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Interview: J.D. Wilkes

J.D. Wilkes is a man of many talents – songwriter, author, Kentucky Colonel, and a monster on the harmonica. Whether he’s touring with his Legendary Shack Shakers, or out solo, Wilkes’ always puts on a first-rate show. When I heard his tour with Brown County, Indiana’s own Reverend Peyton was coming to the Southgate House Revival (one of Wilkes’ favorites to play – “I love that joint”), I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. I caught up with the Colonel on the phone a few days after the tour began, where our conversation ranged from the breadth of Kentucky culture to surviving food poisoning on the road.

CincyMusic: You’re coming to the Southgate House Revival later this month, and I’m a huge fan, so when the opportunity came up to do this, I said, “Hell yeah.” 

JD: That’s great. And I love playing that joint. It’s one of my favorites – it’s got a lot going on.

CincyMusic: So, the tour kicked off a couple of days ago now?

JD: It did. Where were we, where’d we start out?

CincyMusic: Asheville?

JD: Asheville, yeah. North Carolina.

CincyMusic: Good place to start a tour.

JD: Yeah, I had food poisoning right off the bat from some burger or something.

CincyMusic: Oh, damn.

JD: I was sick as a dog and couldn’t even, like, I have barely any memory of even playing the gig. But I’m finally getting better and starting to get back on the good foot.

CincyMusic: Well, that’s good to hear, at least.

JD: (laughs) I don’t know if that’s the kind of detail you want to put in your story or not, but yeah.

CincyMusic: No, but I’m impressed.

JD: Show must go on.

CincyMusic: Indeed, it must. I’ll be honest with you, I was kind of kicking around what kind of questions I want to ask, because I don’t want to just ask, “How’s the tour?” because everybody asks that. But one of the reasons I wanted to interview you, besides the fact that I’m a huge fan, is this – in my and a lot of other people’s minds, you seem inextricably linked with Kentucky and that seemed like an interesting angle to this, because you are a major piece of Kentucky culture…

JD: Ah, well that’s nice.

CincyMusic: … in both documenting it and presenting it. What about the history and culture of Kentucky that clicked with you first?

JD: Well one thing is, I moved around a lot as a kid. I was actually born in Texas. My parents are from Kentucky, and in a fluke or stroke of dumb luck, I happened to be born down in Texas. We moved right back to Kentucky to be closer to family. But once we were back in Kentucky, I lived in Louisville, and we moved to Paducah, and then we moved to Calvert City in Marshall County, so I kept bouncing around, and then we moved to Louisiana. So, I was always kind of bouncing around, but it always seemed like Kentucky is where we went when we came home, even when my dad’s job kept us bouncing around the South. So, I think what it is is I just started associating being homesick, or just sick for a sense of home, some sort of sense of place, and some sort of consistency where I belong. And I think that, at least, Western Kentucky, which is what I knew the most, seemed to be the most consistent – it’s where my extended family was, and is, and I think I’ve just always seen Kentucky as the place I come to rest. The place I have my sense of place. And if you do bounce around a lot growing up, there might be some place you visit, like your grandmother’s house or something that’s always the steady hub of your life. And I think that’s why I started putting so much stock in Kentucky because it was where I was from but could never quite get back to.

CincyMusic: Sure, that makes sense.

JD: Now that I’m a grown up, I’ve chosen to live there and dig my roots in deeper since they were never allowed to grow originally as a child. So, I think that’s the psychological reason. Other than that, culturally, I think it’s a great balance of a lot of things – North and South, weather. The weather is nice and balanced, you know, mild winters and summers, you know, all things taken into consideration. And culturally with music, with Appalachian music on one side, bluegrass, and then over on our side, it’s a lot of jazz and blues. It’s kind of really the delta over there Paducah way. So, there’s a variety of a lot of nice memories from growing up off and on in the state.

CincyMusic: Makes perfect sense to me.

JD: Yeah

CincyMusic: So, after listening to Will I See You, and my well-worn LP of Fire Dream, so much of what you do, both in your live performances and your studio recordings, sounds, if you’ll permit me, like you’re conjuring the devil?

JD: (chuckles) Yeah, a little bit, maybe. There’s that kind of fire in it, that’s for sure.

CincyMusic: But then you’ll pull off an album like Will I See You One Day In God’s Glory Land. So, where does that dichotomy come from for you?

