Time for a little Southern history lesson with Th' Legendary Shack Shakers frontman, Col. J.D. Wilkes. While Wilkes may not look like your UCSD American history prof, he knows his Kentucky roots. The state governor even gave him his honorary "colonel" title for helping advance Kentucky art, history and culture.
"The title has its roots in a somewhat secret society back in the day," says Wilkes. "In the 1800s, it was the official guard of the governor. The whole goatee-and-string-tie stereotype comes from their uniforms."
It sounds as if Kentucky has the coolest governor in the world-bestowing such an honor on a guy who sings songs like "Where's the Devil...When You Need Him?" as he shakes and growls like a young Iggy Pop. The truth is that Wilkes and Col. Sanders aren't exactly the only Kentuckians to receive the honor.
"They hand the title out to lots of folk," he says. "I just play it up more than most folks do. If the governor could see what I'm doing at the shows, he might revoke my colonelhood, but that hasn't happened yet. And, ultimately, we are, with our songwriting, carrying on a tradition of Kentucky music."
That is true. The Shack Shakers are a compendium of traditional Kentucky music; in fact, their sound incorporates almost all of early America's music.
Wilkes didn't grow up listening to anything remotely Shack Shakerish. His mom was a piano teacher but mostly played gospel hymns and classical pieces. His dad had a great record collection of Muddy Waters and Chicago blues, but Wilkes didn't discover the music until his late teens. Once he did discover the blues, he quickly eschewed the MTV pop that assaulted all '80s kids and worked backward into bluegrass, rockabilly and string bands.
On the Shack Shakers' new album, Pandelerium, Wilkes digs even deeper. The music sounds like punk rock interpreted by Ukrainian gypsies. Wilkes says he's didn't go to Europe for the inspiration. He found it all here at home.
"Because we're a nation of immigrants, we have all these musical histories combining together, and I'm interested in rooting out the common denominators," he says. "You can put a Latin-sounding song next to a klezmer-sounding song next to a Willie Dixon hoedown song and you realize that they all have certain things in common.
"They're all minor-tuned, bouncy, two-beat songs with kind of an oompah to them. Listen to Johnny Cash's music and you'll hear a polka bounce to it. It's that boom-chica-boom-chica-boom thing he's famous for."
For a guy who's happy to give you a polite lecture intricately tracing the lineage of folk music in America, Wilkes does some strange shit with the influences he's gathered. The Johnny Cash, Willie Dixon and even the klezmer are evident on Pandelerium. But so is psychobilly surf rock. Wilkes jumpstarts the album's opening song, "Ichabod," with a Tom Waits-on-helium "Wipeout" laugh. Two songs later, on "No Such Thing," the oompah has turned to Oompa Loompa, evoking both Willie Dixon and Willy Wonka with a tune that's both timeless and puerile.
But it all seems to fit together on a single record. And live, the mishmash works even better. While Wilkes doesn't take the compliment too seriously, Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra has called him the last great rock 'n' roll frontman. It's another big honorary title, but one that's less likely to be revoked than his colonelhood.Th' Legendary Shack Shakers play at Brick by Brick on March 8. Doors open at 8 p.m. $8. 619-275-LIVE.