A sense of place has long permeated the music of J.D. Wilkes. He's a native of Paducah, KY, a city located at the confluence of various rivers and cultures – an area where musical variety is in the air and in the blood memory of its people. "Of course, there's bluegrass and hillbilly songs, but also blues, jazz, old time fiddle music, jug band music, even swamp rock," says Wilkes. "It's a great intersection there. I think I epitomize that in the way that I write and perform." Wilkes' solo debut, Fire Dream, represents the apotheoses of that vision: a hillbilly-gypsy epic, it's an album of art damaged cabaret music, leavened by Latin rhythms and high lonesome hollers. Call it boho bluegrass – maybe what Tom Waits would sound like if he were a Kentucky Colonel (a title that Wilkes happens to hold).
Recorded at Delta-Sonic Sound in Memphis with producer Bruce Watson and Jimbo Mathus, the album finds Wilkes creating a complex tapestry of styles and sounds, playing banjo, harmonica, and piano, adding percussion, and even winding up an old hurdy-gurdy. Aiding him in that effort are a couple kindred musical spirits in guitarist Mathus and multi-instrumentalist Dr. Sick from the ever-eclectic Squirrel Nut Zippers. Rounding out the recording are contributions from Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton, up-and-coming soul chanteuse Liz Brasher on backing vocals, and the horn section from Bluff City R&B band, The Bo-Keys.
The album's opening and title track "Fire Dream" establishes the tone with a cinematic setup. Within its 10 tracks Fire Dream contains multitudes: from galloping string rambles ("Wild Bill Jones") to slow burning laments ("Walk Between the Raindrops"), hardscrabble narratives ("Hoboes Are My Heroes") exotic nocturnes ("Moonbottle"), and hellfire comedy ("Bible, Candle and a Skull"). The sprite, horn-heavy "Down in the Hidey Hole," meanwhile, is something Wilkes describes as "apocalyptic ska." Wilkes' acid wit shines through on Fire Dream, with his lyrics coming across as both highly crafted and deeply intuitive.