“Anywhere you can think of, there’s something interesting about it if you delve into it and you dig a little deeper,” says Colonel J.D. Wilkes. “It’s always good to have a sense of place in your artwork and in your music—that’s where that can be expressed the best.”
As the legendary frontman and founder of punk-blues/psychobilly powerhouse The Legendary Shack Shakers—which broke up in 2012—and his current band, The Dirt Daubers, Wilkes paints a grinning portrait of the South with blood, swamp slime, moonshine and holy water that lives and breathes with colorful history. On the Dirt Daubers’ most recent full-length album, Wild Moon—released in September 2013—as well as in Wilkes’ recent book, Barn Dances & Jamborees Across Kentucky, he continues to explore the cultural mythos of his home state of Kentucky.
“That’s always been my thing, writing about the folklore and stories and old-time traditions of where I come from,” Wilkes says, who lives in Paducah, Ky., and is also an accomplished visual artist and filmmaker.
The Dirt Daubers—named for a type of wasp that builds pipe-organ-like nests under eaves in the South—formed in 2009 as a roots-music-influenced “acoustic antidote,” Wilkes says, to the punk-rock fire of the Shack Shakers. “The Shack Shakers are over the top; everything’s set to 11,” he says. “There’s a lot more grab-assing. It’s just very full-contact, double-kick drums, loud.”
Featured on Wild Moon, however, is a new direction for The Dirt Daubers. They’ve ditched their acoustic-only approach for a new plugged-in sound that combines Wilkes’ triple threat of gravelly vocals, wailing harmonica and twangy banjo with electric guitar by Shack Shaker Rod Hamdallah and thumping stand-up bass and brassy vocals by Wilkes’ wife, Jessica, who provides an ear-catching foil to his howls and contributed several of her own songs to the tracklist. Blending rockabilly, R&B, country and jump blues, The Dirt Daubers have “a lot more sonic variety,” Wilkes says, than the Shack Shakers.
But the two bands’ styles aren’t entirely divorced: Blessedly, two key elements carried over from the Shakers to the Daubers. First, The Dirt Daubers’ knack for conjuring minor-key darkness, a staple of The Legendary Shack Shakers’ music, pervades Wild Moon. When Wilkes gave the completed album its first listen, he says, he was “struck by how dark it is, and I wasn’t really expecting that at the time. It’s not evil dark; it’s just an odd, bittersweet sort of gothic quality.”
Second, Wild Moon is full of Wilkes’ trademark twisted, tongue-in-cheek sense of storytelling, with references to hellfire religion, backwoods weirdness and, on the title track, a local tragedy. The inspiration for the blues-soaked “Wild Moon,” which Wilkes describes as a “modern-day death ballad,” was one of “those local stories that I tend to write about, about an Amish buggy that got swept into a creek and the babies died and then there was a big controversy.”
But nowhere is Wilkes’ love of the unique identity of Kentucky more evident than in his book Barn Dances & Jamborees Across Kentucky, released in October 2013. A beautiful tribute to the people—most born during the Depression/World War II era—who helped create the state’s musical culture, the book includes interviews with several influential musicians who were integral to the genres of bluegrass and country music. It’s also a roadmap to informal oprys, square dances, jamborees and other music-centered community events throughout Kentucky, where many of these “old-timers” still showcase their chops.
Wilkes says the book is a “valentine to Kentucky, Kentucky music and, really, a generation that’s fading away that really lived through those hard times that the music was born out of originally.”
It’s important to seek out indigenous music everywhere, Wilkes says, which will always thrive as a “natural reaction to pop culture and its dehumanizing effects.
“Stuff that exists in the underground has the tendency to be more pure—and I don’t mean stylistically, just pure in intention and motivation,” Wilkes says. “And it’s music as a necessity to live.”
J. D. WILKES & THE DIRT DAUBERS
w/Ugly Valley Boys
The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East
Thursday, Jan. 30, 9 p.m.
$8 in advance, $10 day of show
Limited no-fee tickets available at CityWeeklyStore.com