The Legendary Shack-Shakers’ crazy music and over-the-top vocals sometimes make it hard to remember that their performance comes out of a sincere love of the South and its traditions. From that perspective, it makes sense that frontman J.D. Wilkes would start a (slightly) calmer band with a stronger connection to his everyday culture. The Dirt Daubers feature acoustic instruments and a fairly even split between traditional songs and originals. Wilkes’ hell-raising energy is present as always, though, and the result is a raucous celebration of old-time country and folk. Though the lyrics don’t have the surprising intelligence of the Shack-Shakers, they are sharp and honest, and the songs fly by at two minutes each.
Of their two releases so far, Wake Up Sinners is the essential one. In comparison, the self-titled debut feels more like a calling card than a complete album. Only four of its ten songs are written by Wilkes, and one of those is a misguided remake of an existing Shack-Shakers song. Another is redone (and improved) on Wake Up Sinners. Even one of the traditional songs, “Sugar Baby”, has already appeared on a Shack-Shakers album. A couple of the tracks feel more like incomplete snippets than full songs. That’s not to say there aren’t some great efforts: The loose, belted-out rendition of “Black Eyed Susie” and the mellow “On The Front Porch” summarize the range of their energetic-but-respectful approach to musical traditions, and the gravel-voiced “Ode to Conrail Twitty” brings a punk efficiency to a song about trains and tradition.
Wake Up Sinnersbrings in the Shack-Shakers’ Mark Robertson on bass and promotes Jessica Wilkes, J.D.’s wife, to lead vocals. It’s at this point that they seem like a self-assured band instead of a side project. The fuller sound and more fleshed-out lyrics will be welcome to Shack-Shakers’ fans, even as Jessica’ contributions distinguish it as a separate band. She doesn’t show much range, sticking to a fast-paced, slightly aggressive delivery, but it fits the band perfectly. With the two vocalists taking turns on songs, variety never becomes a concern. The excellent harmonica performance deserves a mention, as well. It’s rare for that instrument to distinguish itself like this.
The traditional songs are much improved, as well. I’d never wanted to hear “Wayfaring Stranger” again, but J.D.’s upbeat rendition of it is exactly what was needed. Later, Jessica delivers “Say Darlin’ Say” (a different version of “Hush Little Baby”) as an enjoyable song for adults. The songs still feel a little slight, and even the best ones wear out their welcome if listened to repeatedly, but they’re great if you return to them the next day. I wouldn’t be surprised if the band’s true masterpiece is still ahead of them. If they improved this much from one album to the next, why should they stop now?
The Dirt Daubers: C+
Wake Up Sinners: B+