J.D. Wilkes’ new release Will I See You One Day in God’s Glory Land? (Arkam Records) was recorded at the Muscle Shoals’ studio The Nutt House, with some recorded in Wilkes’ home in Kentucky and a bit more in fiddler, Jamie Barrier’s, cabin in Tennessee.
The album is a collection of traditional old time mountain bluegrass songs featuring J.D. Wilkes on harp, banjo and vocals. Jamie Barrier plays fiddle, sings harmony vocals, and sings on “Soldier’s Joy.” The vinyl album is well worth having in your hand to read the allegorical description on the back of those songs arising from the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Wilkes is known as a chronicler of historical stories and this album is a testament to that as well as it is to his own talents.
Wilkes is the energetic frontman of the Legendary Shack Shakers, but this album reveals another stylistic facet of him: it’s every bit as dynamically focused musically but there is more of an intangible sense of vulnerability on display in this album’s fourteen songs. “Country Blues- Darling Cora,” has the twisted: “wake up wake darling Cora… go dig a hole in the ground.” The Weavers, Dick Justice and the Monroe brothers played this one, but Wilkes’ vocals more dynamically punctuate this fresh and exciting version.
“Troubles” is another traditional that has many genealogical variations like “Red Rocking Chair” or “Red Apple Juice” or “Sugar Babe.” Wilkes’ version stays true to the song’s weary resigned intent. But it’s more than that, his vocal delivery is qualitatively different from his more performative singing style — even if you’re a fan you might not recognize it as him at first. There’s an air of healing in this, we are relieved, and we believe him that he will rock his own cradle when she’s gone.
Wilkes’ reputation as an intense harmonica player is well known in Americana circles; he’s been tapped for memorable cameos with it, for instance on Shemekia Copeland’s America’s Child last year and Sturgill Simpson’s upcoming release. And there’s plenty of it on this album, notably on “Liza Jane” and then again in the flat out incredible harp instrumental, another original, “Gob Iron Stomp.”
His picking chops are especially showcased in banjo instrumentals “French Waltz” and “Freight Train,” and also in “Jenny Get Around,” the latter in which Wilkes’ vocals achieve a relaxed calm in the whirlwind of banjo. Classic vocal harmonies with Wilkes and Barrier’s vocals entwining are again right on target in “Are You Missing Me”?
“Little Birdie” is an emotional performance, with Wilkes singing poignantly in subdued tones. It’s a highly emotionally real version, with more authentic tenderness in the vocals then you usually hear in versions like Pete Seeger’s or Roscoe Holcomb’s.
“Soldiers Joy” is a duet with fiddle player Jamie Barrier and it’ll transport you to a Kentucky music hall. “Tennessee Dog Attack” is amazing. It’s a original but you’ll swear it’s a throwback selection, a classic macabre bluegrass-style reality horror story. It’s no wonder a lyric from this is the album’s title. Similarly Wilkes’ version of the classic bluegrass murder ballad “Willow Garden” serves to hint at the emotional depth of the tale.
J.D. Wilkes is a storyteller at his core and a renowned crowd-pleasing performer. (For our earlier interview see here: Interview: J.D. Wilkes Opens Up About Folktales, Drama, and Memphis Style) But this record is a shift from either of those; it yields glimpses of true human frailty, resolve, and vulnerability amidst his adept energetic musical skills. See for yourself, here: