[4 June 2003]
Until Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers came along and rocked my world, my two biggest run-ins with rockabilly came courtesy of A) my uncle, who once got a haircut from Brian Setzer’s stylist; and B) Rob Zombie, whose Hellbilly Deluxe doesn’t really count. But the Shakers’ label, Bloodshot Records, is as fine and true a record label as America has, and seeing their red logo-cum-stamp of approval on the liner notes to Cockadoodledon’t tells me everything is going to be alright.
A word about Bloodshot. Even as the press release accompanying the album notes, Cockadoodledon’t ain’t your typical alt-country. As a frame of reference they suggest imagining Iggy Pop fronting Southern Culture on the Skids. A tall order, but one the Shakers—lead singer Colonel J.D. Wilkes, guitarist JoeBuck (one word; presumably to avoid confusion with the similarly-named Fox Sports broadcaster), bassist Mark “the Duke” Robertson and drummer Pauly Simmonz—damn near live up to.
Album opener “Pinetree Boogie” finds the band blazing out of the gates, with Wilkes’ primal howl racing Robertson’s bass as well as Wilkes himself on both harmonica and melodeon. These guys are entertainers, not “serious” artists, as they are wont to tell you themselves, and somehow they’re able to capture that aura and theatricality on CD. To wit, “Help Me From My Brain”, where Wilkes truly sounds like a man possessed and the background sound of “20,000 kettles hissing in [his] head” only drives home the urgency.
The Shack Shakers, to their credit, aren’t just speed freak boogie rockabilly goons. If anything, it’s Cockadoodledon’t‘s detours that define them. “CB Song” is a silly diversion (“Little honey bunny / What’s yer 20?” that sounds like what might happen if the Flat Duo Jets’ Dexter Romweber overdosed on pomade. “Shake Rag Holler” dusts off a Jews Harp, sounds like newgrass, then explodes into heavy metal in the track’s closing seconds—all while Wilkes proves he could moonlight as an auctioneer. And sure enough, there’s “Devil’s Night Auction” where he make like the rednecked cousin to Tom Waits’ demented carnival barker from The Black Rider. The band even tosses in the melodeon again, just for the hell of it. The Shakers know how to have capital-F Fun.
And they appreciate those who have trod their chosen musical path before them. The fiddle-happy “Clodhopper” wipes off the band’s grease (though it’s quickly replaced by dirt) as Wilkes and co. play it straight with a chorus of “yo-de-lay-hoo!” One half-expects a cakewalk to break out. And the stunning “Blood on the Bluegrass” may sound like a parody along the lines of the Folksmen’s “Blood on the Coal” from the A Mighty Wind soundtrack, but it’s Cockadoodledon’t‘s truest track. Wilkes has been quoted as saying, “We don’t do murder ballads, we do murder boogies”, and that may be true more of than not, but they come close to ballad here. In telling the story of 16-year-old self-professed vampire Roderick Farrell (also documented in Aphrodite Jones’ The Embrace: A True Vampire Story, as I just learned at amazon.com), who murdered the parents of one of his 15-year-old followers, Wilkes captures the sound and haunting lyricism (“With his clawhammer high / He drew their spirits night / And danced amidst the crimson spray”) of musicians 60 years hence. I had to double check to see if “Clodhopper” and “Blood on the Bluegrass” weren’t covers or public domain songs; they’re not.
Their mastery over the “old-timey” sound give them free rein to incorporate punk, blues, Southern rock and rockabilly into whatever psychotic stew they please. Of course, then, it’s a cover (Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”) and a traditional tune (“Bullfrog Blues”) that get the album’s biggest (in a good way) thrashings. “Shake Your Hips” borrows the bassline from ZZ Top’s “La Grange” and starts off quiet (for a change) before everyone joins in behind Wilkes and all hell breaks loose. And “Bullfrog Blues” is long enough to accommodate both a greasy guitar solo from JoeBuck and a Wilkes harmonica solo.
The only thing missing from Cockadoodledon’t is the ability experience the band’s high octane live shows. But if they can knock your socks off merely pumping through your stereo, that’s a good start. All-at-once reverent, revisionist, greasy, and fun as hell, with summer upon us Cockadoodledon’t should be the soundtrack to a thousand barbecues.