by Jane Roser
On November 13th, I attended a concert at DC9, located in our nation’s capitol. My friend, Nashville musician Adrian Krygowski, was opening for Kentucky based blues/rockabilly/bluegrass band J.D. Wilkes And The Dirt Daubers and man, did everyone dance their asses off. The show was fun, animated and full of energy. Frontman Wilkes kept the audience entertained with catchy lyrics he, at times, sung through a harp mic. He made sock puppets with his shirt, handed out bottled water to the audience, did a pseudo Snoopy dance and finally, ripped off his button down shirt at the show’s climax. I felt like I was attending one of the hoedowns that Wilkes describes visiting in his book Barn Dances And Jamborees Across Kentucky. It was, in a word, electrifying.
Wilkes hails from Texas originally, but has settled down in Paducah, Kentucky with his wife, the charming and sultry-voiced fellow Dirt Dauber, Jessica Wilkes. Probably best known as the founder and frontman of the popular band The Legendary Shack Shakers, Wilkes is a renaissance man through and through. He is an author, artist, musician, songwriter, honorary Colonel (“it just came in the mail one day”) and filmmaker, just to name a few of his many talents. Wilkes has toured with such legends as Merle Haggard, the Reverend Horton Heat, Hank Williams III and contributed the song “Swampblood” to the Grammy nominated True Blood soundtrack. “The music director was a fan of The Shack Shakers,” says Wilkes, “and that show was perfect for our music- creepy folklore in the south. How could we NOT be on it?”
When his documentary Seven Signs, which illustrates the music, myth and traditions of the American South was to be screened in London, Wilkes asked his wife to accompany him and perform a short set at the festival. “That was our first gig,” recalls Jessica, “he asked if I’d play with him and I said no. I wasn’t a performer and only knew a few songs.” But Wilkes convinced her to go. “We played and it went well. There were about 20 people in the audience, including Les Claypool [of Primus].”
Claypool encouraged them to keep performing. “It’s come a long way,” says Wilkes, “with the Shack Shakers, we were playing punk music and it was wearing me out. I liked playing acoustic music, it was the antidote to the Shack Shakers, so we approached our booking agent and asked if she would mind booking The Dirt Daubers for some shows, too. We had this idea to change the genre somewhat, at that point, and to incorporate a little bit of the Shack Shakers side of things, as well as the R&B and blues that Jessica likes to play and meld it together into a new band. It’s a variety show. I play the banjo, harmonica and upright bass when she’s singing and she plays the bass when I’m singing. It’s like musical chairs.”
Wilkes grew up encouraged by his family to play music. His grandpa gave him his first harmonica and his mother was a piano teacher. “She would play classical music, showtunes, gospel hymns, so it was a mix of her repertoire and singing in church [that inspired me]. The lyrics that I write are more inspired by our family get-togethers, but church music and religion are real strong in my family. So I’ve been dealing with that for the past 40 years, ” he adds whimsically.
Wilkes started out playing harmonica and took piano lessons from his mom, “but I stopped because I was sick of reading notes off a piece of paper. I wanted to play what I felt, so I just ended up teaching myself to play blues scale. I really took to blues and bluegrass and more intense southern music, as well as old gospel music. Blues is really just a secular version of gospel music. As a teenager, I played as much music as I possibly could. I played a lot of crappy bar gigs and honky tonks. I played everything from a gay bar to a prison before I turned 20.”
Jessica, on the other hand, had a little formal training when she was growing up, but didn’t truly become serious about learning music until she married Wilkes. “I started playing the tenor banjo and he would show me a few chords at a time. He learns by ear and not by reading music, which made so much sense to me. I didn’t realize you could do that, I was so by the rules. I thought if you didn’t sit down and read music, then you couldn’t play it and J.D would say “No! What songs do you like? Okay, well, that song goes like this.” I caught on fast.”
But what in the heck is a dirt dauber, you ask? “It’s a southern term for a type of wasp,” says Wilkes, “a lot of my lyrics involve many Southernisms, so it’s just one of those illustrative names. But it kind of baffles Yankees at times.”
The Dirt Daubers most recent album, Wild Moon, also showcases percussionist Preston Corn and guitarist Rod Hamdallah and includes some funky, catchy tunes, such as the addictive ‘Hidey Hole’ and the rockabilly tinged ‘Apples And Oranges’ (“I’m gettin’ tired of the sorrow and strife. I’m takin’ my debt to the afterlife.”). Jessica also sings a hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking ballad called ‘No More My Love.’
“That was one of the hardest songs for me. I’m still new to singing and I get very nervous in a studio setting because it’s very sterile. It’s just your voice with no treatment, no echo and this song is slow, so I felt very vulnerable. Everything that you hear on that song is me truly struggling to get through it on so many levels, both emotionally and technically. But I felt it when I sang it, it’s honest, and I hope that comes across.” Considering that I compared that song to listening to Etta James the first time I ever heard it, I would say she hit the mark dead on. “We all just play what we feel,” Jessica notes, “and what we may lack in technical ability, we make up for with heart.”
At this time, the “five minutes before showtime!” call comes, but before we wrap up, I ask Wilkes about his recently published book, Barn Dances And Jamborees Across Kentucky. “Over the years I’ve been to these events; they would be held in barns, cinder block buildings, gazebos, anywhere people can get together and pick and they do it for the love of the music, the culture and the tradition rather than for the money. There’s something refreshing about that. It’s not about festivals, it’s about old time get-togethers, square dances, cake walks, pickin’ parties. A jamboree could be any kind of music making merriment. The book is a Valentine to Kentucky culture and music, but it’s also a sort of warning that we need to embrace and celebrate these traditions while our grandparents are still alive and learn these old tunes so we can keep them going for future generations.”
Reading Wilkes book, I came across a gloriously poignant dedication written to his family that is also sent out to “everyone in Kentucky who is keeping alive the old traditions that set us apart from a world gone mad.” I’ll drink to that.