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By: Sarah L. Myers

Radio static and a fading shot of the filmmaker in a hollow tree opens “Seven Signs”, the brilliant documentary from Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers front man, Colonel JD Wilkes.

“It got me thinking about the real things I believe in, those things that are often over looked,” Wilkes says, a pair of railroad tracks cutting a seam behind him. He’s speaking of the culture of the American Southland. With seven hand painted signs under his arm, each with the word “believe,” Wilkes sets off on a journey, nailing up his words in each town he visits throughout the film.

Wilkes has built his career on preserving this culture. As front man of the Shack Shakers, he is “the last great rock n’ roll front man,” according to punk icon Jello Biafra. His onstage persona - a feral jumping bean clothed in Lederhosen who channels his energy into front handsprings - earns comparisons to Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson. Offstage, Wilkes is a student of the South, and is one of its most beloved figures.

His focus is far from the “new Nashville” - the neon-lined, garish streets of Lower Broadway. The American South of the media, with its Toby Keiths and Carrie Underwoods, is a comical farce. He steers far from stereotypes, sparing us the cornpone and hayseed humor these mainstream caricatures would have us believe. There’s a Southland far outside this commercial patriotism, and Wilkes’ quest to expose it starts in the marginalized mountains of the true American South.

First we meet Felix Bellar, who has painted signs for more than 60 years. It’s Bellar’s work we see nailed up on bridges and trees as Wilkes works his way through the film.

“You’d better check your Bible out… I think the third World War’s right around the corner myself,“ he says, picking out a melody on the guitar across his lap. “Then you’ll take a brand between your eyes.”

The film also reintroduces some familiar legends, like the famed Monkey Man on Bottom Road, immortalized on the Shack Shakers song of the same name. The house is still there, but its dilapidated remains host “ungodly activities” according to blacksmith Layne Hendrickson, who lives nearby.

Layne Hendrickson - Oak Level, KY

Hendrickson’s scenes are among the most beautiful in the film. Blacksmiths were seen as magical men in Southern folklore because of their ability to transform the elements. Earth in the metal, fire, air in the bellows, and water to quench with. As he dips iron into water, a brisk hiss rises with a whisper of smoke. The sound briefly drowns out the crickets in the background, and he rings the anvil three times to keep the devil away while he’s gone.

This dark side of Southern culture lies just under the surface of each story in the film. Soon we meet artist John Akin, a self-described “minister of the dead” who caught tobacco moths in jars to watch them die, and built his haunted house over a graveyard. Townspeople in Greensburg, Kentucky, speak of him in snippets - “crazy,” “witchdoctor,” “Satan worshipper” - like letting out secrets of their very own Blair Witch. The stark, heartbreaking reality is that Akin, now living in an assisted living home, was simply a recluse, outcast by his homosexuality and peculiar eccentricities.

“I may be different than other people, but there’s other people the same as I am,” he says, his voice breaking.

Wilkes aims to show us individuality, the intuitive notion to go against the grain and seek out the truth. It’s exactly what the mainstream fights against. Evangelists with headsets bark scripted sermons to the upper middle-class, who pack churches outfitted with stadium seating.

This corporate, political religious machine is the Antichrist, says I.Zombi, one of “Seven Signs” most affecting subjects. Badly burned at the age of two, he was a public access horror host in Lexington. He was also a Christian, and fought against anyone who said he couldn’t be both.

“Within each one of us there is darkness, but there’s goodness in people, too,” he says. “When I was baptized, I was resurrected.”

“Contemporary Christianity deserved to be attacked,” says Jamie Barrier, preacher and singer for the Pine Hill Haints. “They get the tax breaks, (and they) build the biggest churches.”

Coming up in the punk rock scene, but raised country in Alabama, Barrier joined the two together. As singer with the Pine Hill Haints, he tours across the country and is associated with similar acts like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, who also make an appearance in the film.

“Seven Signs” explores carnival sideshows, fire and brimstone, and tobacco farming. These fringe groups, and all of the traditions and customs that go along with them, instill a sense of self in southerners. As new generations and gentrification start to shake these off and polish them up, presenting an acceptable “new Southern” way of life, the genuine people are driven to the outskirts.

“Fakery, not authenticity, that’s the South they’d like to sell you,” says Peter Fosl, Professor at Transylvania University in Lexington . “As dirty as it sometimes might be and sometimes monstrous, there’s still something special and good and meaningful in that culture that we’d be better off maintaining.”

“Seven Signs” shows us symbolism, the importance of objects, the mythic translation in everything - the number seven itself, the occupation of blacksmithing, the art of storytelling. Through these traditions, and in the hearts of those who believe them, the spirit of the South continues to breathe. Hendrickson sums it up early in the film with his simple answer to a simple question.

“Why is living in the South the best place in the world?”

“Gosh, have you seen the rest of the world?”




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