Somewhere on his way from Kentucky to Nashville, Tenn., Legendary Shack Shakers' front man Colonel J.D. Wilkes must have gotten lost and ended up in the Louisiana bayou. Wandering through the marshes, he'd been ripped apart by a gator " only to be pieced back together by a voodoo priestess. Trudging out, Wilkes would finally make it to Tennessee, but the swamp water was now in his blood.
The Legendary Shack Shakers' sound is something like Creedence Clearwater Revival if that band had devolved into bitter, angry drunks. The Shakers are is still touring in support of 2007's "Swampblood," the final installment of a tent show trilogy. The concept began at hillbilly revivals with "Believe," ran off with a gypsy circus in "Pandelirium." Now, with "Swampblood," the Legendary Shack Shakers return home for funeral services.
The unifying theme in all the albums, Wilkes said, is the presence of tent shows throughout the South, whether spreading the Lord's word, entertaining the huddled masses or sheltering families in mourning.
"There was always a tent show that encapsulates the themes and topics I liked to play with; these strange Tim Burton, David Lynch style tent shows going on in the background," Wilkes said. "When Yep Roc (Records) gave us three records, we thought it would be cool to have a trilogy. Sure it was a bit of marketing ploy, but also a challenge to find a way to tie them all together in some overarching theme."
Wilkes also crafts comic books, so the singer put his artistic inclinations to good use by producing banners and other antiquated carnival art for the tour. Wilkes also said that he found an "old-timer" that used to paint signs for circuses in the early half of the 20th century and the group taps his skills from time to time to embellish the look of the live show.
"It's old-school sing painting and goes along with all the other mini decisions we make as far as visuals, types of guitars, standup bass," Wilkes said. "The feeling of the band is wooden, archaic, acoustic. Drums are painted the colors you'd expect at a circus."
"Swampblood" represents the end of the band's Yep Roc contract, and though Wilkes foresees the band resigning with the label, he's excited to see growing possibilities open to the band. Success across the states as well as a blooming fan base overseas means that the Legendary Shack Shakers are still "upwardly mobile."
"It would be foolish for anyone to think that our ship has come and gone. We are growing exponentially every year and we now have an international fan base," he said. "It's like this small business has grown up around us. We have all the grown-ups, the lawyer, accounts, managers, agents; it's a whole company we've established here."
Despite the strides the band has made over the years, the swamp still courses through the music's veins. Wilkes identifies with the spectacle of the traveling tent shows he sings about, carrying that theatrical flair to every manic performance.
"What we do is something very akin to a minstrel or medicine show, traveling troubadours going from town to town hawking their wares. That's what we do and it's not that far removed from recent American history like vaudeville," he said. "Charles Martin