If it’s not entirely impossible to keep from using the word “soul” when describing Zac Wilkerson’s music, it is certainly ill-advised. For starters, the Dallas resident’s excellent 2016 album is titled Dustbowl Soul, and plenty of the songs on his new record, Evergreen, feature R&B-powered full-band arrangements, which lend themselves to a roaring soul vibe.
But such bullet points aren’t really the primary hurdle for anyone foolish enough to accept such a futile challenge. Wilkerson’s brilliant, full-bodied vocals can bellow, moan, soar and sizzle with an unmistakable, effortless grace.
It can be really tough to define how a singing voice sounds “soul.” It's similar to what happened in the ruling for the 1964 Jacobellis vs. Ohio Supreme Court case, when presiding Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the movie at the heart of the case wasn’t, in fact, hardcore pornography, as was contended. Not as he saw it, at least. Stewart's idea of what constituted hardcore porn wasn’t actually a definition but a gut feeling. He stated rather simply, but profoundly, “I know it when I see it.”
In that spirit then, you’ll know a voice has soul when you hear it, just like we can instinctively identify hardcore porn. A few spins of Evergreen, and you won't battle any conflicts over Wilkerson's voice. As easy as it is for listeners to hear Wilkerson's soulful quality now, it took Wilkerson himself quite some time to understand what he was working with.
“I didn’t realize it myself for years,” he says of his sound. “And it took the encouragement of several people around me to understand that might be true. I was never intentionally soulful and just sang what I heard in my head. My true voice never really emerged and became defined until I started playing my original songs in 2010.”
Rooted in his love of the grooves once cranked out by icons of Stax and Motown, Wilkerson’s brand of Americana digs well beyond the typical country/rock/folk combo that might spring to mind when thinking of a Texas-dwelling roots-rocker. Songs such as the bouncing, uplifting “White Whale,” the twangy, jangly “Be My Juliet” and the dreamy “Demons” offer a combustible grit and energy with a hearty combination of styles and textures.
The richly swelling organ in “Demons” as well as the record’s rousing lead single, “Give Your Heart to Love,” is a perfect example of a way Wilkerson bridges the divides between rock, soul, blues and country in such a pleasingly cohesive manner.
“The organ and keys sound Jon and Adam Odor [engineer, producer, and manager] captured are one of my favorite parts of the whole record,” he says. “When I first started a band years ago, I wanted a lineup that would echo Booker T. and the MG’s — electric guitar, organ, drums and bass. I wanted that organ sound all over everything I did."
Wilkerson says he's "so fortunate and blessed" to have become friends with Jon Grossman, aka Jonny Keys, formerly of Uncle Lucius. "Arranging the songs was as simple as encouraging Jon to let loose and giving him plenty of room to ‘just do Jonny Keys things’ when it was his time to be featured.”
Wilkerson's specialty isn't limited to the sort of soul that’s easy on the ears. Positive messages of hope and love infuse many of the album’s songs with an addictive verve, and serve as a reminder of what’s important in those days when it’s easier to become annoyed at every little thing we scroll past.
“Incantations I” and “Incantations II” are ghostly, Gothic-tinged gospel tracks inspired by conversations between Wilkerson and Brandon Jenkins, the noted songwriter who unexpectedly passed away two years ago. Writing the songs proved to be “a catalyst” for Wilkerson to grow outside of his usual songwriting comfort zone as he also honored his departed friend.
In “Give Your Heart to Love,” Wilkerson urgently lists some of the narrow-minded warnings people offer when instead, it’s more fulfilling to “give yourself to love or the world will steal your soul,” he sings. The battle to keep his own soul happy in the face of seemingly constant doom and gloom is one Wilkerson fights just as much as anyone else.
“On one hand I can’t understand how people can be so closed off from one another and live in a constant ‘me versus the world’ mindset,” he says. “On the other hand, having experienced the daily assault of harsh realities the world has to offer and the way you can get beat down by work, unrequited love, unaccomplished dreams and the fragility of life, ‘Give Your Heart to Love’ is just as much a message to myself as it is other people. I have to be reminded, and this record is messages to myself just as much as everyone else.”
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Perhaps such helpful reminder messages have also assisted Wilkerson in sticking to his own unique path musically. In a crowded Texas music scene where it’s surely tempting for independent artists to mimic the frat-rockers or slick mainstream-light acts dominating the regional radio charts, Wilkerson proffers a trio of records that mightily defy easy categorization.
“When I started writing in the early ’90s, I decided I was going to write whatever came to me, regardless of style or genre,” he says. "Sticking with that mindset has been rewarding in that I feel like I can make whatever I want. I know coloring outside the lines of certain formulaic formats has limited my exposure and success in certain circles, but the freedom to follow a country song with a soul song and then a driving rock song is something I’m not sure I could give up.”
Wilkerson's resolution to cut his own trail has been nourishment for his soul, as much as for his career.
“I have toyed with the idea of making genre-specific projects,” he says. “And it’s something I may still do someday, but for now I’m having a blast chasing the muse wherever it leads.”