For four years, Shannon Whitworth was the engine that drove the Appalachian acoustic group The Biscuit Burners, the musical pride of tiny Weaverville, N.C. Her fearless clawhammer banjo style gave the band fire; her dusky, sultry, one–of–a–kind vocals put a bluesy edge on the group’s tight vocal harmonies.
She’s on her own now, playing more guitar than banjo, the focus of her solo material on her voice – and on the lyrical pitch–and–roll of her sweet, simple and un–self–consciously personal songwriting.
Whitworth and her band, dubbed the Refugees, will open for the bluegrass group Cherryholmes Thursday, at the Charles H. Morris Center, and follow it Friday afternoon with a full show by themselves at the same venue.
The 30–year–old Carolinian, who’s from Brevard, a bit southeast of Asheville, has a warm and sensual voice that’s more Billie Holiday than Gillian Welch. Yet her music is rooted, firmly, in Appalachian soil.
She grew up in a family where everybody loved acoustic music.
“I had my big brothers playing it, so that’s why I was playing it,” Whitworth says. “And my parents had great taste in music, so I owe them for a lot of why I’m doing it. Having big brothers that played it, that’s what you did, you just played with them. Nothing serious – it was a pastime.”
As for the five–string banjo, “One of my brothers played Scruggs–style, and when he wasn’t looking I’d pick up his banjo and mess around on it. I didn’t play his style, but sorta adapted my own sort of sound.”
(Her distinctive banjo phrasing takes its cue from the blues, as opposed to bluegrass.)
She and Mary Lucey formed the Biscuit Burners in 2004. “It was a pretty organic thing,” Whitworth recalls. “It started out as an all–girl group, and then other girls had other obligations. We wanted to keep the band going, so Mary’s boyfriend – now her husband – joined the band, and another guy that moved from Texas came and joined the band. And that was that.”
The band played at Bonnaroo, MerleFest and NPR’s Mountain Stage, and toured for nearly half of every year.
“We were young, and just wanted to make music,” says Whitworth. “And make CDs. And travel – it was an awesome way to see the country. It was just a really fun time. But it worked its course, you know?”
She was one of the Biscuit Burners’ principal songwriters, too. “I’ve always loved writing,” she explains, “and in the beginning I didn’t consider myself a writer, I just wrote poems, and in journals, whatever.
“And then when I learned a few chords on the guitar, it was just natural. It was the ultimate way of creating musically, I just thought. I just had to do it; it was really fun.”
Whitworth says she has no precise musical “style” in mind when she writes. “You’re just writing what’s coming through you; it comes out the way it comes out.”
Her departure from the Biscuit Burners left – at least temporarily – a hole in her life. “I wasn’t really intending to do anything,” Whitworth says. “But I was writing more music than I had in a really long time.
“My fiance came home and said ‘You’ve got to record a CD – you’re writing tons of these songs.’ And I said I can’t do that, I can’t even imagine it. I was just sort of in a weird place, didn’t have a band, didn’t really know what I was going to do.”
She made the CD, No Expectations, anyway, and its blend of acoustic instrumentation – guitar, mandolin, banjo et cetera – and those smoky vocals made critics and fans sit up and ask where she’d been hiding all these years.
When, of course, she’d been part of a high–profile band the whole time.
“Through that, my fire started getting bright again,” Whitworth explains. “The Biscuit Burners’ booking agent called me and told me that there was a festival up in Maine, and they wanted to book me to play. And I was like ‘I don’t have a band, I can’t,’ and I hung up the phone and thought about it.
“He called me back and said ‘You’ve got six months to pull a band together, and I think you can do it.’ I told him ‘I was just about to call you back and tell you the same thing.’”
For the Refugees, she recruited Biscuit Burner John Stickley on mandolin and guitar, then sought out pedal steel and dobro player Matthew Smith, bassist Jake Hopping and drummer Seth Kauffman.
“That was one of the hardest things, calling these guys and asking them to play with me,” Whitworth laughs. “I felt like I was asking them out on a date, I was so nervous. But it ended up being fine.”
She recently spent a few weeks in Nashville, co–writing for the first time, and recording her second CD. “Having such great musicians makes me want to write that many more songs and get ‘em out there,” she says.
Whitworth and her fiance just moved to a farm outside Brevard; two rivers intersect on their property (since they both love to fish, it was a serendipitous purchase).
In the meantime, a new manager and booking agent are sending her and the band all over the country, to perform songs from No Expectations, the still–untitled new CD and the Biscuit Burners’ back catalog.
Which is fine with Shannon Whitworth, who’d just as soon stay home and work on her pottery and fish. She likes it that somebody else is motivating her.
“If you knew me at all, you’d know I’m not a businesswoman, and I’m not a really aggressive go–getter,” she says.
“I mean I am, to some degree, but I’m really involved with art and music, and spend most of my time doing that. Just trying to keep the creative fire alive.”
Thursday, March 25: Opening for Cherryholmes. At 6:30 and 9 p.m., Charles H. Morris Center, 12 E. Broad St.
Friday, March 26: Shannon Whitworth & the Refugees at 12:30 p.m., Charles H. Morris Center, 10 E. Broad St.