J.D. Wilkes owns a rightfully earned reputation as a dynamic, often frighteningly intense, frontman for his raucous rockabilly band the Legendary Shack Shakers. On stage and record, Wilkes comes across like a vengeful haint possessed the body of a Pentecostal preacher. The Shack Shakers haven’t released an album since 2015’s Southern Surreal, but Wilkes has kept plenty busy. In 2016 alone, he released an album with his side project the Dirt Daubers, the solo Kitchen Tapes, and a collaboration with legendary bluegrass fiddler Charlie Stamper. He also wrote a novel, 2017’s well-received The Vine That Ate the South (not even his first book, as it follows his non-fiction effort Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky).
Despite all that activity and proof of a restless creative spirit, Fire Dream might be Wilkes’ first true solo record. Kitchen Tapes is just that: a collection of short lo-fi recordings and snippets, while the largely instrumental Cattle in the Cane is as much a well-deserved spotlight for Stamper’s fiddle playing as it is for Wilkes’s banjo.
So how does Fire Dream fit into the Wilkes continuum? Despite ditching the Shack Shakers’ raging rockabilly guitars for a more nuanced sound, the album’s throughlines to that band’s work is clear. Wilkes still views the South through a Gothic lens, but this time the overall sound is reminiscent of Rain Dogs/Swordfishtrombones/Frank’s Wild Years-era Tom Waits. It also evokes the darker moments of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, which becomes less surprising when you find out that Jimbo Mathus co-produced Fire Dream (and provided various instrumental duties) while the Zippers’ Dr. Sick provides fiddle throughout. Through it all Wilkes ranges from creepy croon to demented yelp to gutbucket blues growls.
“Fire Dream” opens the album with a sound that’s equal parts backwoods menace and vintage exotica, mixing eerie fiddle and spectral background vocals. “Down in the Hidey Hole” seamlessly picks up from there, but then brings in unexpected ska horns courtesy of Memphis jazz/soul group the Bo-Keys. “Moonbottle” brings the Waits comparisons to the fore with its samba rhythm and Marc Ribotish guitar runs. “Walk Between the Raindrops” starts with heavy “By My Baby”-style drums before going its own way with a mean guitar and woozy, spooky violin reminiscent of vintage cartoons full of ghosts and haunted houses. Fire Dream teems with interesting touches, giving Wilkes’s relaxed and quieter version of the Shack Shakers vibe plenty of depth. The album also features two traditional songs, a spry fiddle-driven “Wild Bill Jones” and a drum- and banjo-dominated arrangement of “Rain and Snow”.
As enjoyable as the Shack Shakers have always been, they’ve also run the risk of the group’s manic carnival sideshow vibe overshadowing Wilkes’s thematic concerns. Wilkes’s worldview is one where religion and folklore coexist, where the mysteries of both are equally real and relevant. His songs can come across as equal parts sermon and campfire story, where the modern world’s rules are underpinned by something much older and more ghostly. Fire Dream, with its attention to dynamics and different sounds, casts light on what’s always been an ambitious songwriting approach. While it doesn’t provide the visceral thrill of the Shack Shakers’ most in-your-face moments, it’s probably the best showcase for Wilkes’s talents so far.