Kentucky-based Musician J.D. Wilkes has found a true muse: the South. It inspires him whether he’s touring the country with his unhinged country-punk group the Shack Shakers, directing a documentary about the music and mythology of the American South, writing a book that comprehensively catalogs all the barn dances and jamborees in Kentucky—or co-founding a second band, the Dirt Daubers, also with a sound rooted in the South.
“Hollywood does a great disservice to my homeland when it peddles Southern stereotypes like the kind found in Deliverance. I suggest folks dig deeper into the more arcane and spiritual depths of our Southern culture.” he says. “Because of its climate and agrarianism the South has a rawer understanding of nature, natural law and therefore truth. The music, cuisine and folklore are more soulful, honest and integrated.”
His new band, the Dirt Daubers, is quite different than the Shack Shakers, but still pays homage to traditional Southern music. With the Daubers, instead of running amok with adrenaline-fueled cowpunk, J.D. Wilkes, along with his wife, Jessica Wilkes, played laid-back old timey acoustic bluegrass. Well, they did until last year when they suddenly decided to switch genres on their latest LP, Wild Moon, and play down-and-dirty, Delta Blues-inspired rock songs.
“It’s basically a new band with the same name. It’s kind of confusing really,” Jessica Wilkes says. “It’s a natural transition. We both had a lot of rock & roll songs written, and we just decided to go for it. Hopefully some people will come along for the ride.”
Prior to Wild Moon, the Dirt Daubers were a trio with Jessica Wilkes (mandolin, vocals), J.D. Wilkes (banjo, harmonica, vocals) and Mark Robertson (upright bass). Listening to their music was like taking a cruise through American radio before rock & roll, leaning heavily on old Southern country music, with a little bit of vintage jazz and pop.
The Daubers’ new lineup is a quartet: J.D. and Jessica Wilkes share songwriting and lead vocalist duties. They trade off on bass, with Rod Hamdallah playing electric guitar and Preston Corn on drums. This new incarnation of the band plays swampy, dingy rock & roll, still very Southern, with a heavy blues influence and a lot of distortion.
The new album isn’t just a change in style. There was a tongue-in-cheek quality to the band’s performances of old country songs. On Wild Moon, the Dirt Daubers are playing darker and more serious.
The decision to change styles was quick. With the Shack Shakers on hiatus since 2012, and a stockpile of rock songs, Jessica and J.D. Wilkes decided to combine their new compositions and create a whole new Dirt Daubers.
The founding of the Dirt Daubers in 2009 was about as spontaneous as the recent shift in genre. The group played its first concert as a new unit at the London Raindance Film Festival, where Wilkes was screening his film, Seven Signs.
The organizers of the festival told J.D. Wilkes that they wanted him to perform at the festival, but they didn’t have the budget to hire the Shack Shakers. He talked Jessica into joining him and playing some of the old-timey tunes they’d been writing around the house together for fun.
“I said ‘no’ at first and he sort of tricked me into it, and he created a monster because I really loved it and I wanted to keep doing it,” she says.
There were only about 20 people in the audience, though one of them was Primus’ Les Claypool, who didn’t know the Wilkes personally. Claypool was the first person from the audience to walk up to them to tell them how great their performance was.
Jessica Wilkes herself isn’t Southern. A native of Rochester, New York, she has lived in Kentucky with J.D. since they married seven years ago.
“I can see the allure of it all. J.D. has rubbed off on me. We go on the drives through the country to see some weird dilapidated house or something. There is something down here about the culture that is dark and creepy. He romanticizes it a lot,” she says.
J.D. Wilkes continues to write about the dark underbelly of the South in the Dirt Daubers, but they are counterbalanced with Jessica Wilkes’ more introspective songs.
“She’s a great foil to my ‘Southern preacher’ alter ego. She provides less a ‘Northern identity’ and more a female perspective. And of course that’s something I could never provide, mired as I am in esoterica. Her tunes are anthemic and powerful and I find that more girls are coming out to the shows to hear her tunes, which is cool. They certainly aren’t coming to look at my ugly ass!” J.D. Wilkes says.
The new Dirt Daubers will still play some songs off their first album as well, so at a show, audiences get a bit of both versions of the band.
“Folks should get a little bit of everything now, from harmonica rave-ups, banjo tunes, girl-power anthems and wacky hi-jinks. It’s a real variety show now, and the most multi-faceted band I’ve ever been a part of,” J.D. Wilkes says.
J.D. Wilkes & The Dirt Daubers plays the Blank Club on Tuesday, January 21st. The show starts at 8pm. Tickets are $10.