Posted June 24, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

JD Wilkes: Kentucky Colonel & Renaissance Man

Dirt Daubers
Dirt Daubers

Singer-guitarist JD Wilkes explores rockabilly and blues with his band the Legendary Shack Shakers. With the Dirt Daubers, a band that features his wife Jessica on bass and vocals, he goes for something a bit grittier. Last year’s Wild Moon is a terrific collection of tunes that touch upon his Southern Gothic interests. Wilkes, who is a Kentucky Colonel, recently met author/actor/playwright and Deputy Lord Mayor Gerard Mannix Flynn at the Mansion House in Dublin where the two exchanged gifts as part of a UNESCO-sponsored reception. Wilkes phoned us from his Paducah, Kentucky home to talk about the upcoming tour. And yes, we had to ask him about that whole cultural exchange thing too.

Tell me what it’s like to be a Kentucky Colonel?
Well, it doesn’t entail any responsibility, but recently it seems like I’m putting it to more use than normal. You’re nominated in secret if you’ve done something that in some way reflects positively on the state of Kentucky. I guess my music and art qualified me. Once you get it, it’s a neat certificate to hang on the wall but now what do you do? I have donated to the charity that’s involved. Other than that, it’s a neat thing to talk about in interviews.

And you recently went to Ireland on a cultural exchange program?
But the city of Paducah has tapped me to represent them abroad in Dublin, Ireland, which is a UNESCO sister city of the arts. Since I was going over there to tour, they equipped me with a gift bag to give to the Lord Mayor of Dublin. That was a very prestigious event with cameras and coffee and a formal meeting with the Deputy Lord Mayor who’s an author and friend of Bono from U2 and an actor. He happens to be vice mayor of Dublin. I did the whole bit. We had a formal exchange of gifts from one city to another. I brought them back to give my mayor. It’s neat that I go to don the full suit and string tie and work as an acting Kentucky Colonel. That’s not typical, though. It just happened recently and Paducah was accepted as part of UNESCO, some highfalutin organization. It’s pretty cool.

You had a book that you gave them?
I did. Because Dublin is a city of literature — that’s their designation under UNESCO — and we’re a city of craft and folk art, we presented them with books and a small quilt. Paducah is the quilt capital of the world. We had a nice conservation about how quilting came from Ireland. Kentucky and Ireland have a lot in common with the whiskey and the bluegrass of the Emerald Isle colored by the the same strata that goes under the Atlantic Ocean to Kentucky. We’re physically and geologically the same.

You formed the Dirt Daubers in 2009 with your wife. How is the group different from the Legendary Shack Shakers?
The fact that I’m doing it with my wife is radically different. That makes everything radically different. Now we’re jumping genres and got into rock ‘n’ roll by going electric, though we still have some string stuff in the set to represent that era. The Dirt Daubers can be whatever the two us come up with. The Shack Shakers is the theatrical, over the-top band that goes for the jugular. We tend to be more traditional unless she tells me otherwise.

I love the Wild Moon songs that Jessica sings. Did you know she could sing like that?
No. When we first got married, she never said a word about it. I had to coax her to get on stage to do it. I knew she had it in her. Everyone needs an outlet and I encouraged her to find it. She found it alright. She works in these R&B colorations. I’m really proud of her. She’s come a long way. To go from singing the Carter Family to Etta James, that’s a great leap.

Your last album came out on Plowboy Records, the label owned by Cheetah Chrome. How’d you end up meeting Cheetah?
He’s one of the main guys there at Plowboy. He moved to Nashville a while back and got in with Shannon Pollard. They want it to represent the insurgent side of the Nashville music scene. I’m not really a punk rocker but people like to put me in that world. It would make sense that he would helm the project. It was just all in the family.

He produced the album, too.
Yeah. He produced it and Shannon Pollard, who’s the grandson of Eddy Arnold, is the president of Plowboy and he was aware of who I was.

They’re going for that edgier side of country and rock ’n’ roll. It’s the sound of Nashville that doesn’t get exported as much as the cheese does.

What about Paducah? Is there a thriving music scene there?
There always has been a gospel, bluegrass and punk scene here. A few big names are out of here. Historically, I could go way back to Rockin’ Ray Smith who was on Sun Records. Boots Randolph is from here. We have a modern Christian acts that come out of here. They aren’t as interesting to me, but they are platinum sellers. We have this hillbilly rockabilly scene that we helped get started in the ‘90s. It’s caught on. There’s a lot of bluegrass royalty. It was born in Western Kentucky, so it makes sense that our hotshot players would come from this side of the state. Everyone associates it with Eastern Kentucky but that’s where the mountain music came from. It had to mix with the blues from the rivers on the western side to become bluegrass. We just put on a square dance. It’s the kind of stuff you can imagine from a place called Paducah, Kentucky. I’m all about it. The rest of the people might think it’s cornpone but it’s our history and our culture. The BBC was in town. I invited them to film the square dance. We’ll be part of a Jools Holland-produced documentary on Southern music. We got Paducah some facetime on that.

Your music seems to have a punk rock spirit to it. Is that accurate?
Only in the sense that if you go back and listen to how people learn to play from the gut. Bluegrass and roots music has become very cerebral and precious in modern times. It’s gotten competitive and there’s free time to sink into practicing. Back in the day, it was ornery and full of fire. I think if anything, the reason why so many aging punk rockers getting into blues and roots music is because there’s room to interpret it that way. That’s the way old-time music sounded. It had fire in its belly. Punk rock puts it back in whereas the academics that pick apart roots music have taken the fun out of it. They’re counting the steps in their head. Are they really having fun? The music tries to put that fire back in where it’s visceral and fun and if you mess up, it’s cool that you messed up. No one cares.

In punk rock, if you broke a sweat and looked silly, no one cares. That’s the spirit that needs to be injected back into roots music.

How’d you first learn to play harmonica?
I was about 15 years old and my grandfather gave me my first harmonica. I learned from a book and a tape. Originally it was  “Oh Susanna” and “Suwannee River” and Stephen Foster tunes. I started listing to my dad’s Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins records. I started absorbing blues and listing to Little Walter and Junior Wells and Sonny Boy Williamson and all those guys. The harmonica was the thing I could take with me to practice. Even when I was going to school and going to college, I practiced a lot. In my teenage years, I would put bands together. The Shack Shakers got their start in Murray, Kentucky, where I went to college. We all moved to Nashville and the rest is history. We just kept going with it.

Is there a new Dirt Daubers album in the works?
The Dirt Daubers will tour up to the Muddy Roots Festival. The Shack Shakers will take over for the rest of the year and maybe have a new record come out next year. The Dirt Daubers will go on the backburner. Next year marks our 20th anniversary. I count those early years. The name was born back then.

Are you writing books on the side?
I did the book on Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky. We just had a book signing. I’ve done book signings in Tennessee too. But I’m finding that people in other states are interested as well. We sell them online and there’s even an e-book form.

Sounds like you keep plenty busy.
You gotta do something in Paducah. It’s a sleepy little town. I’m a history buff and I love the culture and Southerness and weird folklore. If you get into that stuff, you stay entertained and intrigued. It’s a better way to pass the time than watching TV.

 Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates 

Wed, June 25

Thurs, June 26

Fri, June 27

Sat, June 28

Sun, June 29

Atwoods Tavern, Cambridge, MA

Café Nine, New Haven, CT

Xerox Rochester Int’l Jazz Fest. Rochester, NY

Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, ON

Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, OH


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected]