For more than 16 years, The Legendary Shack Shakers have been twisting American roots music (juke-joint blues, rockabilly, old-timey hillbilly, gospel and more) into degenerate shapes and releasing them with their tails afire. Now, the Old Testament era of the Shack Shackers is drawing to a close with a final show at Mercy Lounge this weekend — good news for any Saturday night sinner.
"The Shack Shakers are going to take a year or maybe more off," longtime Shakers bass player and producer Mark Robertson tells the Scene. "None of us know exactly what that means. We're just going to not talk about playing for a year. We've toured so hard for so many years, people want to do different things and just take a break."
The Shack Shakers were founded in 1996 by frontman J.D. Wilkes, and Robertson joined in 2000 — making him the longest-serving member after Wilkes. With grueling tour schedules and frenetic live shows that border on old-time holiness fervor, the Shakers have spread their gospel of whoop-ass musical evangelism around the world. But such hard playing and traveling has led to a high turnover in group membership.
"We've all stayed friends," Robertson says. That's why several past members, including drummer Paul Simmons and guitarists Duane Denison and David Lee, will be rejoining the band for this weekend's show. Wilkes' side band The Dirt Daubers and fellow travelers through the weird American songbook, Pine Hill Haints, are also on the bill. While surprise players may indeed appear, Robertson says not to expect a guest-star show. "We don't want to make it a spectacle, since it's always a kind of throw-down band."
In addition to serving as a farewell for now, the show is also a fundraiser for The Legendary Shack Shakers' current drummer Brett Whitacre, who is facing a mountain of medical bills. Whitacre, 36, had no idea he suffered from a heart ailment when he began experiencing strange and disturbing incidents two years ago. In 2010 and 2011, Whitacre had several fainting spells months apart.
"It was always in my down time," says Whitacre. "Never when I was doing something strenuous." While the brief blackouts were disconcerting, Whitacre chalked them up to a musician's lifestyle. "I don't sleep regular hours, and I live a weird kind of life, so I thought it was just that."
In March, the blackouts took a more serious turn. "I blacked out two times in one day," Whitacre says. "Luckily, my wife and I were staying at my parents' house temporarily while we were moving back to Chicago. They were alarmed enough to call the ambulance. I blacked out a third time in the ambulance, and they recorded a flat-line of eight seconds. That told them for sure it was a heart issue. Two days later, I had the pacemaker.
"My heart is fine as far as plumbing goes," Whitacre continues. "The problem is purely electrical." The specific issue was a type of arrhythmia known as bradycardia, which causes the heart to beat too slowly on occasion. "A hundred years ago I would have just been known as the guy who blacks out a lot."
With the pacemaker in place, Whitacre has had no further problems, and has been able to continue playing drums for the Shack Shakers and several bands in the Chicago area. But since his wife was between jobs at the time of his diagnosis — and they were without health insurance — Whitacre was presented with bills totaling over $60,000.
Whitacre says he's been working with bill collectors to manage the debt, and his main career as a painter and graphic artist has been bringing in extra income through commission work. Whitacre's "urban pop glass" paintings are a mash-up of pop culture imagery applied with spray paint and stenciling on antique storm windows. (To see Whitacre's art, inquire about commissions or donate to his medical fund, visit brettwhitacre.net.)
With his artwork and side project bands, Whitacre will be staying busy, but he says he will miss the Shack Shakers' fans. "The crowds were always there and always enthusiastic. That's the best part of it. Touring is exhausting, and you're living for that hour each night. It's really been the best experience."
Robertson is looking forward to moving on, but isn't ready to count out the Shack Shakers for good yet. "Right now, I'm loving the idea," he says. "I have so many other things I want to do, and now I have the time to do them. But check back with me in six months. Because there's really no other band like the Shack Shakers, where I can jump in and have that freedom of expression."