J.D. Wilkes Recharges Kentucky Mountain Music on “Rain and Snow” (premiere)

Roots artist J.D. Wilkes emerges with an ambitious new solo album, Fire Dream,mashing up Southern music genres into a glorious stew of mountain music.

Roots artist J.D. Wilkes plays old-time string band music with an experimental edge that makes it feel contemporary and thrilling. As the longtime leader of the Legendary Shack Shakers, the Kentuckian fuses rock ‘n’ roll energy with bluegrass, old-time, country blues, and holler music. Wilkes is a musicologist in documenting and reviving the music of Western Kentucky, which is mainly known for bluegrass but is host to a wide variety of genres that come together as mountain music.

Wilkes says that “Western Kentucky is unique in that a lot of that mountain music, which is otherwise stuck in Appalachia, trickled down and permeated our conscience. But if you look at it topographically we’re a flat delta lowland region, a flood zone … so we have a lot in common with the Mississippi Delta and Memphis, and we got all that jazz and blues that came up the river as well.”

Now Wilkes is stepping out on his own for a solo set, Fire Dream, that releases 16 February from Big Legal Mess. Wilkes branched out on Fire Dream, recording the album in Memphis with Bruce Watson and Jimbo Mathus producing a wide-ranging set of tunes. Meanwhile, Mathus and Dr. Sick, both from the brilliant, roots band the Squirrel Nut Zippers, lend their musical chops to the record’s instrumentation and the Bo-Keys add their sublime horn section to the proceedings.

Fire Dream is an ambitious project that documents, enlivens and recharges Southern musical forms. Today we present the premiere of the tune “Rain and Snow”, which highlights the record’s aesthetic with Wilkes’ driving banjo and plaintive, bluesy vocals.

Wilkes says, “‘Rain and Snow’ (or “Cold Rain and Snow”) is the descendant of a 19th-century English broadside murder ballad (perhaps ‘Weeks Work Completed’). Having traversed the Atlantic, it eventually found lodging in the crannies of the Appalachian Mountains and has since become a hillbilly standard. My favorite versions are Obray Ramsey’s banjo classic, and Dillard Chandler’s a cappella haunter, of which my version strives to be a mash-up. An infectious, ‘chicken-pickin” groove surfaced as soon as Squirrel Nut Zippers’ utility man ‘Dr. Sick’ got a hold of it on guitar. Churchy, falsetto harmonies supplied by the Drive-By Truckers’ own Matt Patton.”