J.D. Wilkes, Legendary Shack Shakers Front Man, Stays Experimental On Solo Debut ‘Fire Dream’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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J.D. Wilkes has always been an experimentalist.  True to form, this, his solo debut, Fire Dream, doesn’t easily fit into any one genre of music. There is just too much going on. It’s as if Tom Waits was held prisoner by a bunch of hillbillies insisting he blends his own vintage vaudeville type jazz with their kind of music. That’s an easy way to describe this but it fails to completely do justice to the eclectic mix of material. Perhaps the presence of members of these three bands: Squirrel Nut Zippers, Drive-By Truckers and The Bo-Keys gives a better indication of the range of styles.

Besides leading his band for the past two decades, Wilkes is a visual artist, filmmaker and author. He has been a session player for Merle Haggard helped soundtrack HBO’s True Blood, written two books, and worked as an ethnomusicologist, documenting the dying hillbilly culture of Kentucky. Wilkes is a native of Paducah, Kentucky, a city on the western border of the state having more in common with Memphis and Mississippi River cities than Appalachia, but an area that somehow nurtured mountain music as well as blues and jazz.

This outing is not an effort to recapture old folk music or field recordings, however. This is truly a mashup of styles and sounds, as Wilkes plays banjo, harmonica, piano, percussion, and even an old hurdy-gurdy. Kindred spirits Jimbo Mathus adds guitar and Dr. Sick, both from the ever-zany Squirrel Nut Zippers, plays a variety of instruments. Bassist Matt Patton from The Drive-By Truckers, soul singer Liz Brasher, and horns from The Bo-Keys complement the line-up.

Wilkes offers some insightful commentary on several of the tunes. The opening and title track seems to be something you’d hear in the opening score of an old movie. Wilkes says, “It sounds as if a gypsy carnival blew in on a tornado and landed in a hillbilly junkyard.  I tried to pay attention to the texture of the songs, both what was in them and how they connected to each other, and the record as a whole.”   On the horn-drenched “Down in the Hidey Hole” he comments, “Basically, it’s about hunkering down in a bomb shelter with your lady to ride out the end of the world.  It’s happy, upbeat music…but with an ominous edge. That’s what I love about people like Hank Williams; they had great danceable tunes with a dark story at their core.”

There are string rambles, slow-burning ballads and plenty of humor as found in tunes like “Hoboes Are My Heroes” and “Bible, Candle and a Skull.” Listen for the music itself and then devote a separate listen or two to appreciate the lyrics and stories. As Wilkes says, “A song is like a puzzle, you have to feel around and see how the words fit.”  

Although Wilkes has built a reputation as an acrobatic showman fronting his band, the Legendary Shack Shakers, he sees the upcoming tour for this record differently. “I’ll still want to entertain, it might just be more with my eyes and voice than my body.  There’s a lot of stories and a lot of mysteries being revealed in these songs and provides its own kind of animation.  That’s what love about this record and this music…it moves.”  Give Wilkes credit.  His outlook is both refreshing and inventive.

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