The first time I saw the Loose Lugnuts - the Charlotte classic country-western band led by brothers Mark and Brian Wilson of The Thirsty Beaver and The Rat’s Nest - I was sitting at a picnic table at Mac’s Speed Shop with the speakers blaring at my back. It’s not how I’d recommend seeing and hearing a show. The sound was harsh, but I managed to make out references to local wrestling (Starrcade, Ric Flair, and Harley Race) and NC television personality and musician Fred Kirby. Now, not being from NC I’m not that familiar with Kirby. The Halloween my husband dressed up in one of his country music singer father’s red, fringed stage costumes (a costume Mark Wilson now wears on stage, by the way) I thought he was Jack White, but all the locals thought he was Fred Kirby. So I knew there was local history in singer Mark Wilson's words.
After that I wanted to hear more. The Loose Lugnuts play a lot of classic country covers and their audience digs that, but when I heard the song “Fred Kirby” I leaned into my friend and said, “Why don’t they play more originals?” On the new album, “Half Tight,” they do. In fact the 13-track album is made up of Mark Wilson's originals about heartache and drinking and struggles and broken relationships.
I first heard it when Brian Wilson brought the fresh off the presses LP into his NoDa thrift store early one Saturday evening. As I chased my children through the racks of vintage clothes I noted that the album sounded as if it’d been pulled from the stack of worn LPs that face the door of the store (where Rita Coolidge stares out on to the gravel parking lot).
"Half Tight" was recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Studio in Kernersville and was produced by Lugnut Bill Noonan and engineered by Chris Garges. The MP3 versions aren’t given an artificial scratchy LP treatment or anything, but Joe Smith’s weeping pedal steel, sustained guitar notes, and Wilson’s deep vibrato sounds as if they originated decades ago.
Yet it’s not a Hank Williams copy or anything. The Wilsons grew up on punk rock at The Milestone. They dig Antiseen as well as Merle Haggard and Hoyt Axton. In fact the younger Wilson’s voice channels deceased Cramps’ singer Lux Interior with its low vibrato and rich tone (at times it also reminds Glen Danzig or Jello Biafra speaking through the ghost of Lefty Frizzell). That juxtaposition gives the retro feel a contemporary twist.
Many bands strive to be “authentic” and true to themselves. It's something that comes up in interviews. But the Wilsons don’t have to try. Maybe that’s why they’ve done so well drawing crowds without playing the typical local band game. They have their own venue and a built-in audience that seems to follow where they lead be it Mac’s, the Double Door, or Myrtle Beach.
In his email Bill Noonan says, the Lugnuts (the Wilsons, Jef Pearce on bass, Noonan and Jim Garrett on guitar, and veteran Smith on pedal steel) really stepped it up in the studio. I agree. Live shows are often at the mercy of the sound system, alcohol, or other factors, but “Half Tight” is the Lugnuts at its polished best - playing those colorful original honky-tonk tunes that I suspected Mark Wilson had in him when I first heard "Fred Kirby" (which is on the album too).
The Loose Lugnuts play its home turf - the Thirsty Beaver Saloon - Saturday, July 27, following the bar’s portion of Recess Fest. Showtime will likely be around 9 p.m. The album is available on vinyl with MP3 downloads included or you can find it online here.