Interview: J.D. Wilkes Opens Up About Folktales, Drama, and Memphis Style

Interviews

Americana Highways made a pit stop to chat with Kentucky’s J.D. Wilkes. Wilkes has many skillful irons in various artistic fires. He’s an author of two books with a third underway. He’s directed a film.  He’s a visual artist who makes wonderful, colorful drawings and banners, having recently created the album cover for the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ new release. And he himself has a brand new solo album out: Fire Dream (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum), which, he pointed out, was “almost like putting two albums out at the same time because [his band] the Legendary Shack Shakers just released their album After You’ve Gone (Last Chance) last fall.”

Fire Dream is stunningly innovative, a combination of gypsy folktales and musical frolicking that weaves through southern gothic and hillbilly styles. So our first question was: how do you create these songs? Wilkes responded: “I should have been a short story writer or a novelist. The forum I’ve found for telling stories is through music, while most people are writing songs about feelings, or writing anthems. I sometimes wonder whether I’m in the wrong business; maybe I’m going about storytelling in the completely wrong format. I guess I always had a knack for writing stories, so as a musician I’ve tried to merge those two together. My process is to write little short stories and set them to soundtracks, like little cinematic pieces.”

“I’ve become a writer recently and realized, hey, maybe this is what I should have been doing. Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky was my first book, where I collected history from my home state about homemade music. And then I just published a novel: The Vine That Ate the South. I’ve always been a fan of folk stories, so I decided to novelize local tales I’ve heard all my life and create one story around these ghost stories and folk tales. These characters are searching for something in the woods, the folk tales come to life as they are traversing the forest. It’s a narrative rather than an anthology of stories, you have characters experiencing them as they go.”

“Both books were about different forms of folk art — community barn dancing and folk tales — that I believe are in trouble now. As for the folk tales, we are in danger of everyone getting their stories from Netflix and HBO. I’m concerned that these organic stories that are part of our identity and heritage that will be lost if somebody doesn’t do something. Those stories are my contribution toward doing something.”

Returning to the new release, the first line of the first song on Fire Dream is “lithe undulation in the dead of the night” and from that very moment, that imagery is full blown and perfectly riveting. “That’s a nod to Noel Coward, the author who wrote Blithe Spirit,” Wilkes said. “I was thinking of the word blithe, and the way those archaic English words are very evocative.    Songs used to be poetry, even the old hymnbooks we grew up singing out of. When you think of “Amazing Grace,” for example, all the verses are poetry, it’s verse; it’s ornate and floral. They have this lushness. Nowadays as we become more industrialized all that gets shaven away. And I think that’s a shame to lose that. But why does that have to go away? I thought that was what was cool about songwriting.”

“So I guess I’m kind of going about things wrong in terms of popular songwriting today, in two different ways. Because first I am writing songs as stories, and then I’m also making them really lush and verbose.”

“You know nowadays there are songs literally written by an algorithm. The art hasn’t changed. It’s the business that’s changed.  There are study groups, “songwriter’s circles,” where they do a target market study group. It’s like the cable series “Madmen,” they are ruthlessly monitoring trends and studying demographics, identifying what words will hit home with people. There was one year they were advising songwriters to mention coffee or a coffee shop. And there were like 5 or 6 songs on the top 40 country charts where they’d start to play, and you’d wait and see and sure enough, in the first verse, there’d be the word “coffee.” The word “coffee” showed up in a market study, trends showed that people seemed to really appreciate it so they plugged that into an algorithm and the thing would write the song for you. It basically spits out rhymes and lines that they have test-marketed to work.”

“Ironically, I get called warped and twisted for writing about southern gothic things but what they’re doing is actually warped and twisted in a bad way. What they are doing is unacceptable if you’re an artist.”

How do you achieve the right balance between playfulness and darkness? “You have to have a little humor to pop air into dark subject matter, otherwise you’re writing horror. That’s what’s so great about Flannery O’Connor and southern gothic authors. They have some humor in their writing too. You have to have that in there to let the thing breathe and give people a full variety of emotions to appreciate the thing instead of just dwelling in the darkness. The darkness is just there to provide some drama. You have to have comedy as well as tragedy to make a full balanced work of art and access a cathartic full scope of feelings. “

I had to confess to Wilkes that during the first 60 seconds of the album I don’t even know what I’m hearing. “That’s Dr. Sick, he’s the fiddle player for the Squirrel Nut Zippers. That sound effect on the record, it’s an old, old gypsy trick of how to create drama on the violin without even playing it. He pulled a hair out of his fiddle bow, he wove it through the strings, and it created this friction. This is something he learned over in Romania studying gypsy music, something a group like Taraf de Haidouks would do.”

“Everything on the record is very organic, most of it was performed all at the same time and sometimes around the same microphone. It was produced by Bruce Watson from Fat Possum Records in Memphis. Jimbo Mathus is the singer and the founder of the Squirrel Nut Zippers; Jimbo contributed a lot of things including co-producing and playing drums. And then there was Matt Patton, who is the bass player for the Drive-By-Truckers. Liz Brasher, an R & B singer on Fat Possum Records, joined in. And the Bo Keys made up the horns section.”

“Dr. Sick has a low almost operatic voice. He’s a real genius, and a great singer. We played and basically had a party singing the vocals together. We did it the Memphis way, having fun, not taking ourselves too seriously. We might as well have been sitting up on the front porch on a Saturday night and put a microphone there, that’s the spirit of this record.”

“Bruce Watson being from Fat Possum Records meant the album turned out to have help from a kind of a Memphis “Who’s Who” of musicians.   There’s all that talent that comes out of the Water Valley; they have their own scene, it’s a “Fat Possum” world. Those great blues juke joint guys who worked in the area have passed away but there’s still a very important scene there surrounding Fat Possum Records and it’s an honor to be associated with these people.”

“The album painting is by Gabi De la Merced from Spain. He really captured the old exotica album covers from the 1950s and 60s, those Hawaiian music, Martin Denny, Les Baxter style album covers. People used to buy those records just for the album covers. It’s a very eye-grabbing exotic album cover to sell an exotic record.”

What’s coming up for J.D. Wilkes? “We just came back from FL, where we opened for Unknown Hinson. Then we’re off to California as a full band with Shack Shakers unplugged! My bass player bows the upright bass, we’ll need a giant wooly mammoth hair to weave through it to recreate the sound on “Fire Dream “(laughs). We’re going to try to recreate songs from the new album organically and some songs from the Legendary Shack Shakers and the Dirt Daubers too; and then we are going to Europe in May. And then from there, it’s more of the same; I’ve started writing a sequel to the book. There’s a lot of down time during traveling I might as well put that to good use.”

To read more about the album Fire Dream look here:

For more information about J.D. Wilkes’s goings on, including tour dates and his books, browse through here.

To check out his drawings and art, visit here; and for his film, look here.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/205104663″>The Vine That Ate the South: An Interview with J.D. Wilkes</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/twodollarradio”>Two Dollar Radio</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

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