Forget about music theory, Shawn Wilfong is talking about chaos theory. He turns to chaos theory’s notion that one chance decision can set off a rippling chain reaction with the power to change the world, that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can set off permutations in air currents that trigger a tornado weeks later. But in Wilfong’s case, the flapping butterfly wing is a good-natured trash-talking session with family, and the resulting tornado is Charlotte’s most accomplished accidental band, Southside Watt.
“It’s the butterfly effect,” says banjo player and mandolinist Wilfong, trying to explain the serendipitous sequence of events that launched his music career with a circle of friends who somehow became roots-rock combo, Southside Watt.
Every Chain Reaction Begins Somewhere
One night 11 years ago, Wilfong was at a family gathering talking to his father-in-law, Terry Dalton, who plays the clawhammer banjo. Clawhammer playing, also called frailing, differs from standard up-and-down picking. Instead, the banjo player shapes their hand like a claw and swipes down, striking the strings percussively.
“I picked up [the banjo] and asked him how to make my hands do what he was doing — the clawhammer way,” Wilfong remembers. “Then I said, ‘If I practice, I can be better than you.’”
Later that week, Dalton showed up at his son-in-law’s door with a banjo and a book, Wayne Erbsen’s Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus. “He told me to put my money where my mouth was,” Wilfong says.
For the next two weeks, Wilfong practiced like crazy. The next time he saw Dalton, Wilfong got out that banjo and reeled off a note-perfect rendition of an old-time tune named “Old Joe Clark.” “I said, ‘Listen, I love this. I told you I’m going to be better than you,” Wilfong recounts. “And that is how this boat was launched.”
In the meager amount of free time he had between being a hedge-fund manager, restaurateur, husband and father of three boys, Wilfong practiced. He encouraged his sons to start playing too, figuring that if they could see that their father sucked when he started out, they wouldn’t be daunted in tackling the instrument. “I read all these studies about [how] music is good for cognitive development … and how it’s good for children,” Wilfong offers. “I wanted to get them interested on their own so that they could take up music without it being forced on them.”
Word got around to Wilfong’s friends that he was learning to play the banjo. As a partner in Maverick Hospitality Group, Wilfong co-owns four restaurants: Mortimer’s Café & Pub, Cowbell Burger & Whiskey, and two Leroy Fox locations, one in Cotswold and one in South End. With live music sometimes on the menu, Wilfong’s friends urged him to play the banjo at LeRoy Fox in Cotswold.
A Moment In The Spotlight
Since Wilfong was still learning to play, he recruited a professional musician to join him onstage, his friend Caleb Davis, a multi-instrumentalist who trained at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Wilfong’s younger brother Stephen, a singer who was learning to play guitar, asked if he could join the ad-hoc combo. Another friend, Patrick Faulkner, volunteered to play bass.
Bolstered by his buddies, Wilfong joined them in concert, secure in the knowledge that with all the sound onstage, he wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. But he didn’t realize his bandmates were plotting an ambush.
“Six or seven bars into a song, my buddy Patrick leans into his microphone and says, ‘Banjo solo.’” Wilfong says. “Everyone in the band drops out. Its realty quiet [and] I was sweating, and nervous.”
Wilfong remembers his live debut as horrible, but people in the audience loved it. One of those people was Wilfong’s childhood friend, the late Sabrina Watt, who was in the audience with former Carolina Panther Jordan Gross. Watt, then the executive director of the Charlotte Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, asked Wilfong and his one-off group to play the after-event celebration at her next charity event.
Wilfong objected. He could barely play and the guys onstage weren’t even a proper band. Undaunted, Watt booked the group for their first paying gig, for which they earned $350. She even gave the unnamed band a moniker befitting their origins, The Accidentals. “Then the craziest thing happened,” Wilfong says.
The band, comprised of Wilfong on banjo and mandolin, his brother Stephen on lead vocals and guitar, bassist Patrick Faulkner, guitarist Caleb Davis and drummer Dillon Blythe, just kept getting booked. Their acquaintance with Gross led to a gig for the Panthers. Then the Leukemia Foundation booked them. They eventually booked a bi-weekly residency at Sugar Creek Brewing on Southside Drive.
Sadly, Watt could not accompany the band she loved and helped launch through their full journey. On June 22, 2014, Watt died from metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. Wilfong holds cherished memories of his former schoolmate and childhood friend. He remembers that he and Sabrina, who were both born in August, often celebrated shared birthday parties as kids.
“[The band] would have never taken this course together as a unit and produced these songs and had these opportunities to play in front of people if she hadn’t taken that initial step to set us sailing down this river,” Wilfong says. “I’m forever grateful to her.”
