Since Thomas Dorsey first brought Ma Rainey's blues into the pews, and Ray Charles began hollering hymns in watering holes, American musicians have been erasing the already thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning. They've waged and won the battle to blend the sacred with the secular, and paved the way for sounds now known as gospel and soul to be cemented into the foundation of American music.
While the spectrum of sensationalism has been stretched so wide these days, it's never too much for the malleable arms of music. This explains how a couple of mad mothers of invention like one-man band Scott H. Biram and Col. J.D. Wilkes of Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, who'll hit Mohawk Place together on Sunday, can whip a cathartic combination of preachin' and screechin' into a hellbilly hurricane that shakes out our demons, dances with them and kicks them to the curb all at once.
"It's easy to blend them," said Wilkes, between sound checks at the tour kickoff in Lexington this week. "The thing that they both have is soul. People are looking for soul and conviction. Look at Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis -- they both have the same passion, conviction, that weird look in their eye -- people are weirded out and drawn to it at the same time."
Wilkes has certainly done well to align himself in that camp, and the formidable Yep Roc Records did well to sign the Nashville-based band to a three-record deal -- the second of which, "Pandelerium," was released last month. Quite an unimposing figure, he takes the stage at about 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 120 pounds soaking wet -- and that's exactly what he'll be when he's through unleashing his beasts. With a cannon-blasted carni-billy trio behind him, he slinks and slides from the stage to atop speakers, and spits and scowls at the crowd with seedy tales of ne'er-do-wells and hellacious harp solos. Whether harmless or just well-harnessed, he's clearly demented.
"A little bit of dementia is great, as long as it's harmless," he said. "Politicians, civil rights leaders -- Howlin' Wolf had it. What it is is charisma, conviction and crazy."
"He's got a show going on within his show," said Biram, while driving to the Lexington show. "We both have similar attitudes -- there's a lot of attitude in our music. People like to get screamed at and told what to do sometimes, and dared to do things."
The Austin-based Biram, another loose cannon if there ever was one, was grabbed up by insurgent country leaders Bloodshot Records, which defied its credo in adding him to its stout stable.
"Their Web site said absolutely no heavy metal," he said. "I told them, 'I heard you don't take any heavy metal. I'm the exception.' They called a couple weeks later."
But Biram is well worth eating crow for. With a '59 Gibson acoustic guitar, a CB-style mic for his wild harp and rowdy vocals, and another mic at the floor for foot-stomping, his porch-punk, ragin' red neck revue combines backwoods blues, evangelical fervor and primal aggression in an almost full-body attack. "I still got a free foot that I haven't figured out what to do with yet," he said.
The follow-up to his Bloodshot debut, "Dirty Old One Man Band," is due this summer, and he describes it as "country, hillbilly, gospel, preaching, blues and heavy metal all in one raw, lo-fi sound."
Raw is the key word for these two acts -- no matter how much they refine and revamp their sound, the unpredictability of their sheer emotional and physical release onstage will always be their bread and butter. "The 9-to-5, blue-collar folks, when they wanna let loose, they don't want a singer-songwriter -- they wanna throw down, and that's what we provide for them," said Wilkes. "Joe Six-Pack and Hard-Hat Harry folks aren't gonna be satisfied with the ballet."
WHO: Th' Legendary Shack Shakers with Scott H. Biram
WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Mohawk Place, 47 E. Mohawk St.