Music News

Th' Colonel of Cool

Colonel J.D. Wilkes is high-tailing it through Mississippi, drifting in and out of currents of reception as his 15-passenger van dips in and out of gullies on its way to Hattiesburg. That's where his band — known variously as The, Those, and Th' Legendary Shack Shakers — is set to baptize another stage with sweat and a whole lot of holy water. "It's funny," Wilkes laughs. "The thing I love most about the South is what's preventing us from talking."

Wilkes — who weighs about as much as your kid sister — is not a colonel, of course. His use of that title... well, it's just a Southern thing. And Wilkes is, if nothing else, Southern. The same thing goes for the rest of the Shack Shakers, who embrace Southern gothic the same way Faulkner embraced a bottle of gin. Murder ballads and funeral marches, Southern gospel and the blues, and even a manic mix of country and punk — sort of like snake water and hellfire — they deliver musical sermons up to 250 times a year, across the whole damned globe.

Born in Kentucky, Wilkes' family hop-scotched around the South during his childhood. He grew up in the church, raised by devout parents who had a hankering for the artistic too. But where Wilkes is from, there's quite a separation of church and art. Wilkes just happened to dig both, aesthetically, at least.

"The fire-and-brimstone preaching you get in some of those smaller churches, that was punk rock to me, in a way," Wilkes explains. "It was visceral, three-chord music and charisma, the same kind of things you get at a punk-rock show. But it had this weird kind of guilt-ridden angle to it that still haunts me to this day. It's something that sticks with you if you're brought up in it. You can't really ever get it out of your head."

Wilkes says he grew up in a musical house, but it was far from an MTV house. "It was only when I went away to college that I realized the music that wasn't championed in the '80s was what I was really drawn to," he says of his time at Murray State University's art school in Kentucky. "[I] like more traditional things. That Southern gospel music — the hymns we sung in church — they seemed to have more soul than anything I found on MTV."

By 2001, Wilkes had found enough like-minded souls around Nashville's Lower Broadway district, and together they christened themselves the Legendary Shack Shakers. It didn't take long for Wilkes' live performances, sort of like watching a singing epileptic (or maybe a possessed man), to become the talk of his South. Converts were being gained in every city they hit.

"If you're going to be trying to channel the spirit of the moment, the Holy Spirit, or something else — if you're playing American roots music, I should say — there has to be a sort of cathartic, charismatic element to your stage performance or else it isn't genuine. You're just singing about it. You're not being it," Wilkes says. "If you're just going to get up there like a folkie and strum your guitar and sing about the South or the Spirit or the gospel, you're just going to sound like Peter, Paul, and Mary — some sort of wistful, teary-eyed tribute.

"But if you're going to embody the music, you really need to lose yourself. It can't be self-conscious. It has to be from the hips down, not the shoulders up."

Wilkes grew up Southern Baptist, which explains a lot of his holy-roller rhetoric. But he knows he could never go back to the church; it's changed too much for him. There's too much hand-clapping now in order to expand their flock. "It seems to me, when people were afraid of the fires of hell, they were a little better behaved," he says. But the thing is, while Wilkes is philosophical about the social value of a religious force that instills fear into the populace, he doesn't seem to include himself in that same populace. In other words, Wilkes laments the loss of a way of life that the person he's become could never entirely fit into.

The Shack Shakers music laments this loss too. Their songs always have an Aesopian caveat at their conclusion, a little warning about what is disappearing. Then again, maybe it's not all a tragic loss.

"I've been witness to complete flailing in the Spirit Pentecostal style, speaking in tongues, laying of the hands. I even walked in on an exorcism once," Wilkes says. He describes that exorcism as "five horny deacons" trying to draw the devil out of some girl "who was probably just on the rag."

The colonel might love his South the way those five deacons in Kentucky might love little girls. But not all that is past should be resurrected, musical or religious. Sometimes, it's better left in the hands of someone like Wilkes and his Shack Shakers to simply help us remember, for better or worse.

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Cole Haddon