JD: Well, hmm. I’ve always been draw to blues and gypsy music and klezmer and Latin music – my grandmother is actually Spanish, so it might be in my blood. But, there’s just a drama in it that I like. I enjoy it. I always thought that gypsy music was sort of the blues of Europe, and any kind of pain in its heart is here. There’s a sort of fire and drama in it that might seem devilish. And some of the lyrics definitely dip into that. But then the old timey stuff I do, the banjo stuff, you know its kind of like I was describing about Kentucky being the variety of music from one end to the other. The jazz and blues coming up the Mississippi River mixing into Gospel music to form bluegrass and old-time music. There’s a lot of variety in there to absorb. And depending on what mood I’m in, or what phase of my life I’m in, and what I’m drawn to as it relates to what I’m going through, how I’m feeling. I think that’s just what artists do. You know, I might go through a phase where I just want to hear something pure, or I want to hear something country, or I want to hear something fiery. Or something Spanish-tinged. So there’s those sorts of things. And I’m not just one thing, and I don’t think anyone is, and I don’t ever want to be known for just one flavor, because I think everyone’s a lot more complex than that, and I just dabble in different palettes of sound in accordance with how I’m feeling that year. Just try to be honest about where I’m at and what I’m missing hearing, and other aspects to life, to who we are. To make the same record over and over would be very hard to do, actually. I don’t know how anyone does it. Life is full of variety, and so should an artist’s music and his art should be, too. It just seems normal to me to do it that way.

CincyMusic: A couple of quick questions about the tour. I was lucky enough to see you out on tour with Dex Romweber a few years ago. I actually photographed your show at the Southgate House Revival that night.

JD: Oh, yeah. That was one of the best shows when he got on that piano that I think I’ve ever seen, when he finally sat down. I had been begging him to – we actually brought a piano with us. I had brought a piano with us, and we didn’t need to bring it in because there was already one there in the tavern. But he had the opportunity to play my piano every night and he didn’t want to do it. He was kind of turning me down every night. And finally, at the end of the tour, on the very last show, he sat down and just blew my mind. Just like composing – improvising classical compositions. Like, how does anyone even do that? That to me is genius.

CincyMusic: Yeah, absolutely.

JD: So that was a great show you got to photograph. I still have some video from that. I still think about that show.

CincyMusic: I thought it was a special night, so it’s cool to hear it actually was.

JD: Oh, it was. 

CincyMusic: On top of that, I’ve seen you a couple of other times with the Shack Shakers, also at the Southgate House Revival. Now you’re out with Reverend Peyton. So, you always go out with these diverse… every time I hear about you doing something, I’m amazed at the names that pop up. It’s like you’re just connected with, well, everybody. And like you were saying before, “this is the kind of music I want to hear right now,” so do you go and find who you want to go out on tour with, or do these things just kind of come together?

JD: I wish it worked that way. Actually, they usually come to me with an offer when they’re looking for someone to augment their bill. It just so happens to work out, and I think it has a lot to do with booking agents talking to one another. I know that’s not as exciting, but that is the mundane explanation. But we’re all sort of in the same wheelhouse, dabbling in blues and folk music. There’s only so many of us, really, that are doing it at that level. Plus, I know all these guys from over the years, and I’m friends with them – like Dex and Peyton and Dom Flemons who is also on this run. Just over the years getting to know one another. It’s like friendships that are built kind of organically that later can be utilized – if you want to call it that – and turned into tours. It helps to kinda get out there and befriend people and know what’s going on and root for like-minded people. And then hopefully they’ll remember you later when they’re looking for an act to tour with. I think it’s more a combination of the organic and business. You know, these tours are put together by the grownups that run the show, but we, the ones that actually comprise the show, have already made friends and know and respect one another from a long time ago.

CincyMusic: I know the tour just started, so not much has happened other than food poisoning.

JD: (laughs) Yeah. So far, so good. Well, I can’t even say that. But we’re on the good foot, we’re on the mend, and hopefully we can stay that way. You know, just eating in weird places on the road, you never know what you’re going to get ahold of.

CincyMusic: I am very familiar with that.

JD: (laughs) So we’ll see if we can stay healthy and not die before we get to Cincinnati.

CincyMusic: Well, it was great talking to you. I’m going to let you get going. I really thank you for taking the time with me today, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

JD: Yep, on the 30th. (laughs) God willing.

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Colonel J.D. Wilkes opens for The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band at the Southgate House Revival on Saturday, November 30th, 2019.

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