“What If The Songs Were Funny?” – J.D. Wilkes Talks Legendary Shack Shakers Anniversary Album ‘Cockadoodledeux’

New album Cockadoodledeux arrives today, November 5th, from J.D. Wilkes and The Legendary Shack Shakers on Alternative Tentacles.The album’s title is an overt nod to their breakout album Cockadoodledon’t, and celebrates the 25th anniversary of the outfit with a grand reunion of many past members contributing to the new tracks.

A big surprise in some ways is that the album has a unique genre focus, taking in Country and Western sounds. If you look at the sweep of releases from The Legendary Shack Shakers, however, you’ll notice that this has always been the item missing from their wide-ranging menu. It’s absence even meant that some songs intended for a previous album were actually deemed too Country and Western in sound and therefore were left looking for a home—until now.

However, this “big tent” idea brings us songs from across a wide sweep of sub-genres, too, from Western Swing, to Bluegrass, and many more. I spoke with J.D. Wilkes about exploring the wilds of Cowboy songs for Cockadoodledeux, why Rawhide is a touchstone for pop culture thoughts about Westerns, and how a “Punk Rock Retirement Plan” in Country music may be more widespread than we think.

Hannah Means-Shannon: The new album is really quite giant, with so many moving pieces. Is this the first time you decided to focus on just one broad genre for an album? I know more recently, things have been quite eclectic.

J.D. Wilkes: Before, early on, in the Hunkerdown era, that was Rockabilly. With the original lineup, it was more Jump Blues, Western Swing. It was kind of Country Hillbilly music with a Blues heart. But the more I learn, the more I seem to develop creative ADHD. I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to mix it all together. I like doing it that way. I like doing a variety show. I don’t understand how bands can do the same thing year after year. I guess that’s branding and brand loyalty results from that. I’m not doing it to be quirky or anything, though, I’m genuinely in love with all these different music styles. But yes, this is the first time I’ve had to grab the reigns and say, “J.D., calm down! Let’s focus.” But again, I can’t help myself, because within the Country music genre, I’m finding a lot of variety there. That’s a big tent.

HMS: It really is. Did you already have a very strong sense of that, or did thinking about this album lead you down even more avenues?

JDW: I knew I wanted to do a kind of retrospective for the band, so that meant going back and looking at different early lineups. The earliest lineup was the Hunkerdown lineup, which predates Cockadoodledon’t, though that’s the one that everyone knows. But that was also the album that had the greatest potential for another pun! So I decided I do that tip of the hat.

HMS: I love that the pun was part of the decision.

JDW: Oh, absolutely. That was actually the first thing. But it also ties into my old time love for barn dancing and bringing in the veteran musicians from the area. Country music was the common denominator of all of the above. I couldn’t go springing a Klezmer song on Hillbilly Bob. Most of the old Shack Shakers wouldn’t know what to do with the wacked-out evil clown music I’ve wandered into over the years. Country music has a lot of variety anyway, so we just settled on that.

I already had one song in the can, though, because it was axed from the last Alternative Tentacles production because it was too Country. We were going for something different then.

HMS: Yes, “Secret Mountain”, right? I heard that you were kind of thinking in this direction even when you were doing the solo album, Fire Dream.

JDW: Yes, that’s right. Some of the songs were written for Fire Dream. It wouldn’t have been titled Fire Dream if it had gone the Country route. I had some of these kind of Tom Waits-y sounding songs, and I had some of these Country Honky-Tonk type songs, and I presented them all to Bruce Watson from Fat Possum. He had already picked Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers to come in, and there was the answer right there. There was that hot Jazz, Cab Calloway, circus, Tom Waits-y kind of sound. So we took the other songs and set them aside. I think it’s beautiful how it all worked out. It makes sense. It spared those songs for later for this retrospective album and it allowed the solo album to have that other vibe.

HMS: Now, about “Rawhide”, did you choose this because it’s just so big a part of cultural awareness? You can’t get bigger than that, really, in terms of what people think of when they think of “Western”.

JDW: It’s a cartoonish thing. It’s also a tip of the hat to the Blues Brothers, since that was the one Country song they knew. Also, I didn’t know that Jello Biafra (of Alternative Tentacles) had recorded that. I didn’t grow up listening to Punk, really. I was more into Blues growing up. It was obvious to get him to sing on something that he had made famous. But I also need to ask him if he had picked it because of the comedy value of it. My life is basically Spinal Tap meets The Blues Brothers anyway, and that scene really resonates with me, always has. There are a million different situations we’ve gotten ourselves into, with constant traveling and ridiculous scenarios, like those movies. So “Rawhide” is the theme of that for us. If you’re not going to do that, then do a Spinal Tap song. But this is a Country record, so that’s our choice.

HMS: Hearing it in this form really made me listen to the lyrics more, and they are so weird!

JDW: Those trail songs and cowboy songs are really kind of odd poetry, a lot of them. Some of them were probably written in Hollywood, but cowboy poetry and trail songs are a whole other world. “The Streets of Laredo” and “Cool Water” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” may also have been written in Tin Pan Alley, but they have that feel. They are oddly worded, beautifully worded, and strange. It’s not like an Appalachian nonsense song with floating verses. These are very specific and have a strangeness to them which draws me to them.

