Based out of Nashville, Th’ Legendary Shack*Shakers aren’t your typical hillbilly punk rock band. Singer and harmonica player J.D. Wilkes (a.k.a. “The Colonel”), bassist Mark Robertson, guitarist David Lee (previously of Charleston rockabilly trio Go Baby Go), and drummer Brett Whitacre dish out a rambunctious mix of electric blues, American-style punk rock, country, and rockabilly noise.
They toured the world last year and this summer behind their most recent Yep Roc release Swampblood — a fiery follow-up to their first two albums, Pandelirium and Believe. Wilkes calls the albums their “Tentshow Trilogy” — a wild ride through the darker corners of rural Kentucky and southern Louisiana culture.
“Swampblood is the third and last installment of a thematic whole — and the theme is strange things happen beneath the canvas of a tent top,” Wilkes explains. “The tent can be a place where you have a revival, a circus sideshow, or, in this case, a graveside service. It’s sort of the dark and morose closing chapter. The religious themes have been consistent throughout all three records. That’s what I came from, as a writer and as a person brought up in these charismatic churches in western Kentucky. That stuff kind of rubs off on ya. We don’t really parody or do a slam job against religion in general. We say we’re riffing on religion, not ripping on religion.”
Tight and dynamic, Swampblood is the first studio album recorded with Whitacre on the drum kit. “Brett has been really active in the writing, arranging, and rhythmic elements of the new songs,” says Wilkes. “He helped revive a band that was struggling from that Spinal Tap syndrome where drummers seem to spontaneously combust. That was us [laughs].”
The album’s wild cover art — a painting by Wilkes showing a grinning Abraham Lincoln, corn cob pipe in his mouth, against a dripping, distorted Confederate battle flag (with way too many stars) — is about as shuddersome as the twangy rock music on the disc.
“It’s mixed metaphors,” Wilkes says of the artwork. “You can read a lot into it. Is it a Reconstruction image or a Deconstruction image? The image was inspired by a flag flown in a Teddy Boy bar in London that our bassist once saw. It was the Londoners’ absurd misinterpretation of American iconography. They thought the two Civil War references were somehow compatible. I just thought it was an arresting, absurd image, and perfect as an album cover.
Swampblood kicks off with “Old Spur Line,” a rocker with a peculiar harmonica melody and rockabilly beat. “Hellwater” lumbers away in 4/4 time with a spooky oscillating guitar sound, similar to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” (the reverb-drenched title track resembles CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” as well). The haul-ass country-billy “Easter Flesh” digs deeper into the churchy horror show. The cartoonish monster mash “Down and Out” and saloon piano country knee-slapper “Born Again Again” are the funniest and creepiest of the collection.
“On this record, gallows humor goes a long way,” Wilkes says. “Without the humor, you’re just left with dour, bleak nihilism — stuff that just makes you want to slice your wrists open. Humor’s really missing today. It’s a shame that bands who try to use it are dismissed as novelties not be taken seriously. Whatever happened to whimsy in music? It was in there up until when hippies took over and started using folk music as a platform for their faux dissident rhetoric. There used to be wit and whimsy in entertainment. We’re just trying to put a little bit of that back in.”
Where’s the devil when you need him?