J. D. Wilkes inteview (photo: Joshua Black Williams)
photo by Melissa Clarke
Although not a professor, J.D. Wilkes can teach you a thing or two about the history of music. His passion for the art form, regardless of genre, is apparent in the way that he places its importance and pervasiveness on a pedestal. On the latest Legendary Shack Shakers album, Cockadoodledeux, he and his bandmates—both past and present—explore the evolution of country-and-Western while making creative pit stops at the many sub-genres it has spawned along the way.
Cockadoodledeux is available now on Alternative Tentacles.
I recently sat down with Wilkes to discuss rekindling with past creations, opening up the yearbook, and getting the band back together.
AH: What is it like to be back out on the road? What did you miss that you didn’t even know you would miss?
J.D. Wilkes: I don’t know if I missed it that much. (Laughter) No, I’m kidding.
I don’t know, just the daily catharsis therapy. You can do that at home, I guess—sit on the couch—but you just end up zoning out. There’s no real point to it other than just kind of piddling, and this puts purpose to it, tightens you up, makes you better and gives you a sense of variety instead of monotony.
AH: Twenty-five years of music is an impressive feat. What would young J.D. think of himself one day having this entire catalog of songs?
Wilkes: Well, I guess I just figured it would be an inevitability because I never planned on not doing it. But, looking back, I’m proud of about 60 % of it, I guess. Some of it is kind of crap though.
AH: Are you to the point where you have forgotten some of the songs that have come out of you?
Wilkes: Yeah. There’s a ton of stuff. I was trying to compile all the lyrics of everything I’ve ever written, and I keep forgetting entire records worth of ones I just forgot. I go, “Man, that’s a lot of typing,” and I would just kind of give up. But yeah, you’re right there is a lot there. It’s very verbose—a lot of them—little story songs. Long story songs. Wordy. I’m still going to try to put that out one day.
But yeah, it’s just a lot of material there and I’ve got to keep working on it.
AH: At some point it must be like running into someone you went to high school with, but you forget their name. You know who they are, but you don’t necessarily remember the details.
Wilkes: Yeah. That’s how I am with my own records. “Oh yeah, there’s that record I made once!” But, side projects, I’m including them too, like dirt divers and solo records and things like that. Anything I wrote that I’m proud of, I’m including in this thing. And, it is weird to go back and say, “Oh yeah. I remember where I was sitting,” or “I remember what was happening,” or “That day I woke up with that riff in my head.” That is neat. It’s like memory lane and instant recall, really, in a lot of cases.
AH: They’re like yearbooks of your life.
Wilkes: That’s right. That’s a good way of putting it.
AH: The new album plays in the country sandbox, but what I don’t think a lot of people realize is just how diverse of a sandbox that is. In Cockadoodledeux, you touch on many of those individual sand grains.
Wilkes: Well, you’re talking about eras of time and areas of the country set over time and different ethnicities and regionalisms, like Cajun and Appalachian music and Tex-Mex—different pockets of culture that evolve and go underground, come back again and morph into one another. Yeah, it’s like the melting pot that the country is. That’s the real, let me call it, assimilation or multicultural thing that exists in music and art and cuisine and stuff like that. Even the past, when laws would probably prevent it, it’s happened anyway. We all benefit from that phenomenon.
AH: And, what’s so amazing about that is, you put something on for somebody that they haven’t heard before, a sub-genre—whatever it is—and they can still connect to it without having any sort of preconceived notions about it. It is still, at its core, music.
Wilkes: Oh yeah. Well, it’s human music. It’s kind of breaking it down. When the polka hit the Mexican music in Texas for the Czechs and the Germans, they came over with accordions. They had the oompah in common, because it’s sort of primal human music and it really shows the commonality of just the basic human bio rhythms and the tradition of dancing and joy. But, you see that in all kinds of other examples too. Like, Native American music had a pentatonic scale, as did Irish music. So, all of this has some sort of a real primitive kind of origin that’s anthropological almost. Everybody is kind of resonating on the same frequency, back when people used to do that. And, I think pop culture and technology kind of dehumanizes away from that over time. Different things working on this now, unfortunately.
AH: Do you think it is important to know the history of music in order to shape where it’s going in the future?
Wilkes: Well, I don’t think you’d need to commit to memory dates and names. I think you should just acquaint yourself with the humanity and all kinds of music and just know where it comes from. That’s just being responsible. But, I think just for the betterment of one’s soul, you would want to hear good music from all over the world—world music or the variety of American music, because that is comprised of world music, because we all come from different places. You only stand to benefit from treating yourself with that. And, it sounds good. It makes you want to dance and it puts a smile on your face, or it breaks your heart in a good way. These are human emotions that are right there that anyone can hear if they cared to get away from the constant identity signaling of these marketed, fake styles. Like, identity anthems that the mall sells you. The mall culture or the pop culture, because all that just seems exhausting to me. Wouldn’t you want to come up for air and get back in touch with your soul?
