Fire Dream is the debut solo from the leader of the Legendary Shack Shakers,
J.D. Wilkes. The album, containing the single Walk Between the Raindrops,
features members of Squirrel Nut Zippers and Drive-By Truckers.
A sense of place has long permeated the music of J.D. Wilkes. Heís a native of
Paducah, Kentucky, a city located at the confluence of various rivers and
cultures ó an area where musical variety is in the air and in the blood memory
of its people.
"Of course, thereís bluegrass and hillbilly songs, but also blues, jazz, old
time fiddle music, jug band music, even swamp rock," says Wilkes. "Itís a
great intersection there. I think I epitomize that in the way that I write and
Wilkesí solo debut, Fire Dream, represents the apotheoses of that vision: a
hillbilly-gypsy epic, itís an album of art damaged cabaret music, leavened by
Latin rhythms and high lonesome hollers. Call it boho bluegrass ó maybe what Tom
Waits would sound like if he were a Kentucky Colonel (a title that Wilkes
happens to hold).
Proving a compelling firebrand of American roots music during his two decades
leading experimental rockabilly group Legendary Shack Shakers, Wilkes has a
resume and passions that extend far and wide. A visual artist, filmmaker and
author, heís served as a session player for Merle Haggard, helped soundtrack
HBOís True Blood, penned a pair of books (The Vine That Ate the South and Barn
Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky) and worked as an ethnomusicologist without
portfolio, documenting the dying hillbilly culture of Kentucky.
Wilkesí creative approach is defined by his home regionís rich history as a
musical nexus. "Western Kentucky is unique in that a lot of that mountain music,
which is otherwise stuck in Appalachia, trickled down and permeated our
conscience" he says. "But if you look at it topographically weíre a flat delta
lowland region, a flood zone Ö 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
That keen understanding of history is partly what drew the interest of Fat
Possumís Big Legal Mess imprint, which signed Wilkes in 2017. "They saw me as
a kindred spirit," he says, "in my efforts to archive and field-record
and report upon some form of folk music thatís in danger of being forgotten."
For his solo debut, however, Wilkes has something more outrť in mind than a mere
musical lesson or genre exercise. Recorded at Delta-Sonic Sound in Memphis with
producer Bruce Watson and Jimbo Mathus, the album finds Wilkes creating a
complex tapestry of styles and sounds, playing banjo, harmonica, and piano,
adding percussion, and even winding up an old hurdy-gurdy. Aiding him in that
effort are a couple kindred musical spirits in guitarist Mathus and
multi-instrumentalist Dr. Sick from the ever-eclectic Squirrel Nut Zippers.
"They were the perfect people to bring in. They could play any kind of style,"
says Wilkes. "Jimbo has such an intuitive feel for blues and Dr. Sick, man, heís
the most amazing musician Iíve ever had the privilege of playing with. I donít
even know what his real name is, but that guy is awesome." Rounding out the
recording are contributions from Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton,
up-and-coming soul chanteuse Liz Brasher on backing vocals, and the horn section
from Bluff City R&B band, The Bo-Keys.
The albumís opening and title track "Fire Dream" establishes the tone with a
cinematic setup. "It sounds as if a gypsy carnival blew in on a tornado and
landed in a hillbilly junkyard," says Wilkes of the tune. "I tried to pay
attention to the texture of the songs, both what was in them and how they
connected to each other, and the record as a whole."
Within its ten tracks Fire Dream contains multitudes: from galloping string
rambles ("Wild Bill Jones") to slow burning laments ("Walk Between the
Raindrops"), hardscrabble narratives ("Hoboes Are My Heroes") exotic nocturnes
("Moonbottle"), and hellfire comedy ("Bible, Candle and a Skull").
Wilkesí acid wit shines through on Fire Dream, with his lyrics coming across as
both highly crafted and deeply intuitive. "A song is like a puzzle, you have
to feel around and figure out how the words fit," he says. "It doesnít
matter if itís Hank, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits or Nick Cave, they all have a knack
for knowing the most artful way the words can collide with one another, or flow
ē Vinyl LP
1. Fire Dream
2. Down In The Hidey Hole
4. Hoboes Are My Heroes
5. Wild Bill Jones Side Two:
1. Walk Between The Raindrops
2. Starlings, KY
3. Bible, Candle And A Skull
4. Rain And Snow
5. That's What They Say