Ask a Charlotte music fan to name a consummate performer that defines the city, and you’re likely to get one of a handful of answers.
R&B aficionados are likely to pick gravel-voiced country soul artist Anthony Hamilton, who once had the audacity — and accuracy — to say that no one had a Blacker voice than him. Others would likely side with “Rockstar” rapper DaBaby, a consistently inventive and controversial artist, who may or may not have tempered his propensity for sexist and homophobic pronouncements. Still others will plump for Concord-boys-made-good The Avett Brothers, who’ve stretched their roots in hoot-and-holler bluegrass and folk to big guitar rock and beyond.
These are all worthy choices, but another local act deserves to be in this august company. Like DaBaby, they honor existing musical elements while spinning them off in inventive directions. They don’t sound like Anthony Hamilton, but they sure sound Southern — and quintessentially Charlotte. Like the Avett Brothers, their band centers on a pair of local siblings, but they’ve dug even deeper into their roots.
Formed by brothers Mark and Brian Wilson, The Loose Lugnuts are Queen City gems that have been overlooked by the critical establishment for over 20 years. Comprised of Mark on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Brian on drums, lead guitarist Bill Noonan and bassist Jef Pearce, the foursome plays rough-edged rowdy country that draws from the wellspring of all-American genres, the font from which country, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll emerged.
They’re so good at what they do, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the emotionally direct covers they love to play live and the powerful punchy originals they craft, which sound like they were cut contemporaneous to tunes by “the singing lineman” Jimmie Rodgers and country-pop crossover “King of the Road” Roger Miller.
“Our folks are from Ashe County, and our dad was always singing old country music in the morning,” Brian Wilson says. “Initially I’d think, ‘What is going on?’ then for whatever reason it sunk in that I enjoyed it.”
The Lugnuts’ songs, written by Mark Wilson, are not mere classic country pastiches, however. The band’s tunes revitalize the old-school genre’s plainspoken poetry and emotional accuracy with a contemporary sensibility and scalpel-sharp playing. In the process, The Loose Lugnuts balance nostalgia and modernity, being grounded in an up-to-the-minute party atmosphere while reaching back to Charlotte’s past as a semi-sleepy Southern town.
The Loose Lugnuts will play a special show at The Thirsty Beaver for Mark Wilson’s birthday on April 24, and Midwood Maynia at Midwood Park on May 7.
The Loose Lugnuts, incidentally, are also the perfect band to feature in Queen City Nerve’s April 6 Beer Issue. Not only are they the quintessential bar band, they’re a band that owns a bar — one that (mostly) adheres to serving only canned beer and is widely admired and beloved in Charlotte.
The Wilson brothers launched the down-home and resilient dive bar the Thirsty Beaver Saloon 14 years ago, in part, Brian Wilson says half-jokingly, because he and Mark wanted to open a honky-tonk where their band could play.
Be that as it may, when The Thirsty Beaver opened its doors, it proved to be the perfect embodiment of the Wilsons’ love for their favorite music genre, centered on spotlighting three things — old country, the aforementioned canned beer, and a small TV set that only plays episodes of Hee Haw, the cornpone musical variety show that aired off-and-on from 1969 to 1997.
Rockstars, middle fingers and country music
Recent arrivals to Charlotte may identify the Beaver as that place where The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger slipped away for a beer and an Instagram photo during his tour stop here in September 2021. Longer time residents might think of some photos that were as big in their day as the picture of the iconic rockstar enjoying some rest and relaxation at the cozy and welcoming dive bar last fall.
In 2017, those pictures, published overseas as far away as the United Kingdom, showed the plucky single-story honky-tonk ringed by the high-rise buildings that flank it today, forbidding runaway development that blocks the sun from reaching the feisty dive bar. Many saw the construction as punishment from a thwarted developer who wanted the Wilson brothers pushed out, and in short, that’s precisely what happened.
In 2013, a developer named John Hatcher owned parcels of land that surrounded the plot where the Thirsty Beaver sat. The Wilsons’ landlord, George P. Salem, liked his tenants and their cozy bar that took an open and accepting attitude to anybody who stepped inside the joint. Salem resisted Hatcher’s entreaties to sell the property, Brian Wilson says.
