A lot of today’s Americana music sounds slick and formulaic, but throw on an album by the Legendary Shack Shakers (LSS) and the speakers will blast with true hillbilly music fueled by hellfire and whiskey. How many other Americana musicians can say their fans include horror master Stephen King and Dead Kennedy’s founding member Jello Biafra?
Just don’t call them rockabilly.
“That’s just what journalists, critics and people end up calling us because I have sideburns and there’s an upright bass,” says LSS singer and songwriter J.D. Wilkes in his Kentucky drawl. “The [original rockabilly musicians] don’t even sound like one another. They were playing country, hillbilly music and the blues. Just mashin’ it up.”
Mashing together different Midwestern influences is what the Legendary Shack Shakers have been doing for more than two decades. Wilkes’ lyrics are legendary tales that often draw upon Biblical themes, and stories of sorrow mixed with ideas as old as the mountains themselves. This Thursday, Feb. 16, LSS will rain their country-fried sound down on the Catalyst Atrium—and they’re no strangers to Santa Cruz.
“I love your artsy community and beautiful scenery,” Wilkes says. “I should learn more about your history while I’m there, too.”
Founded in 1995 in Kentucky, the band started out as more of a hobby between college friends, playing biker bars, juke joints and frat parties wherever they could.
“We ended up playing these shitty joints, making some money, which ended up paying for college,” says Wilkes.
The band quickly parted ways after moving to Nashville, but Wilkes was restless. He reformed the Legendary Shack Shakers with a different lineup, and in 2000 they hit the dirt-soaked roads of America and Europe. Bloodshot Records signed the band and released their label debut, a greasy, blues-filled 12-track album called Cockadoodle Don’t. To LLS’a surprise, their peers were listening.
“We got onto Bloodshot Records and toured with Hank III, the Reverend Horton Heat and all this kind of happened,” he says. “But it really took six or seven years before it was more than a hobby.”
Since then, LSS has become known throughout the country and rock worlds for its phenomenal playing and abrasive stage presence. The band has toured with everybody from the Black Keys and Robert Plant to punkers the Damned, and Rancid, with lots of lineup changes along the way.
“I’d say about 1,000 different changes,” says Wilkes with a laugh. “I’m kind of like John Mayall, I guess … but this lineup is my favorite of any of them, for real.”
In 2015, the Shakers released their eighth studio album, The Southern Surreal, on Alternative Records, but already have a new record cooking for release in April, called After You’ve Gone. Wilkes says they will be touring on the record’s new material “basically all year.”
Wilkes can be described as an American Renaissance man for modern times. Along with the Shakers, he also had a side project, the Dirt Daubers—later to become J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers—which released three albums between 2009 and 2013. More than just a musician, Wilkes is also a cartoonist, filmmaker, and—more recently—novelist. Later this March, his debut novel, The Vine That Ate The South, will be published.
Named after the kudzu vine, Wilkes describes the novel as an “epic like Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey” for modern times. Its characters find themselves wandering into an enchanted forest in search of a legendary house covered in the plant, supposedly hiding the bodies of victims inside. As the protagonists wander deeper into the tree, Wilkes sews colloquial folklore with modern times, bringing to life regional tales from his neck of the woods.
“There’s a lot of rhythm in the language,” he says. “It came naturally. Even though I’ve never written a novel before, every one of my songs are short stories anyway.”
Info: 8:30 p.m. Feb. 16, Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $15adv/$18door. 429-4135.