Along the way, the band got tighter and its grooves grew deeper. Wilfong, who had paid music scant attention throughout high school and college, started digging into country music, roots rock like the Rolling Stones and the classic blues of Robert Johnson and Son House.
Road to Recording
One evening, Wilfong and his wife Shelley watched a Netflix documentary on Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a roots music mecca where artists like Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin had recorded. Shelley Wilfong took note of her husband’s interest.
On his 40th birthday, Wilfong woke up to a surprise. Shelley had booked a road trip for the band to a recording studio — and not just any studio. “She said, ‘The whole band is going to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Fame Studios, and you’re going to record some original songs,’” Wilfong remembers.
There was just one problem. At the time, the band had no original songs. So, on the bus ride from Charlotte to Muscle Shoals they started writing tunes and working on grooves. Wilfong recalls going into the studio and encountering absolute mayhem.
But amid the whirlwind two-day session, Wilfong got to cherish working with engineer Don Srygley, the man who mixed Greg Allman’s very last album, Southern Blood, which was tracked at Fame. The Accidentals jammed out eight tunes, which became their first EP 8 Track, a 2018 collection that includes the quicksilver bluegrass of “Head High,” the chugging, black-as-a-locomotive stack “Ghost Train,” the rattling, high-spirited “Girl From Tampa” and the rolling gospel soul of “Lonesome Drive Blues.”
The Birth of Southside Watt
Though their debut was rough around the edges, the band discovered that despite their moniker, their talent was no accident. But the name had to go. The group found out that there already was another band named The Accidentals that was signed to Sony.
“We decided to take Sabrina’s last name and the first part of the street where we had our first resident gig and we became Southside Watt,” Wilfong offers.
The following year, the recently christened Southside Watt brought a brand new set of songs to Grammy-winning engineer and producer Glenn Tabor, who had mastered several tracks for DaBaby’s recent album Blame It on Baby. At Tabor’s Charlotte-based Gat3 Studios, Southside Watt laid down five cuts that became the EP For Willie, Waylon & Cash. Wilfong’s favorite memory of that session is recording the chugging “Down the Line,” a hardscrabble country ramble in which Stephon’s vocals channel the man in black, Johnny Cash.
“We did that song around the condenser mic in one take, just the four of us [Davis, Faulkner and the Wilfongs]. There are no drums on it,” Wilfong says. “I play clawhammer banjo on that, and the song has a lot of Appalachian influence. Naturally, the music from North Carolina’s mountains inspire us.”
Other highlights on the EP include the lilting barstool lament “Been Smokin’,” the honky-tonk swagger of “Tonight I’m Drinkin’” and “Chugger,” which recreates the swooping country swing of Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys.
Music Runs In The Family
Wilfong is particularly pleased that his uncle Bob Parker was able to sit in with his nephews on “Chugger.” Parker, a professional musician who has played Carnegie Hall and tunes pianos for UNC-Charlotte and the Charlotte Symphony, played boogie-woogie piano on Gat3 Studios’ grand piano. “It was really a special recording for our family, two generations recording for all time in one song,” Wilfong says.
Parker also played “Chugger” live at the EP release show at the Visulite Theatre last December. Wilfong played the gig seated because he had just undergone surgery for a torn Achilles tendon a week before the show. “Better showing up in a chair than not showing up at all,” Wilfong offers.
In July, Southside Watt went back into Gat3 Studios to record five new songs with Glenn Tabor, laying down the tracks while retaining suitable social distancing. “My brother Stephen and I have written almost all the songs,” Wilfong says. “Caleb helped on two of them. We’re so excited to have the opportunity to share these songs with people.”
Charlotte’s Most Accomplished Accidental Band
In addition to cherishing playing with his brother, an experience that Wilfong describes as a gift, the unlikely musician who became a banjo player through a bet says he looks forward to getting in front of people again and seeing them smile. The prospect of playing onstage again someday brings Wilfong’s thoughts back to Sabrina Watt and how her belief in a ragtag ad hoc collection of musicians became the butterfly wings buffeting and transforming Wilfong’s life.
“I’ve found passion in this thing that I didn’t take note of as a kid,” he says. “I picked [music] up as an adult, and it’s given me opportunities to engage with people, impact their lives and bring them together to celebrate.”
Recently, the band got booked to play a gig on the flight deck of the USS Yorktown in Charleston for almost 800 people, Wilfong offers. Another group of fans recently flew Southside Watt to Beaver Creek, Colorado, to play a single show. “These are just great life experiences,” Wilfong says. “And we would never have contemplated [them] if just one person hadn’t given us a gentle nudge in that direction.”