Anyone can make a great record, but there are only a few great showmen. Slim, wiry, and kinetic on stage, Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers' untamed frontman, Col. J.D. Wilkes, is a flurry of anxious energy -- a harmonica-wielding Iggy Pop wired on meth and pursued by visions of Jerry Lee Lewis. Wilkes' backing band's felicitous, rootsy sound coils like kudzu encasing his gothic Southern ethos.
Born in Texas and raised in Kentucky, Wilkes went to school in Louisiana, and finally settled in Nashville. There he hooked up with upright-bassist Mark Robertson, beginning an eight-year, five-album odyssey that's covered nearly as much musical territory as the band has highway miles, traversing rockabilly, Appalachian country, bluegrass, swamp-folk, TexMex, gospel blues and gypsy swing with a punk-rock spirit.
The quartet's gone through a number of drummers over the years, as well as talented axemen Joe Buck and David Lee, before squiring current guitarist Duane Dennison (Jesus Lizard, Tomahawk), last year. They're currently supporting last year's Swampblood, the final album in what Wilkes describes as their "Tentshow Trilogy," including 2004's Believe and 2006's Pandelirium. Ranging from thematic settings that go from tent revival to circus sideshow to graveside service, the albums trace religious themes with Wilkes' carnival-barker flair, like a hillbilly Tom Waits.
"I was one of these nerdy kids that pledged support to public radio so I can 'hear more great blues and the jazz show and the bluegrass show.' I was into roots music early on because it seemed more low to the ground, primal and passionate," says Wilkes, who credits the charismatic churches of his Western Kentucky youth as another big influence.
The two aesthetics meet in mountain murder ballads, whose structure Wilkes employs in many of his songs. "I tend to write cautionary tales with a sort of musical caveat at the end of the last verse," Wilkes says. "Dark tales of lust and evil that end in a warning to the listener."
Unlike many bands, the Shack*Shakers translate their on-stage energy to the disc. Yet, they necessarily are lacking what a great show has -- you there.
"It's less about me or the Shack*Shakers or any cult of personality built around the Shack*Shakers," Wilkes says. "It's more about a collective cathartic release for everyone."
Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers with Pine Hill Haints. 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 3. (Pre-show screening of Wilkes' Southern culture documentary, "Seven Signs"). Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $14. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net
- Carnival-barker flair: Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers