It’s surprising how much attention a band can get for playing the music they love.
Nashville’s Legendary Shack Shakers are no strangers to this. The southern gothic rockabilly act goes above and beyond much of those genres to throw down their captivating version of hillbilly blues-rock. Over the years, the band has received their own cult status, pleasing the right people at the right time. New Times spoke with frontman JD Wilkes about the band, their music and its reception, and he related the story of the first time rock royalty took notice. Apparently, Robert Plant’s fascination with the Shack Shakers resulted in them being hand-picked to head overseas with him.
“Touring the fanciest theaters of Europe and chatting with ol' ‘Percy’ every night about obscure rockabilly and blues guys was, well... exhilarating,” Wilkes says.
Not surprising Plant would dig the group. The band, after all, constantly seeks to electrify rockabilly in ways that make the genre extreme. Perhaps this explains why a wide variety of well-known bands, The Reverend Horton Heat, Jello Biafra, Hank Williams III, The Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison, and even Billy Bob Thornton, have been fans through the years. Wilkes couldn’t be more grateful about working with these musicians.
“Everyone you mentioned has been so supportive and kind to us. And I am fascinated by the worlds they have created," says Wilkes. "Heat's Texas psychobilly aesthetic, Jello's frontmanship, Duane's avant-garde guitarwork, and Thornton's southern storytelling abilities. I'm honored that any of them would give me the time of day.”
But it doesn’t stop there for the Legendary Shack Shakers. Some of their tunes have ended up being used on television. Their song “Swampblood” appeared on the soundtrack of HBO’s True Blood. Wilkes' amazement at these opportunities was expressed by how he discusses the band publicly.
“Yes, that is very cool when it happens. It's especially useful when we try to describe who we are to strangers," Wilkes states. "They might not know who the band is but they are impressed by our contributions to mainstream entertainment. It helps legitimize us to our own parents, too.”
Even more surprising is their shift from performing for music junkies to theatre goers. It seems that these kinds of challenges are right up the band’s alley. It apparently didn’t take them long at all to adapt to the stage. It has also provided them with yet another opportunity to hit Europe. Taking the stage in Denmark, the band took part in a theatrical production about illegal gun trading called FUBAR.
“The show itself was thrilling, perplexing and incredibly artful...like something Tom Waits would do," Wilkes decribes. "Personally, I love that we're flexible enough as a band that we can pull off an artsy-fartsy theatre set (complete with actors, dancers and performance artists) and then turn around and play a punk rock club later that night.”
Going along with their newly released Southern Surreal album, the Shack Shakers have also put out a music video for one of their latest songs, “Mud”. Interesting enough is how they went about with the making of the video. Overall, this wasn’t your usual “starting from scratch” kind of project.
“It actually had been shot several years before as part of another film project. It just so happened that the mood of the footage fit the vibe of our new song. Then, I had the weird idea of dressing up like Emmett Kelly to round out that old ‘railroad tramp’ vibe,” Wilkes says.
But not only is the fact that they released a music video to go along with their recent album intriguing, so is the new album in general. More so is who’s included in the cast of contributions to Southern Surreal, like Denison and Thornton. Another point of interest is the band’s current move to punk label Alternative Tentacles — another undertaking that they’ve taken with Biafra. For all we know, this probably has much to do with how the punk icon once said that Wilkes is "the last great Rock and Roll frontman." Regardless of how the decision came about, it’s definitely something that Wilkes stands behind.
“Yes indeed. It seems to be a good fit. Jello has been so supportive over the years," says Wilkes. "He sang on Pandelirium, and was always present at our shows in San Francisco. Sometimes he'd hop up on stage to belt out a tune with that insane, almost operatic voice. He's good people.”