There's a common misconception among Shannon Whitworth fans in the Lowcountry that she either grew up in Charleston or lived here at some point in her life. Both her brother and niece call Charleston home, and growing up between Hilton Head, St. Simons, Ga., and Oakton, Va., the city was on Whitworth's radar from an early age. There's no doubt the Brevard, N.C.-based singer/songwriter loves to play in the Holy City.
Whitworth seems to have a knack for playing choice venues when she comes to town, from the Footlight Theatre to Marion Square to "the mound" on Sullivan's Island. None, however, compare to where she'll perform this week.
"I never thought in a million years that I'd ever be playing music in the Dock Street Theatre," Whitworth says. "I remember the symphonies playing there when I was young and then reading about the building in Pat Conroy books. I'm so thrilled and humbled to get to play within those walls."
Whitworth's arrival coincides with a season of exciting developments for the songwriter. Fans who tuned into the Belk Bowl football game between N.C. State and Louisville in December were surprised to hear her familiar voice singing over the department store's new ad series. The company hired her again for a Mother's Day campaign.
"It's been a fun, new way of playing music for a living that gives my career a multi-pronged approach," Whitworth says. "They'll call me and give adjectives of what they're looking for so I can try to write something that fits. They even asked if I was interested in doing a lingerie commercial."
Belk has only required Whitworth's voice so far. Still, it's her sultry singing that's done far more than even her stark blue eyes to break (and mend) hearts along the way.
Thanks to the Belk relationship, Whitworth was able to pause from touring this spring and devote herself to two new recording projects. Whitworth recently released an album of duets with guitarist (and bandmate) Barrett Smith. They drew from a catalog of their favorite artists and put new spins on 12 classic cover tracks. Titled Bring it on Home, the duo set the mood with that quintessential Sam Cooke title tune before delving into a track list that includes Paul Simon's "Duncan," James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes," and even Brazilian composer Jobim's "Corcovado (Quiet Nights)."
"We thought of Bring it on Home as sort of a mix tape that we'd give to friends, only we are the ones performing the songs," Whitworth explains. "Barrett and I were on tour with Chris Isaak in Canada, and we had these insanely long drives in between some of the gigs. We had this idea and Barrett quarterbacked the whole thing and put a crew together. It was a great way to spend the cold months."
With a band that included drummer Jeff Sipe (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Phil Lesh & Friends), fiddler Nicky Sanders (Steep Canyon Rangers), and Jacob Rodriguez and Justin Ray from Michael Bublé's horn section, the group went to work recreating the songs of their muses at Asheville's Echo Mountain studio.
"There are some songs you just can't redo because they're already perfect. We had to ask, 'Who are we to attempt to do these again?'" recalls Whitworth. "On 'Green Grass' [a Tom Waits cover], I felt like I was channeling Julie London. It's a spooky song that reminds me of my backyard. I always see landscape in music, but in particular with that song, I feel literally like I'm walking in my backyard with this yearning feeling of wanting to connect with somebody."
Connecting with musicians is what Whitworth does best. In addition to the Bring it on Home sessions this winter, she recently wrapped up tracking on her third full solo effort, High Tide, due for a potential release this fall. The saltwater theme falls right in line as a successor to Water Bound, which included a ukulele track entitled "Mermaid's Song." While her previous albums seem to evoke Americana forbearers like Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch, tracks on High Tide, including "Hot August Evening" and a slowed-down remake of "Don't Lie" (also on Water Bound), move more toward an atmospheric sound that's reminiscent of acts like Mazzy Star, while still maintaining a distinctly Southern flavor.
For the High Tide sessions, Whitworth partnered with Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds, a pal from their days at Appalachian State. The songs benefit greatly from the input of Seth Kauffman (of the Floating Action), an Asheville-based producer who also serves as Whitworth's bass player and drummer on the road. The group is rounded out on stage by Barrett Smith on guitar, Matt Smith on pedal steel, and Evan Martin on keys and percussion.
"Every time I play with these guys, I learn so much," Whitworth says. "I feel like I haven't really had a solid band until now. You can't just marinate overnight and have an instant band."
Chances are, when Whitworth and her band step onto stage within the magical confines of the Dock Street Theatre, they won't be the only people in the room beaming. Best of all, everyone should feel right at home.