AH: We can’t get to the point where we let algorithms decide what we’re listening to all of the time. History should teach us that, like you said earlier, music will find people. We’ve just got to put it out into the world.
Wilkes: Yes. You have to open yourself up. Open yourself up to those universal, vital rhythms. That humanity that’s lying dormant because we’ve been bombarded by commercialism. But, you have to also kind of close yourself off to the commercialism to hear it.. You have to kind of make a vow that you’re going to edit what you can hear, but not in a way that it’s like a diet that’s no fun. It’s just, you hear it, and if you find your toe tapping to it, or you find yourself enjoying something, don’t worry if it’s cool or not. That’s for you. That has found you and you have found it, and that’s a great thing.
AH: When you set out to make Cockadoodledeux, did you purposely look to touch on all of these various sub-genres?
Wilkes: Well, I knew myself to not be one to be content to just put a rockabilly record out. Even though I’ve tried, I always end up like, “Let’s do something else,” because I don’t want it to sound samey-samey, same tempo, time signature, the walking baselines. I know already that I’m not going to be able to put myself on a diet when it comes to this variety show. I’m just going to want to explore it all, because I love it all, and I end up doing myself a disservice professionally because no one knows what I’m doing. I don’t have this identity I’m marketing of myself that’s just one thing. But, I’d rather suffer the consequences of that and stay fascinated.
And, I know there’s this musical ADHD that I have and it’s just going to happen. I want to do a Cal-punk song and a spaghetti Western song and a bluegrass tune and a Western swing and a Bakersfield. I want to try my hand at all of that just because it’s like wearing different costumes or hats—kind of a changing characters. And, all these records have a cinematic quality, where it’s different little stories and it moves along in four dimensions, and then hopefully has an arc to it. So, little soundtracks is what I’m really writing, I think.
AH: Well, and what’s so great about this particular soundtrack is that you brought in a lot of your past filmmakers to work with again. What did those initial calls sound like. Did it bring about any sort of nostalgic feelings for you with the band’s history?
Wilkes: Yes. In fact, the original Shack Shakers from the ‘90s came in and we recorded with the new guys as kind of a perfect symbol of what we were going for with the connection with the old records and Cockadoodlededon’t. Really, it’s a bookend to Hunkerdown in a lot of ways, because that version of the band has a lot of rockabilly in Western swing, but no one knows that record. More of our fans know Cockadoodlededon’t, that’s when we debuted really as a touring act with Hank Williams III and were on Bloodshot. All that happened kind of overnight. So, that’s kind of hit harder. But, we had already made two records before that, under the name the Shack Shakers, but it was different guys. And so, bringing everyone together like the new and the old together, it was like a family reunion. And, I was amazed.
After that, we did some retro lineup shows at Muddy Roots and a few other festivals. The original lineup guys just let the new guys stay home and take a breather. And, we did like four or five original ‘90s era Shack Shaker shows, and it was like starting a car. It was like we were back in time. Basically, it was like no time had passed at all. We still do those tunes, but it was a different set list back then, and yet, it came back again with an instant recall.
AH: We already mentioned that the albums are like yearbooks to your life, but here you are living in those yearbooks in real time.
Wilkes: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s like a school reunion, a class reunion, but all these different classes and different years. And, bringing in Chris Scruggs, who was a teenager when he played with us and now he’s the guy to get if you’re doing a traditional country record in Nashville. If you want a steel guitar, you bring him. Which at the time, he didn’t even play steel guitar, but he’s a genius. He could play everything.
He won’t touch a banjo though. I find that interesting.
AH: Well, as somebody who is a student of music like yourself, you must be able to take something from each of these guys in a different way, that maybe somebody else wouldn’t. You must admire things about them that an audience member doesn’t always see.
Wilkes: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Well, I know them all personally. We’ve had long talks and long drives. They’re all friends—that’s a common denominator, a lot of the times. And, they all are my teachers. I’ve always kind of saw myself as like a, John Mayall of rockabilly in a way, hosting people through this band like his Bluesbreakers. I will adapt to the band, to their strengths, and their strengths rub off on me in some ways. I observe what works about the way they play. And, that’s all informative for me as a performer and a musician. So, I’ve learned all this by befriending these guys and kind of observing what they’re good at and why is it good, and can I do that? So, I can improve each time.
AH: You had mentioned that you have a sort of musical ADHD. Coming from an album like this, which was more focused on one macro genre, does it make you want to do something completely different the next time out?
Wilkes: Yeah. I’ve got a bunch of weird ideas of what I want to do next. I don’t know how much anyone’s going to want to put them out. (Laughter) They’re pretty art damaged. But, I would love to do a jazz record. I would like to try to get better at that. I’ve always booked the gig, then learned how to play. I’m one of those guys who just dives in. So, that’s what we’ve been doing, kind of learning on the spot—a lot of these American standards and classic Tin Pan Alley tunes. So, that would be a neat record to put out. But again, I would probably end up making that a varied variety-thing too.
Cockadoodledeux is available now on Alternative Tentacles. View tour dates here.
photo by Melissa Clarke