When Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers busted out of the blow-dried Nashville scene with their blistering 2002 debut Cockadoodledon’t, enamored critics were befuddled at how to categorize the band’s unique sound. Because these are nice southern boys, the band helped out by labeling it themselves: “Southern gothic rock ’n’ roll.” Critics responded with a resounding, “Yes, but…” and continuing scratching their soul-patches. A combustive mix of rootsy Appalachian hoedown, gut-bucket blues, polka beats, wild-west guitar and dark, folklore-based imagery—led by the vaudevillian tornado that is carnival-barking, harmonica chewing frontman “Colonel” J.D. Wilkes—the Shack*Shakers is more punk than punk and inherently uncategorizable.
Through word-of-gaping-mouth live reviews, the Shack*Shakers have also built a reputation for incredibly entertaining live shows. Jello Biafra called Wilkes “the last great rock ’n’ roll frontman” for good reason—his slithering kid-from-Deliverance-grew-up-to-be-Iggy-Pop shtick is inspired. Whether he’s preaching, cursing, talking to Jesus in the venue’s rafters, assaulting fellow band members—including stand-up bassist Mark Robertson and two Charleston, NC, boys, guitarist David Lee and new drummer Paulo—or blowing snot-rockets at kids in the crowd, this man was born to demolish a stage.
After a succinct but overwhelmingly successful European tour last spring—most memorable for their hero’s reception at a Bergen, Norway, music festival, where the papers raved five stars, the venues were packed, and the city’s mayor sported his very own Shack*Shakers T-shirt—the band’s notoriety reached an all-time high when Geico started using Cockadoodledon’t’s “CB Song” in one of their ubiquitous lizard-in-the-car ads. Riding this new source of income and exposure, the band returned to Europe for a proper month-long tour in September. We reached Wilkes in his hometown of Paducah, Kentucky—where he was visiting his folks and preparing for their European tour—to discuss their new album, Believe (due October 5 on Yep Roc Records), and upcoming stateside tour.
What can St. Louisans expect from a Shack*Shakers show?
Absolute brilliance. No. Lots of flop fluids and airborne dander from my vintage lederhosen.
What’s the worst reaction you’ve had from an audience?
I once had a lady get so offended about a supposedly sexist statement I had made on stage that she wrote Bloodshot Records an angry letter demanding that they, the label, reimburse her for the show. Other than that, we had a hall full of John Deere conventioneers chanting “faggot” because we weren’t the usual Elton John/Billy Joel piano-duo act they were expecting for their annual event. But that gig paid us well enough to finance the rest of the tour to New York City , whereupon we were wildly and enthusiastically received.
Has an audience member ever been injured at a show?
Hair has been pulled and clothes have been dowsed. But most of the injuries have been my own: blood spurting from my skull as a result of Mark throwing his bass at me…a broken toe…busted lips…
Have your folks seen the show?
Not as it is today. I wouldn’t want them to be privy to my primal scream therapy. It’d be like having them walk in on me during a bowel movement, or worse, if you know what I mean.
Believe’s ”Agony Wagon” sounds like the coolest, most rocking, old-school bar mitzvah band ever. What led to these more eclectic arrangements?
I really enjoy klezmer and polka music. I’m interested in drawing connections from American roots music to older forms of worldwide folk music. Polka gave us the two-beat heard in modern hillbilly music. And lyrically speaking, why not also draw similar comparisons from American folklore to more ancient archetypal stories? It’s a marriage of Southern Gothic and Brothers Grimm. I call it Black Forest Polka meets Agridustrial Punk.
Will the band be attempting to bring the newer, fuller arrangements to the stage?
Absolutely. We’re working on ways to play tractor engine samples to set the tone and tempo. It was an integral part of the making of the record. Instead of having the recording try to capture the live show, we’ll let the live show capture the studio experience.
When writing lyrics, do you prefer embellishing fact or creating fiction?
Embellishing fact, definitely. But not too much. I like to write in the tradition of the old murder ballads…most of which were true accounts passed down through the oral tradition of balladeering troubadours.
So was there a Pamela Bailey, or are the lyrics in “County of Graves ” fictional?
They’re true. Find out more about it at your local library. I’m Scott Baio.
Where did your unique onstage persona come from?
There’s a southern archetype of the flimflam man who jumps up on a soapbox and lets the audience have it, giving you a wink while he’s selling you something you don’t need. That kind of huckster’s always intrigued me. It’s just bluff, flimflam, and pure entertainment.
What’s a Kentucky Colonel?
It’s an honorary title given to you by the governor of Kentucky . Usually you’re nominated, in secret, by another Colonel. It’s a loose, honorable society of people related in some part to the goings on in Kentucky . I’m really pro-Kentucky, and I write a lot about Kentucky folklore in my songs. They typically give these titles to entertainers or people in some sort of spotlight…someone notable. It makes for good shtick.
How has the Geico ad helped?
It’s getting us a whole new fan base. Our star has risen, as they say, and we keep profiting off those royalties. It’s funding the band right now. It’s how we’re able to continue on, going back to Europe in September and touring the entire United States for three months this winter. It’s doing us really good. Right now we’re Bloodshot Records’ top-selling record.
Quitting your day jobs?
None of us have had day jobs for years. We’d rather be poor, and “going for it” than give in to the nine-to-five. No matter what it costs. That’s what being a Shack*Shaker is all about.
Th ’ Legendary Shack*Shakers appear October 21 at Off Broadway with The Silvermen.