If you thought you knew the thrashing, fire and brimstone Colonel J.D. Wilkes of the Legendary Shack Shakers, think again. These days the Colonel embraces his down home alter-ego, "Paw" Wilkes, the affable frontman and lead banjo picker for the hillbilly-hokum-bluegrass combo, the Dirt Daubers.
"The Dirt Daubers are a mountain music combo, and the Shack Shakers are the same thing just amped up to eleven," says Wilkes. "Lyrically they're very similar. Performance-wise they're two different parts of my brain. Two different hemispheres really."
There is a Jekyll and Hyde quality to Wilkes' two personae: With the Shack Shakers, he spits, flails and screams like an enraged Southern Baptist minister. With the Dirt Daubers, he assumes the role of a Kentucky troubadour, holding down the spanky bluegrass and hot jazz rhythms on a four-string banjo, flanked on either side by his wife Jessica "Maw" Wilkes on mandolin, and their mighty blacksmithing friend "Slow" Layne Hendrickson on the gutbucket-washtub bass.
"The Dirt Daubers is more difficult than the Shack Shakers," he says of the band's stripped-down approach. "It's more of a trick to pull off. With the Shack Shakers, I'm not relied upon to provide the music bed of the songs. With the Dirt Daubers, I'm holding things together more in the middle."
The band members hail from Paducah, Ky., and as is the case with all of Wilkes' artistic endeavors, their songs are drenched in dark Southern lore and mythology. Stories of murderous hillbilly mothers, Tennessee dog attacks, and ghosts lingering at the crossroads haunt the lyrics of both bands' songs.
If all that wasn't enough to keep Wilkes busy, he also directed his first film, Seven Signs, a 2007 documentary that illuminates the disappearing traditions, music and backwoods lore of the south.
"Rather than rebelling against the South or small town life, one way to get along is to embrace its more interesting aspects, like its folklore and its mythology and old characters," says Wilkes. "I was that teenager that didn't rebel, that delved a little deeper into what I already had. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and hating my parents, I got more into what the area I was stuck in had to offer."
The Dirt Daubers got their start playing the Raindance Film Festival in London, after Wilkes was invited over for the screening of Seven Signs. Les Claypool was in the audience and was soon praising the band's hillbilly antics. But even before their British debut, "Maw" and "Paw" Wilkes could often be found picking bluegrass tunes in the kitchen of their Kentucky home.
"It's a family affair ... punk rock kids and their grandparents can like what we do. It's just weird enough for the kids, and just familiar enough to the grandparents. It's not necessarily southern music. It's rural good-time music."
The band's self-titled album features songs pieced together from old Southern gospel numbers such as "The Devil Gets His Due," as well as the Shack Shakers cover, "County of Graves." It's sure to please long-time Shack Shakers fans, as well Colorado bluegrass fans who may not even know what a dirt dauber is.
"Everybody's got honey bees," explains Wilkes. "We've got dirt daubers where we live."