A ghostly man in black haunts the edges of our vision, a belled buzzard rings our doom, a creek witch scrabbles in the dirt, an inexplicable glossolalia of voices pours out over the CB on a dark highway.
These are a few of the images, myths, and stories that infuse seminal punk roots band the Legendary Shack Shakers new album, The Southern Surreal. Released September 11, 2015 on Alternative Tentacles Recordings this is the Shack Shakers first release in five years, lands on the bands 20th anniversary, and is their Alternative Tentacles debut. The Southern Surreal also features guest appearances by actor/musician and long time Shack Shakers fan, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison. With The Southern Surreal, the Shack Shakers explode the “Southern Gothic” concept, reaching so deep into the forbidden roots of Southern culture that the rich mud they bring forth is almost unrecognizable.
It’s the kind of album that could only have sprung from the mind of frontman/mad genius JD Wilkes, a relentlessly curious Southern renaissance man whos just as comfortable shredding the shit out of a packed house full of sweaty fans as he is settling into a late-night jam with an elder mountain fiddler. As the bandleader for the Legendary Shack Shakers, JD has been compared to iconoclasts like David Byrne, Iggy Pop, or Jerry Lew Lewis, and with his small, wiry frame and intense, incandescent performances, it’s not hard to see why. But while he plays the carnival barker onstage, hes a dedicated lifelong student of true Southern culture. In just the past couple years, hes released an album of old-time mountain music with lost elder Appalachian fiddler Charlie Stamper, and he’s authored a book on the barn dances and jamborees of Kentucky. As a bonafide Kentucky Colonel (a title bestowed by the states governor), Wilkes wears the South on his sleeve, but isnt afraid to dirty it up a bit, howling from the speaker stack and blasting out explosive blues harmonica lines.
The Southern Surreal marks a return to the Legendary Shack Shakers core lineup of bassist Mark Robertson, guitarist Rod Hamdallah, and drummer Brett Whitacre. Theyre back on the road with a renewed purpose following a two-year hiatus, and the new album is a launching point for national touring and more. This newfound purpose fuels the raw energy behind The Southern Surreal, which was recorded at the historic Woodland Studios in Nashville, home to classic recordings from artists like the Oak Ridge Boys, Patty Loveless, and Nanci Griffith, and now owned by Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. JDs recent work with his roots ensemble the Dirt Daubers, helped him push the Legendary Shack Shakers into new territory. On The Southern Surreal, the fire-breathing rockabilly (MisAmerica), demonic doo-wop (The One That Got Away), and punk country (Christ Allrighty) the Shack Shakers used to be known for is still there, but the music has deepened to bring in items as disparate as Mississippi hill country trance blues (Fools Tooth), mountain banjo and square dance songs (Mud), and Tom Waits-ian barrelhouse piano (Demon Rum), not to mention the found sounds that JD slipped into the recording, like crackly radio sermons, trains, coyotes, ghost story field recordings. It’s a heady brew, and JD likes to compare it to the medicine shows of old, only this time the snake oil salesman’s peddling mescaline and speaking in tongues!
In the end, you’d think a band with six critically acclaimed studio albums, song placements on shows like HBOs True Blood, and fans like horror author Stephen King or Americana icon Robert Plant, might take this one a bit easy. But the Legendary Shack Shackers are rolling harder than ever, bringing a new sound tied as much to the South’s haunted folklore as to the wall-rattling live shows that first gave them their “legendary” moniker.