One of the thrills of the Savannah Music Festival is discovering an artist you had no idea existed. Sometimes you come away thinking "Wow - that was great."
And other performances make you realize you've just seen and heard something extraordinary.
Friday's Shannon Whitworth show fell squarely in the latter category. A North Carolina singer/songwriter whose songs are strictly Americana, but whose voice brings a sexy, sultry Peggy Lee to mind, Whitworth captivated the (relatively small) Morris Center audience from the moment she stepped onstage, wearing a short, simple blue dress and black cowgirl boots.
Alternating between acoustic guitar and clawhammer banjo, Whitworth led her four-man combo through an hour's worth of original tunes whose lyrics featured strong women, hurt women, adventuresome women and women who ought to know better.
Her songs, from the luxuriant "No Expectations" to the bluesy, uptempo "Here But Never Home," covered the gamut of emotions but never relied on cheap emotionalism or clichés. Whitworth's understated vocals, delivered in a wistful purr, were always front and center, and demanded the audience's attention.
Matthew Smith's high lonesome pedal steel guitar provided color and atmosphere, and the guitar of John Stickley (both acoustic and electric) gave Whitworth's words and melodies exquisite counterpoint.
Most of the songs performed were from Whitworth's debut CD, No Expectations, although she did debut several from her upcoming release (including the rhythmic and rollicking "Wrong Kind of Man" and the Steve Earle-esque story-song "Donna Rose").
Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight" was the concert's sole cover tune, and Whitworth - fronting, at that moment, a fairly straightforward country band - turned it into something less desperate and pleading, more confident and even defiant.
Her vocal phrasing is jazz-like in its inflections and Appalachian in its pronunciations ("Marmalade Skies" conjured images of lazy spring afternoons in a mountainside park; "Come on Baby" was a starstruck last dance under a Carolina moon).
Shannon Whitworth spent four years playing banjo and singing harmony in a bluegrass group called the Biscuit Burners. The group never got past a large cult following. As a solo, she is an artist whose time in the spotlight is richly deserved.
She's been compared to Neko Case, but in this reviewer's opinion, Whitworth is a better songwriter AND a better singer.
One more thing - tickets for this show were only $12, which goes to show that quality doesn't automatically come with a hefty price tag.
Shannon Whitworth - remember the name.