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Colonel Knowledge: J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers Try to Put the Edge Back in Roots Music 

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We don't profess to know what it takes to become a bona fide Kentucky colonel but we'll take Dirt Daubers' singer J.D. Wilkes at his word when he says you must have done "something that in some way reflects positively on the state of Kentucky." A few years back, Wilkes was nominated and subsequently crowned colonel. Until recently, the job didn't have any real responsibility attached to it.

"I guess my music and art qualified me," says Wilkes via phone from his Paducah, Ky., home. "Once you get it, it's a neat certificate to hang on the wall, but now what do you do? I have donated to the charity that's involved. It's like the Elks or Moose lodge or some other society like that. Other than that, it's a neat thing to talk about in interviews."

But his colonel-related duties have recently become rather significant. Paducah tapped him to represent the city abroad in Dublin, Ireland, a UNESCO sister city of the arts.

"Since I was going over there to tour, they equipped me with a gift bag to give to the Lord Mayor of Dublin," says Wilkes, who's also the author of Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky. "That was a very prestigious event with cameras and coffee and a formal meeting with the Deputy Lord Mayor who's an author and friend of Bono from U2 and an actor. He happens to be vice mayor of Dublin. It was a very prestigious event and I wore my Kentucky general string tie. I did the whole bit."

The two even formally exchanged gifts.

"I brought them back to give my mayor," Wilkes says. "It's neat I get to don the full suit and tie and work as an acting Kentucky colonel. That's not typical, though. It just happened recently and Paducah was accepted as part of UNESCO, some highfalutin organization. It's pretty cool. Because Dublin is a city of literature — that's their designation under UNESCO — and we're a city of craft and folk art, we presented them with books and a small quilt. Paducah is the quilt capital of the world. We had a nice conservation about how quilting came from Ireland. Kentucky and Ireland have a lot in common with the whiskey, and the bluegrass of the Emerald Isle is colored by the the same strata that goes under the Atlantic Ocean to Kentucky. We're physically and geologically the same."

Born in Texas, Wilkes eventually moved to the South and embraced its culture early on. His grandfather gave him his first harmonica when he was 15, and he taught himself to play from a "book and a tape."

"Originally it was 'Oh Susanna' and 'Suwannee River' and Stephen Foster tunes," he says of his early skills on the blues harp. "I started listening to my dad's Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins records. I started absorbing blues and listening to Little Walter and Junior Wells and Sonny Boy Williamson and all those guys. The harmonica was the thing I could take with me to practice. Even when I was going to school and going to college, I practiced a lot."

Some 20 years ago, he started up the Legendary Shack Shakers, a rowdy rockabilly band, in Murray, Ky., where he was going to college. That band is still going strong and regularly includes Cleveland as a tour stop. Then, in 2009, he and his wife Jessica formed the Dirt Daubers, a group that puts a bit more emphasis on the traditional side of rockabilly and country blues.

"We're jumping genres and got into rock 'n' roll by going electric, though we still have some string stuff in the set to represent that era, and the Dirt Daubers can be whatever the two of us come up with," he says. "The Shack Shakers are the theatrical, over-the-top band that goes for the jugular. We tend to be more traditional unless [Jessica] tells me otherwise."

Wilkes admits he didn't even know his wife could sing when they were married.

"She never said a word about it," he says. "I had to coax her to get on stage to do it. I knew she had it in her. Everyone needs an outlet and I encouraged her to find it. She found it all right. She works in these R&B colorations. I'm really proud of her. She's come a long way. To go from singing the Carter Family to Etta James, that's a great leap."

For the band's latest effort, Wild Moon, it teamed up with Plowboy Records, the Nashville label owned by Shannon Pollard, grandson of classic country singer Eddy Arnold. Former Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome, the label's creative director, produced the disc.

"They want it to represent the insurgent side of the Nashville music scene," Wilkes says of Chrome and Pollard. "They're going for that edgier side of country and rock 'n' roll. It's the sound of Nashville that doesn't get exported as much as the cheese does. I'm not really a punk rocker but people like to put me in that world."

Wilkes says he's punk rock "only in the sense that if you go back and listen to how people learn to play from the gut.

"Bluegrass and roots music has become very cerebral and precious in modern times," he says. "It's gotten competitive and there's free time to sink into practicing. Back in the day, it was ornery and full of fire. I think if anything, the reason why so many aging punk rockers get into blues and roots music is because there's room to interpret it that way. That's the way old-time music sounded. It had fire in its belly."

He says punk rockers are better positioned to stoke those fires.

"Punk rock puts it back in, whereas the academics that pick apart roots music have taken the fun out of it," he says. "They're counting the steps in their head. Are they really having fun? The music tries to put that fire back in where it's visceral and fun, and if you mess up, it's cool that you messed up. No one cares. In punk rock, if you broke a sweat and looked silly, no one cares. That's the spirit that needs to be injected back into roots music."

<p>J.D. Wilkes and the Dirt Daubers with Mike Brown & The Cuyahoga County Rebels and Let 'Em Run

8:30 p.m. Sunday, June 29, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10, beachlandballroom.

More by Jeff Niesel

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