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Wilkes hopes 'picking parties' make a comeback in Kentucky

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

Paducah's J.D. Wilkes has traveled the commonwealth with a banjo, harmonica, pen and paper in hopes of preserving a once robust activity: the barn dance.

The Dirt Daubers frontman authored "Barn Dances & Jamborees Across Kentucky," published last year with the goal of helping revive informal, everybody's-welcome, opry style "picking parties." Through ample research and the personal twist of having done some picking of his own around the state, Wilkes has written Kentucky's barn dancing history. 

The fact that it's a book about history, though, doesn't mean Wilkes thinks barn dances are a thing of the past.

"Our indigenous culture is striving on in the face of modernism," Wilkes said at a signing event for the book Sunday at the River Discovery Center.

Through tours with his band, several trips solely for research, and interviews with Kentucky's veteran barn dance hosts, Wilkes said the book has been "cobbled together over the years through many experiences."

"I enjoy those sorts of events because it's not pretentious, it's not for money, it's music for the right reasons," he said.

In a world Wilkes said is currently occupied by promoters, contracts, competition and technology, a return to barn dance-style get-togethers brings back the community spirit that inherently comes with making and loving music.

"There's just this friendly spirit at the heart of it, and that's something that's disappearing more and more with each passing generation," he said.

Wilkes is trying to put the community back in music, and in his book he suggests locations where people today can find a square dance or gathering spot. And his encouragement isn't empty talk. Wilkes and square dance caller who goes by the name T-Claw performed for a lively crowd at a square dance Friday at the Paducah Elks Lodge for a BBC documentary filming on Southern music.

"In the face of technology and iPhones, Facebook, it's easy to get divorced from your fellow man, but this is a way of pressing flesh, getting back in there and rubbing elbows with real human beings," he said.

If the book's sales correlate with word spreading of a barn dance movement, then it's getting around. Wilkes said the publisher, The History Press of Charleston, S.C., is preparing for a second printing.

His favorite story retold in the book, Wilkes said, is that of the late square dance caller Richard Jett. Jett, a caller at Natural Bridge State Park's "Hoedown Island," died doing what he loved.

"The square dance caller died on stage and his understudy grabbed the mic and kept the dance going while the ambulance was coming," he said.

"Barn Dances & Jamborees Across Kentucky" is available at www.historypress.net or www.jdwilkes.com.

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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