Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers

by Timothy Merello

22 March 2005


Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers

I first saw th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers two years ago, opening for Hank Williams III. All I caught was their final song, a cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”. The rendition was inspired.

Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers

10 Mar 2005: Way Out Club — St. Louis

Lead singer Col. J.D. Wilkes, skinny as a beanpole, flailed about the stage possessed by some demonic spirit. He howled into one of those old fashioned microphones, designed to add rasp and crackle to the voice, while honking out blues harp.

If the Rolling Stones took Harpo’s classic and dressed it up in rock and roll swagger, the Shack Shakers strip the tune to its nasty, sexy roots, a rough and raunchy breakdown.

I was miffed that I hadn’t come earlier to catch the full complement of their mayhem-fueled tent show.

Two years on, I finally got the chance to again bathe in the muddy water that the Shack*Shakers dole out as healing balm. J.D. and his boys took the stage of St. Louis’s Way Out Club, a modern day juke joint decorated in all sorts of thrift store ephemera with carnival sideshow kitsch.

As the show began I couldn’t help but wonder what the uninitiated would think. Here you have a stand-up bassist slapping out rollicking rhythms, a guitarist with slicked hair, long sideburns, and a shirt unbuttoned to reveal an entire torso and arms emblazoned with tattoos. And of course there’s the gaunt frontman, sporting a flat top, too-short work pants, a pearl-button shirt and nerdy ‘50s glasses, all while admonishing the audience like a fire-and-brimstone-spewing Pentecostal preacher.

Maybe one would expect some retro rockabilly parlor piece or some hayseed hootenanny akin to Southern Culture on the Skids. But how oh-so-wrong one would be. Sure, the Shack*Shakers have dipped into the moonshine stills, juke joints, and honky tonks of the country landscape, but they spit forth a sound so feral and impassioned you can’t help but be moved.

The aforementioned Wilkes is truly a showman, a constant swirl of manic energy. Prone to histrionic facial and bodily contortions, he performs karate kicks, polka steps, Russian folk dances, haughty high-stepping footwork while his face runs an elastic gamut of smiles, smirks, and snarls. Let me ask you this, “When was the last time you saw someone do a cartwheel on stage?”

Guitarist David Lee matched Wilkes with his own brand of ferocity. Playing the meanest, nastiest licks since Billy Zoom, Lee prowled and pranced, slinging his six-string with a fevered frenzy. He looked ready for a street fight but one fought with blistering blues riffs, knifing rockabilly runs, and punching punk blasts.

The drawback to this rousing revival was the club’s poor sound. Wilkes’s narratives of sin, murder, and evil—“Blood on the Bluegrass” or “Devil’s Night Auction” for example—fell indecipherably on deaf ears though the intensity of the music and rancor in Wilkes’s rage hit home.

Perhaps the country covers “White Lightning” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” are obvious and overused, but the Shack*Shakers spiked them with piss and vinegar. Lee’s guitar drove the tunes with a spooky, twangy moan while Wilkes’s yelps were laced with the spectre of the midnight creeper.

I don’t imagine the Shack*Shakers will ever become a household name, but that’s all the better. They’re right where they should be, reveling in the club circuit, crisscrossing the states, injecting venom and breathing fire with their boogie blues, psychobilly, and corn liquor country.

Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers are a band you’ll never forget. They are indeed like a circus sideshow, a riotous, spirited spectacle whose legend and lore follows and precedes them wherever they pitch their tent. A word of caution, don’t stand too close to the stage, that is, unless you’re ready to be baptized.

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