Hatcher then had a chain-link fence erected along the property line right up to the bar, blocking access to the Beaver through its back door. When the fire marshal forced Hatcher to pull down the fence, Brian reckons, Hatcher moved to plan B: selling the property he owned so that construction could commence all around the saloon.
City residents cheered the Wilsons for refusing to be run off and sticking it to corporate overreach. Brian says many of his patrons saw the photos of the surrounded Thirsty Beaver and took it be a symbol of the Wilsons’ defiance, a kind of ‘reverse middle finger’ Brian offers, to runaway development.
The fracas with Hatcher turned the Wilsons into inadvertent rebels. Brian maintains that all that he and Mark ever wanted was to open an accepting place where the only requirement for entry was that people be nice to each other no matter who they were — and it all started with country music.
Brian Wilson was born to Methodist minister Ben Wilson and his wife 52 years ago. Brian’s brother Mark followed six years later. Ben loved the music of Grand Ole’ Opry, and he was constantly singing songs by artists like Hank Williams and Tom T. Hall.
Growing up in Pond Mountain in Ashe County, Brian was captivated by the music his father sang. Even though he likes pop and rock artists like Bruce Springsteen, Brian says he filters music through his knowledge of country.
“There’s always been that foundation of country music,” he says. “I look for it and find it, even when I’m listening to other genres. I say, ‘There’s an element this guy is doing that’s kind of country.’”
The Wilson family moved from Ashe County to Charlotte, and in high school Brian got a set of drums that someone was going to throw out. After attending college at Appalachian State University in Boone, he returned home and started playing music with his brother in 1990.
“After I got out of Appalachian, I lived out back at a shed at my parent’s house,” Brian says. “That was our music room.”
The brothers started playing small gigs that their father had set up after having dubbed the duo The Pond Mountain Boys. Brian remembers playing a couple of nursing homes. A resident at one such gig was a member of the legendary long-running bluegrass band The Briarhoppers.
“He went into his room and got this $30,000 1946 Martin guitar and started playing with us,” Brian remembers. “We were like, ‘Whoa, how cool is this?’ That was fun for us to see. It was the history of the music — to be some tiny little part of that.”
The brothers’ impromptu gigging began to solidify into a band after Brian quit his job running audio at The Speed Channel, and along with Mark, opened secondhand clothing store The Rat’s Nest in NoDa in 2004.
“[At that time], the gallery crawls were still going on in NoDa,” Brian says. “It was an eclectic, fun time, because people were twirling fire and everything.”
The Wilsons played music as a way to pull customers into their shop. Other musicians joined, and it got to the point where the Wilsons would never miss a gig at the crawl. People would shout requests, and Mark Wilson proved so adept at playing them that he became known as “The Human Jukebox.”
“He knows and can remember more songs than anybody in town,” Brian says.
The brothers developed a keen interest in the history of each song and how it developed. Bill Noonan (The Rank Outsiders) started playing with the Wilsons more frequently. Jef Pearce saw a gallery crawl show and declared that he was going to start playing with the nascent band. While the foursome grew tight as a drumhead, Mark began to write more originals. All arrangements were then honed by the group. People began to ask what the band was called. Since The Pond Mountain Boys was a name that no longer fit the music the band played, they came up with a new moniker: The Loose Lugnuts.
“The idea was that everything [could be] going good, but like a loose lugnut, it could go disastrous at any time,” Brian says. “We thought that was our essence. We played and did everything by the seat of our pants.”
The Lugnuts built up a following, and fans began suggesting that the Wilsons open up a honky-tonk where their band could play more often. Brian and Mark heeded that advice. In Plaza Midwood, on a fairly desolate plot far from any neighbors and on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the Wilsons opened up The Thirsty Beaver Saloon.
From the start, the cozy, decidedly retro dive exuded a welcoming atmosphere. Hee Haw went on the TV because Brian felt the corny old show could prompt friendly conversations between strangers who might find out they had more in common than they initially thought. The show also had the effect of deflating the merest through of pomposity.
