cockadoodledon’t.
A lot of musicians have passed through the ranks. Does that allow you to bring something new to each edition of the band as every musician is different?
Yes. I cater the band’s sound to highlight their strengths.
This also brings ups the question of how the music industry has changed since you began performing and recording?
The major label opportunities went away right around the birth of Napster. Downloads killed everything. Fans bragging to my face about how they bootlegged my music online was particularly annoying. They acted like I should high-five them. Bands at our level went from hoping to make a living selling our music to resigning to the fact that we’re more in the T-shirt business. T-shirts and helping the bar sell beer.
Was there a particular place or time that you felt that you were achieving what you had set out to do?
I have never set out to achieve any goal. I’ve never even set goals for myself. I just shuck and jive (improvise) in the moment and then see what happens. Then I shuck and jive in the moment that follows that. Et cetera. Are these questions meant to shame and depress me, ha?!
In recent times you have worked solo. Is that something you have come to love?
I do enjoy it actually. It’s taken a long time to figure out how to pull it all off. I’m still learning though.
You seem to be perfecting your banjo playing and harmonica skills all the time. Do you practice a lot?
I play banjo at home but I wouldn’t call it “practice”. I’m not trying to be an amazing musician. They’re simply tools to get the tunes across. I like playing harmonica too, but it comes more natural. I can play pretty much anything I can think in the moment. Both instruments provide me a decent bit of therapy. But I’m not out to have them play ME.
You mentioned Lee Sexton and some of the old school blues players. How has their advice helped you?
I enjoyed learning a two-finger picking style that was older than Bluegrass. Lee learned to play banjo before Bluegrass music was even invented. That I could sit down with a living time capsule like that is absolutely priceless.
The Dirt Daubers seems to be positioned to a degree between the acoustic solo direction and something more band orientated. What that the intention?
To make the ex-wife happy.
What are the immediate plans for the Shack Shakers at this stage?
Carry out our current European tour and then hit the studio next month to record our new album for Alternative Tentacles. It’ll be a straight, traditional country record for a change. Nothing weird or art-damaged about it. What’s weird about the next LSS album is that it WON’T be weird.
Given that the intention is that the Shack Shakers album will more of a straight county album what’s your opinion of what’s happening in the mainstream country and alternative Americana right now?
I’d rather listen to terrible pop country music than Americana. At least the lyrics are often funny and aren’t so up it’s own ass with seriousness. But both genres bore me really. I’d much rather listen to old dead hillbillies and bluesmen than anything today. Everything in Americana seems fake, like coffee shop cowboys writing shitty poetry with no real danger or meat in their music. All hat, no cattle
Given the number of players you have been involved with do have you a favourite line-up?
My current line-up is my favorite line-up. And I’m not saying that because I have to. Fuller Condon, Preston Corn and Gary Siperko are super cool, easy-going dudes who so happen to be some of the greatest musicians who’ve ever graced this band. If not THE best.
Is songwriting something you enjoy and find easy. Or is it more difficult?
It’s always seemed pretty easy because I’ve never set out to write a “hit”. I write about only what I’m interested in, but I’ll try to make it catchy of course. I think if I started writing about what people actually want to hear (maybe “ass”?) then I could have some financial success. Screw that, ha!
What influences do you call upon when you write?
Broadsheet ballads. Old sayings. Guys like Shane McGowan and Tom Waits. Regional references like what they use. Melodies from dreams or even some phrases from dreams. Any and all things can be sources of influence.
You have written a number of books. The most interesting and unique is The Vine That Ate The South. It seems to read, to a degree, as an extension of some of your lyrical themes and is a rewarding and interesting read. Was that a lot different from lyric writing?
It’s basically one long song in a way. I wrote it with all the same influences I just listed above. So no, there actually isn’t a whole lot of difference between the book and my lyricism. They both flow in similar rhythms and patterns, tackle the same subject matter. In fact I think that if I hadn’t had 20 years of songwriting experience, I might not have ever attempted the novel.
Are you writing any more prose at the moment?
I’m currently working on a sequel to Vine, plus a new alphabet book called The ABCs of the Southern Idiot Man-Child.
You also directed the film Seven Signs. Was that a positive and rewarding experience and is that something you want to do again?
It was fun to film, taxing to have edited remotely while I toured, disappointing to have never gotten it distributed, but still a positive experience overall. Yes, I would like to delve back into filmmaking, but this time I think I’d like to make funny short films instead.
In Seven Signs two of the featured bands were The Pine Hill Haints and Slim Cessna's Auto Club both bands you admire. They both seem to have a pentecostal/religious background. Was your upbringing similar?
My upbringing was at first catholic and then Protestant/baptist. I did attend a charismatic church school in the 1980s though. That’s akin to Pentecostal, but without the super strict dress code.
Does religion in any form play a part in your day to day life?
It is imprinted in my world view but I don’t endlessly bemoan this in cliche like others do. I think it went like this: Nature, being dangerous, mysterious and feral, needed something to tame and explain it. Religion explained and tamed the beast within, technology eventually tamed the beast without. Then, fairly recently, technology supplanted its helper, religion by giving more accurate explanations. Now we have godlike technology yet no unifying mythologies that, though technically “disproven”, still served to lend a common social code and customs.
So then we have Hollywood and Academe invent us up new ones. So they give us “political correctness” so we have an updated moral compass. But I wager that this hollow philosophy, invented by posh, educated fools, will ultimately fall victim to pesky ol’ Nature, as PC takes into account nothing of Darwin’s reality or world history. It’ll be our undoing.
Then as a renaissance man you are also an illustrator and painter. Do you need to pursue all these different things to satisfy your creative muse or are you just something of a restless soul?
I just get obsessed with certain subjects and I enjoy the cathartic act of, say, cross-hatching some drawing for a project on that subject. The joy comes in exploring the subject, drawing it down and then seeing the whole product come to completion. To then hold it in my hands.
Of all of these creative pursuits may stem from the one source - The South and an examination of its real culture. Are they other areas of interest that you could mine?
I like medieval saints and martyrs, reliquaries and symbols. Anything mysterious with ornate trappings. Mysticism draws my eye in all its forms and accoutrements, not just southern kind either.
How much to personal relationships feature in your work?
Usually none except for the last two main album releases. But they’re both post-divorce, so that’s understandable.
Did the lifestyle of a working musician have a detrimental effect on your marriage as you were together all the time during your relationship?
Nowadays anything at all can strain a marriage, no matter what ya do. You could wake up one day with bad breath the same moment she’s getting a “heart eyes” emoji from some hunk on Instagram. Annnnnnd … Marriage over.
The selfish disinterest in keeping your vows is what kills marriage. But then again, in our post-modern age of comfort and plenty, marriage is practically recreational anymore. Not the stuff of species survival as it was a hundred years ago.
What does the future hold for JD Wilkes?
Beats me. But I’ll be shucking and jiving the whole way there!
Have you sensed any particular changes in attitude in your travels in terms political and non-political outlooks?
If the implication is that: as a “Christian American” from the south, has traveling the world woken me up out of all my racist notions that, by god, you KNOW I MUST possess as a southern white male ... then no, I never had those notions and if anything I have always loved art and culture and travel because my parents didn’t raise trash. But I HAVE retained and even grown in my god-given discernment and cynicism ever since traveling the world. I even have had many of my more satiristic observations, from my comics, say, quite confirmed more so over the years.
Interview by Stephen Rapid