[13 October 2004]
Like a devil-horned rooster spitting fire from atop a decrepit barn, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers exult with hellacious abandon. Baptized in flames, they sermonize like barkers in the great cowpunk carnival of the netherworld. They proudly declare themselves “Southern by the grace of Goth”, and use Frankensteinian adjectives like “Penta-caustic” and “agri-industrial” to label their Bible belt pandemonium. In other words, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers are badasses of the highest order. I bet ten bucks that the tattoos of flames licking their arms are hot to the touch.
The Legendary Shack Shakers’ members hail from Kentucky and South Carolina, wielding a collective psyche of Southern legitimacy. Lead singer and harmonica wrangler “Colonel” J.D. Wilkes, bass mangler Mark Robertson, guitarist David Lee, and drummer Paolo mix rockabilly, bluegrass, country, and punk into a moonshine concoction as potent as it is intoxicating. Their latest album (and first for indie Yep Roc) Believe is a rowdy, flailing scissorkick of hustle and steam. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers are a maniacal Rev. Horton Heat with instruments on loan from Bad Livers, spreading the word of musical fanaticism through howling vocals, Twin Peaks guitar riffs, and zealous aplomb.
Believe opens appropriately with a brash train whistle, wailing into the searing “Agony Wagon”, more of an electroshock klezmer romp than hillbilly blaze. Minor key noir chords are pounded over the dense rockabilly of “Creek Cats”, anchored by the calloused thumbslaps on Robertson’s stand-up bass. Grotesque images of a Pentecostal gathering fill out the freight train rhythm of “Cussin’ in Tongues”: “You can tell by the sounds of his cussin’ in tongues / It’s best you boys just run on along”. The conventional blues “Help Me” is compromised when the ground opens up and hell swallows the entire band. They revel in this sonic split, kicking and screaming as they make their fiery descent.
When Wilkes isn’t blowing his musky, villainous harp, he’s shouting and singing brazen declarations through disfiguring distortion and echo. “I’m full of piss and vinegar / Oozing through my jugular vein… / Bubbling through the brim of my brain,” Wilkes cheerfully hisses in the 1-4-5 blues romp “Piss and Vinegar”. In the happy-to-be-sinister “Bible Cyst”, Wilkes croaks “when I die, I wanna come back as a poltergeist”. He suddenly feels the urge to deliver a mid-song sermon in the smokestack haze of “County of Graves”. His vocal seems to be transmitted via CB radio in “Where’s the Devil…When You Need Him?” and piped in from an attic turntable of a haunted house in the country waltz “The Pony to Bet On”. Wilkes deals in enviable wickedness, like an anti-hero that the audience can’t help but cheer on.
No doubt some bluegrass or rockabilly purists will find Believe‘s hyper-menacing flirtations to be sacrilege, but that’s kind of the point. To hell with traditions and placated expectations! This ain’t yer daddy’s rockabilly. Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers are giving traditional American music a swift kick in the ass, injecting its veins with a pipin’ hot ferocity. From the sounds of the album, they’re a band of uncompromised intensity and probably one of the most electrically charged live acts you’ve never heard of. (Hank Williams III emphatically declared, “It’s like having Slayer open for you every night.”) The next time you take the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack from the stereo, pining for some oomph to your Americana, reach for Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers. “Colonel” J.D. Wilkes calls himself a jumpin’ jimdaddy, and before long, you will too.