Taking in one of the Legendary Shack Shakers’ thrilling, sometimes terrifying, live performances is akin to witnessing a gospel revival or even a snake-handling ceremony. And for good reason: the Kentucky band’s magnetic leader, vocalist and harmonica maven J.D. Wilkes spent his formative years at a charismatic religious school, where he became obsessed with the rituals he encountered, from speaking in tongues to laying of hands.
“I walked in on an exorcism once in school — something a kid should never have to do. But there was great music and a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It was their punk rock show for God,” Wilkes says, seated backstage at historic Nashville club Exit/In prior to a Shack Shakers gig. He’s utterly calm and shockingly normal pre-show, in stark contrast to the dervish he’ll become when the lights go down. “They were channeling something [in their ceremonies] and when you’re onstage, you have to be channeling something. Maybe it’s the id, maybe it’s a demon, maybe it’s an angel, maybe it’s the Holy Spirit. . . I don’t know. But they call it the ‘collective effervescence.'”
Wilkes is fascinated by such phenomena, along with all forms of American folklore and mythology. On the Legendary Shack Shakers’ new album The Southern Surreal, the group’s first in five years, he further dives into the abyss. The record, released September 11th via Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles Records, is a collection of country, blues and rockabilly, all of it held together by bits of eerie, atmospheric sounds Wilkes recorded himself like a modern-day Lomax brother. One of the album’s tracks is titled “Cow Tools.”
“Some of it is found on shortwave radio and CB radio. Our bodies are being penetrated by radio signals all the time. It’s hilarious to think that it’s truck drivers and radio preachers, and their voices are traveling through our bodies right now,” Wilkes says.
The result is an Americana gothic concept album, full of shadowy glimpses into a counterculture South, where Mothman sightings are common and legends run wild. “Even if it’s all made up, it’s still so cool that people came up with this stuff. I don’t want that to ever go away,” he says. “Everybody is tied to their cell phones now, and memes and jokes and TMZ. I don’t want us to get too distracted from our own mythology, folklore and stories.”
One of The Southern Surreal‘s standouts is “The One That Got Away,” a song that Wilkes says came to him in a dream. Upon waking, he sang the melody into his phone and, inspired by George Jones’ “The Grand Tour,” penned lyrics about an abandoned home. (Listen to the song below.)
“It’s about going back and revisiting a place you once shared with someone, having regrets, and looking in the window and seeing all the little reminders of the home you used to love,” he says.
The strangest “song” on the album, however, is “The Dog Was Dead,” a spoken-word performance from Billy Bob Thornton that will leave PETA supporters shuddering. A longtime fan of the band, Thornton looked to his past working on a road crew to inspire his recording.
“J.D. asked if I had any Southern gothic kind of stories, and I said, ‘Are you shitting me? That’s all I’ve got,'” Thornton, who released his own album Somewhere Down the Road with the Boxmasters earlier this year, tells Rolling Stone Country. “I was just going through some of the stories I thought I could tell, ’cause I’ve led a pretty eclectic life. And that one popped into my head because it was something I could tell in a short period of time and I could become that guy.”
Ultimately, it’s a song about mercy, says Wilkes, who bonded with Thornton over their love of concept albums and obscure novels. “He’s a real student of the Southern gothic mystique, and he runs real deep with all of that,” Wilkes says.
“The Shack Shakers are great, just playing psychobilly or whatever they’re doing,” says Thornton, describing the band’s appeal. “I think J.D. is one of those genius guys who has only been discovered by a smaller audience. But that makes sense, because a broader audience doesn’t really go in for anything different. I love the fact that he’s experimental. He’s a very creative cat.”
Thornton isn’t the only big-name believer in the Legendary Shack Shakers, which is rounded out by bassist Mark Robertson, guitarist Rod Hamdallah and drummer Brett Whitacre. Robert Plant once hand-picked the group to tour with him in Europe. According to Wilkes, the experience was like traveling with Batman. “Hours before the show we’d be in the commissary or the kitchen eating like French baked duck and all of a sudden, like Batman, he’d appear behind us,” he says. “He’d show up and start talking about old rockabilly bands, old blues guys, and he always stumped us. He was an encyclopedia of blues, country and anything obscure. But after a few minutes, we’d turn around and he’d be gone. He’d disappear back into the shadow.”
The Legendary Shack Shakers will perform at next week’s Americana Music Festival in Nashville before embarking on a lengthy West Coast run.