Despite their name, the Legendary Shack Shakers aren’t particularly legendary, at least not yet — but the growing infamy of their live shows threatens to change all that. The Shack Shakers’ particular brand of bone-rattling, rafter-rumbling roadhouse rock mixes blues, old-school country, early ’80s Jason & the Scorchers-style cowpunk and, it’s been said, a little bit of Slayer.
In concert, this is a combination that tends to lead to some sort of physical injury, at least when done correctly. “You should see my bare legs, they’re just covered in bruises,” says lead singer Colonel J.D. Wilkes, whose recent onstage run-in with guitarist JoeBuck led to complications too scatological to go into here; suffice to say that he might want to get his kidneys looked at. “Plus, I have these weird calcium deposits. I walk funny now. I think I’m morphing into this weird, cricket-type creature.”
While the Shack Shakers have a perfectly fine new album, Cockadoodledon’t (released April 22 on Bloodshot Records), they are a band for whom making albums seems almost beside the point, a loss leader designed to get people to come out to the shows.
The slight, pompadoured, harmonica-blowing Wilkes is clearly the main draw, his onstage flailings leaving the distinct impression he is possessed by the same sort of primordial demon as Iggy Pop, with whom Wilkes was previously unfamiliar. “I’d heard the name growing up, but I didn’t know what he did [until recently],” says Wilkes. “I think we come from a similar place. When Iggy goes into that total stream-of-consciousness thing? That look in his eye? I know that look.”
Raised mostly in Kentucky and Louisiana, “I grew up going to charismatic, Pentecostal-style churches, and I loved every minute of it,” Wilkes recalls. “I did the altar call, I got baptized. I was digging it big time. I didn’t handle snakes or anything, though. But aesthetically and spiritually, I felt connected to it.”
Separately, Wilkes and Buck found their way to Nashville — because that was where Hank made his name — and plugged away for years in countless tourists-only honky-tonks, playing with countless lineups, before recording the Shakers’ newest album as a duo. Cockadoodledon’t is rooted in both Wilkes’ love of Texas blues and Buck’s affection for traditional country.
“We have a real workmanlike ethic with a simple style,” Buck says. “We’re not trying to play over people’s heads, we’re not trying to be exclusionary. We’re trying to get out what’s inside. This is a very dark period, and we’re screaming for a reason.”
Buck and Wilkes eventually expanded the Shakers to a permanent four-piece (Paul Simmonz, once of Black Oak Arkansas, was enlisted to play drums, Mark Robertson to play bass). They signed with Bloodshot after a particularly raucous show at the Hideout in Chicago and have spent the past year on the road, spreading the gospel via opening stints for acts such as Hank Williams III, for whom Buck occasionally moonlights.
Anyone who has ever seen the Shakers live might come away with the impression that what they’ve seen is the pure expression of an unfettered Id. But according to Wilkes, whose Pentecostal childhood has given him a taste for pageantry, it’s more complicated than that. The Shakers’ live shows are, apparently, rooted more in theater than fans might expect, or purists might appreciate.
“It’s a character [I'm playing], and it’s also primal scream therapy. It’s all showbiz,” he says. “People would be surprised at how tame we are offstage. We’re sane and thoughtful. I’m pretty nice, actually.”