Music: Shaking the Faith

Rife with Southern religious imagery, Th' Legendary Shack Shakers' music alone is reason to testify

Jun 6, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Matt Slocum

Likening Punk Rock to the "fire-and-brimstone" preachers of the South, Th' Legendary Shack Shakers bridge the gap with their music and live shows.

Col. J.D. Wilkes is high-tailing it through Mississippi, drifting in and out of currents of cell-phone 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, are set to baptize another stage with sweat and a whole lotta holy water.

"It's funny," he says, laughing. "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 with his show suspenders on, is not a colonel, of course. That's just a Southern thing, and Wilkes is, if anything, Southern.

Same thing goes for 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 — sorta like snake water and hell fire. They deliver musical sermons up to 250 times a year, with Wilkes shouting into an Astatic JT-30 bullet mic across the U.S. and now the globe.

Born in Kentucky, Wilkes' family hop-scotched around the South during his childhood.

"I'm very much a maven of all things Southern," he says. "Southern Gothic. Southern Gospel. I was raised in the church by devout parents, but they were also creative, artistic folks as well. So I kind of got a mixture of the two worlds, too."

Where he's from, though, those two things don't always mix.

"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, and you can't really ever get it out of your head."

Wilkes says he grew up in a musical house, but not 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, located in the midst of a dry county (of all things) with nary a distraction. "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, he had found enough like-minded souls around Nashville's Lower Broadway district and together they christened themselves Th' 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," Wilkes says. "You're just singing about it. You're not being it. 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 a 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, 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 he's quite philosophical about the social value of a religious force that instills fear into a populace unsophisticated enough for universal liberation, Wilkes doesn't seem to include himself in that same populace. In other words, he 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 conclusions, a little warning about what's 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," Wilkes says. "I even walked in on an exorcism once."

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 and those five deacons in Kentucky might love little girls, but not all that's passed should be resurrected. 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.

TH' LEGENDARY SHACK SHAKERS play The Mad Hatter in Covington on Thursday.