On May 24 at Café Nine in New Haven, there’s going to be a party-like atmosphere taking over the venue. The Legendary Shack Shakers from Murray, Kentucky will be taking the stage while playing their energetic blend of rockabilly, blues, punk rock and Western swing. Their live performances have garnered quite the reputation and whoever attends is bound to move around to the music and enjoy themselves. As if they’re not enough of a good time, underground rock & roll legend Dex Romweber will also be on the bill along with Viva La Fox from Florida. It all starts at 8 p.m. and it promises to be a Wednesday night spectacle that nobody should miss out on.
I had a talk ahead of the show with JD Wilkes, who is the founder of the Legendary Shack Shakers, about getting into blues music at a young age, touring with Hank Williams’ grandson, doing visual art and illustration and always working on the next record.
RD: As a teenager in Paducah, Kentucky, you got into listening to Delta blues music by artists such as Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins and Charlie Patton. How did you get into these musicians and this type of music? Was it just through some random finds at a record store, your local radio station, a show on TV or a family member or a friend?
JDW: I discovered my dad’s blues records that he had collected when he was young. I told him that I loved Muddy Waters after hearing him on this radio station in Baton Rouge called WRKS and there was also a blues show in Kentucky on WKMS. There was this blues revival going on already with Eric Clapton putting out his acoustic record, U2 recorded with B.B. King, but this was a few years before that. This was when Stevie Ray Vaughan was yet to be discovered while I was listening to my dad’s records and those radio programs.
RD: When were you part of Hank Williams III’s backing band and what was the experience like being on the road with him?
JDW: It was very lively and dynamic. He’s a really nice guy and a really sweet person, he would break down and load the bus every night and he’d also sign every autograph. It was a harder music scene than I was used to because I was coming out of the rockabilly world, but I even got out there and moshed some when he would go into the heavy metal set. I kind of liked it, I’d never moshed before so that was fun. I was playing violin and fiddle parts because they couldn’t find a new fiddle player and I was also playing harmonica to sort of sound like a fiddle until they could find a proper fiddle player, which took a while.
During the first half of the set, I would play fiddle lines on harmonica and when they would go over to the heavy metal set I’d go out and watch. Eventually I would get out there and mosh, so it was kind of fun. I was this dorky blues kid experiencing this whole other world that never came to Paducah when I was growing up. We had our own little punk rock scenes and stuff like that, which was awesome. The punk rock scene in Paducah was amazing, but they were small hall shows.
These were huge metal shows that had a cowpunk quality to them that was marrying up these styles that I’d never heard before. I still think back to those times and think about how important that movement was.
RD: It sounds like it was a total blast. Outside of music, you’ve also done some work with visual arts including various illustrations, comic strips and sideshow banners. What made you want to get into this creative medium? Did you start doing this type of art around the same time you started doing music or did it happen before or after you became a musician?
JDW: I got my start in both things when I was young. As a toddler, I was playing on the piano and playing the kazoo. My mom played music from Disney and show tunes on the piano and I’d sit there and sing along in this musical sort of home. I was also drawing cartoons even as young as two years old, I got into Batman & Robin and stuff so I had an early start in both and my skills got more refined and channeled as I grew up. When I went to college, I was an art major and I got a degree in visual art while also starting the Shack Shakers so both things have always run parallel.
RD: Very cool. Being from the southern United States, what are your thoughts on playing New Haven and the Northeastern part of the country? From your perspective, are audiences any different around these parts than in other regions you’ve performed in?
JDW: Well, they seem to be better crowds if anything. With Southern crowds, I don’t know if there’s any kind of shame in roots music but it depends on the city you’re talking about. New Orleans and Atlanta embrace what we do but in some of these resort towns they just want to hear “Margaritaville” or something by Dave Matthews. It’s more jammy, but up North people seem to embrace it more in a similar way that Europe embraces it more. Maybe because it’s exotic to them or it could be because in more urban environments their thinking has more variety.
There’s definitely a cultural dynamic, but it really depends on the towns. There’s some places up North where we don’t do well so we don’t play there anymore, but there are other places that have always been great to us.
RD: After this run of shows you and the band are on that runs until next month, what are The Legendary Shack Shakers plans going forward?
JDW: There’s a little trip to Europe in the works. We’re going to be playing a couple festivals and I’m always working on musical ideas for another record, we want to keep staying creative. There’s some dates in the summertime that’ll be in Europe and there’s also something coming up that’ll be taking us out West. I don’t know when we’re going to be heading back into the studio, but I’m working on content for that.