JD Wilkes does a lot of things, and he does them well. He’s a steller musician and founding member of the Legendary Shack Shakers. He’s an artist in the classic R. Crumb style. He’s a filmmaker and a Kentucky Colonel. All of these things came in handy when he wrote his new book Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky.
Filled with fantastic stories of the people who frequent many of Kentucky’s surviving jamborees and barn dances, the book is part history, part travelogue, part invitation to join in the fun. Addresses and contact info is included for each place Wilkes visited so that readers can see for themselves what he is writing about. If you’re in or near the Commonwealth, this book is a roadmap to a tradition that is still thriving despite the obstacles.
JD was gracious enough to talk a little more about the book:
Music Tomes: How did the idea come to you to do this book?
JD Wilkes: There are a few jamborees around where I live in western Kentucky. I’ve always enjoyed sitting in with older pickers. The way they learned music was different from the way I did. Most of them learned from even older, living sources. Me, I learned from tapes I bought at the mall. That’s no fun.
MT: Why do you think it is important to preserve the barn dance tradition?
JDW: It’s an old-fashioned communal get-together, something that’s rare in today’s day and age. Barn dances, square dances and jamborees are a way that we can hold on to one small aspect of our disappearing agrarian culture.
Andrew Nelson Lytle said “..let them hold to their agrarian fragments and bind them together, for reconstructed fragments are better than a strange newness.”
This strange newness is our current, fast food, gadget-obsessed post-modern dystopia. I encourage everyone to dwell on as many of the old traditions as is possible. It’s one way we can maintain our humanity.
MT: In a lot of ways the regional, or even local, musical experiences are disappearing with radio consolidation and the accessibility of music on the Web. How has this affected local and regional events?
JDW: Bluegrass was once just a standardized form of old-time music, but now it is driven by radio trends and constant innovation. It is always moving in a direction away from its roots…the same way jazz is. Modern old-time music is undergoing a similar formalization, thanks to the internet and all our free time to nitpick and second guess everything.
That’s why I encourage folks to lighten up and learn from the generation that picked music before the days of television, ones who learned from their 19th-Century parents and grandparents. But we don’t have much time. There aren’t many of these old folks left any more. And once they’re gone there won’t be anyone left who predates pop culture and modern conveniences.
MT: Is it possible for you to pick your favorite jamboree or barn dance you visited?
JDW: My favorite was the Wildwood Flower Square Dance in Magan, KY. Magan is a ghost town in very rural central Kentucky. The string band and the caller both carry on an old Ohio County tradition, singing and calling tunes unique to that area only. The dance floor is packed with folks all ages, from 18-80. Feed bags and kitsch, wagon wheels and horse tack, hamburgers and pop corn. It was a real treat.
MT: Do you have any stories of a place you visited or a character you met that didn’t make the book for one reason or another?
JDW: Several folks in this book deserve their own book. From Letcher County banjo player Lee Sexton to Charlie Stamper, a fiddler from a famous eastern KY lineage.
I’d love it if PBS let me do a show on Jamborees. Folks would flip to see and hear some of the music I’ve been privy to. A whole new generation of pickers and dancers would be born.
MT: What are you currently working on?
JDW: I’m working on a Charlie Stamper record, a collection of his fiddle tunes that I played banjo on. Appalshop is releasing it this summer.
A new Legendary Shack Shakers record will come out early next year too.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
JDW: Obray Ramsey’s “Cold Rain and Snow”, Roscoe Holcomb’s “Hills of Mexico”, George Pegram’s “Fox Chase” (aka “Ol’ Rattler”), Hobart Smith’s “Wabash Blues”, Dock Boggs’ “Drunkard’s Lone Child”, Hiram Stamper’s “Glory in the Meeting House”, “Big Sweet” Lewis Hairston’s “Cotton-Eyed Joe.”
Keep up with JD Wilkes at his Web site: www.jdwilkes.com