HMS: I find the lyrics on songs like that very sparing and very evocative. I did find myself wondering occasionally, when listening to a couple of collections of old cowboy songs, about the mindset that would come up with those phrases. It is pretty fascinating.

JDW: Yes, I love it. Also, I was singing it around the studio, and it was pointed out to me that I had the rhythm wrong when I was doing “Head ‘em up, Move ‘em out, Move ‘em out, Head ‘em up”. I was doing it off time. But what they were doing there was a horse gallop, like a Foley artist’s coconut song. And that’s the heart of most old-time music. When you hear Johnny Cash music, you hear the train rhythm. They assigned phonic, rhythmic elements to highlight that gallop on “Rawhide”. Then I saw what they were doing and we locked it in.

HMS: You have this hilarious animated and live action video for “Rawhide”, which I understand ties into a show that you had a song on, with the same animators. And you all have worked on videos together before, I think?

JDW: That’s right. It’s by Tara Billinger and Zach Bellissimo, who were working on a Western thing. The name of the girl in the cartoon is Rawhide, so we see her pop up in “Rawhide”. You’d think that was done for the video, but that’s her introduction scene from the show. We knew this was going to happen and would work out perfectly. Then we also did a bunch of wacky stage stuff with a green screen. We used public domain Westerns flashing in the background to do a bunch of cameos. I thought it came out alright.

HMS: It certainly did. It has a manic pace to it, like the song. Now, can you confirm for me that when you all start punching each other in the street, that was real, right? You had a real fight, right?

JDW: Absolutely! It was a creative dispute about how the video should be made. It came to blows, very slow-motion blows. You can’t have a Western without a big fight scene! People need to get slugged out of windows and fall into the streets.

HMS: Did you grow up thinking about Westerns, or was that a later interest?

JDW: We all had that pop culture branding from television and old reruns. It’s that cartoonish version of history. But it turns out that it’s way more rich, as a story. I love to dabble in the cartoonish and wacky, and I don’t have any guilt about that. People know me to be like a human cartoon on stage anyway. It’s fun and harmless. But we all have those iconic stereotypes in our minds. It’s like pirates, when we think of Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates didn’t look like that. They were way more scroungy and dying of starvation half the time. But the stereotypes are a little more palatable and fun.

HMS: Does knowing there are funny stereotypes for Western themes make it easier to bring humor into these new songs? It’s kind of heard to unring that bell. I know you’ve always worked with humor, but there’s a lot here with Cockadoodledeux.

JDW: The bell I’m trying to unring is the purple prose, Southern Gothic, overwrought lyricism of the past. I’m popping a hole in it. I’m asking, “What if the songs were funny?” I’m letting the lyrics do the wacky bouncing around that I usually do on stage. I do have “Secret Mountain” on there, though.

HMS: That is a bit more serious. It’s blood-curdling and eerie.

JDW: It’s a real story and a real legend where I’m from. Only recently have I gotten into the confessional, sincere songcraft. Previously I never really thought that way. We debuted with fun songs that weren’t really funny, novelty songs. We are bombastic on stage. But I also wanted people to know that “J.D. is okay!” The last couple of records I’ve done have been stark and traditional and this brings a little levity.

HMS: “Punk Rock Retirement Plan” is a good example of that. The funny thing is, I heard some truth in that. A lot of musicians change genres over the years. It made me laugh on a different level. There’s less ageism in Roots music, I feel.

JDW: Jerry Lee Lewis changed to Country music and had a second career. Sheryl Crow and Bon Jovi, too. All these people find a different chart where they are happy to have you. They act like it legitimizes them when big stars come over to Country. They are flattered, I think, that the stars are respecting Country music, even if it might be self-serving. But it’s also a biological phenomenon that young men, past a certain age, don’t Rock as much anymore.

There’s a warrior energy to young men where you’re hunting or breaking into liquor stores. If you’re done doing that, Rock ‘n Roll doesn’t hold the same purpose anymore. It’s why jokes are made about old Rock stars. We all understand the chemistry. When you hit “manopause”, you start playing Country music, picking up banjos, and combing your hair.

HMS: [Laughs] Do you think that affected you? Can you see that in your life?

JDW: Absolutely. It’s annoying that people say, “Why don’t you take your shirt off and do a backflip tonight?” It would never occur to me to do that naturally. I’m in sync with who I am and I do what’s natural to me. I think that people can sniff out “phony”. That was a brief period for me, when I decided that I wanted to express anger through music. It didn’t last that long, really. It was maybe five years at its most intense. Then my body changed, and I was fine, and I was freed from that burden.

Now I can actually make records that sound good! There are all kinds of aspects of life that you can make music about. Yes, it was Rock ‘n Roll back then, but it was also always a Blues band. It had enough Roots in it that you can emphasize those elements. Nothing really has changed here. It’s the same old me. It’s just where I’m at. I always wanted to make the records reflect where I was at in terms of my fascination.

My fascination was never with Punk. It was the live shows that came out that way. It’s a nerve-wracking thing to get up there back then, and it was redirected stage fright, mixed with a little anger and resentment from teenage years. I got over that pretty quick. I still try to be funny and entertain, physically, but I’m just not an angry acrobat now, like I was then.