“The thing we’ve always tried to do with our businesses is poke fun at something, [and not] take everything so seriously,” Brian says. “On Hee Haw they would have somebody singing a cool song, but in the next scene you’re in the corn field with silly jokes.”
For the Wilsons, it was representative of how you shouldn’t take life so seriously. There are serious moments, but the next moment may be a ridiculous one. Canned beer contributed to the unpretentious vibe.
“Canned beer was like [when a] guy was mowing the lawn; he had a can of beer,” Brian says. “It wasn’t a glass or draft. That was a little fancier.” The bar now carries Miller High Life in bottles due to patrons’ requests.
The friendly neighborhood Thirsty Beaver Saloon succeeded beyond the brothers’ dreams, and their band kept pace. In 2013, just as troubles were starting with greedy neighboring developers, The Loose Lugnuts recorded their debut — and to date, only — album. The band eschewed releasing digital singles, preferring to put out the first music they released as a full-length album, a throwback to the format that was prevalent when their favorite country music dropped.
The group decided to title the collection of songs Half Tight, as a tribute to their band name as well as a nod to country drinking songs, where a lubricated protagonist waxes poetic as a barstool laureate.
The cover was devised by Brian, who calls it fourth grade art, with help from his then-girlfriend. The sleeve boasts a seemingly crayon-drawn portrait that tells the listener exactly what’s on the album: a guy getting half tight at the bar as a woman is leaving him.
Unlike their live shows, which continue to feature covers of audience favorites, Mark wrote all of the songs on the collection, bringing them to the band in acoustic versions. Then the band worked out the arrangements together. A few tunes had been written earlier. One is the brisk, pop-rock flavored tune “Fred Kirby,” a tribute to a Charlotte icon who played a friendly cowboy on a series of children’s shows starting in 1951.
“He had a show on WBTV for years, Fred Kirby’s Cartoon Corral, so when all the kids would come home from church, Fred and [announcer] Jim Patterson from WBTV were playing old cartoons and picking and singing,” Brian says.
The Wilsons lived in Indian Trail when the boys were children, and they would frequently run into Kirby in public, finding him to be a truly warm and generous person.
“Fred was probably by all accounts not the most talented guy in the world, but in our eyes, he was the guy you’d want to be if you were going to be a cowboy singer,” Brian says.
Another older song is “Too Many Times,” a chugging, emotionally pointed country rocker with a Waylon Jennings feel. Both this song and “Fred Kirby” had always garnered a good audience response, but the band otherwise forced themselves to play something new for the album.
Of the new songs, the sashaying barstool blues “Latest News from Home” seems to be the most influenced by Hank Williams. Brian says Williams’ writing strikes him as straightforward reportage.
“Hank was so good at writing everyday life songs, like this experience just happened and I’m just going to put it down on paper,” he says.
Elsewhere, Mark’s writing is plainspoken poetry, deft and emotional without calling attention to its cleverness. Amid lashings of pedal steel, courtesy of Joe Smith, the song “Fingerprints on the Bottle” drops the evocative line, “dust on my wedding band.”
The album’s best song title may be “Angels Don’t Have Bourbon on Their Breath.”
“That [title] is obviously reflective of the band,” Brian says. “We used to always have a bottle of Jim Beam setting there when we would play. It makes the songs [and performances] more authentic sometimes.”
The most straightforward tune, the slow sorrowful amble “Story That Never Ends,” opens with the line, “Talkin’ to yourself/No one listens.” Brian feels the lyric illustrates Mark’s mastery of songwriting.
“There are so many images that come about. I think that’s when music is at its best, when you can listen to it, and then you can see it in your head,” he says.
For the album, the band recorded each song live to tape up at Mitch Easter’s studio, Fidelitorium Recordings, in Kernersville, over two and a half days. They finished three or four tracks each day. Studio engineer and drummer Chris Garges, who just passed away last March, recorded the sessions, capturing the live feel the band wanted.
“We all did it at once,” Brian says. “Mark’s vocals were recorded live. That’s what you get.” Jim Garret played some additional guitar on the album.
The band had planned to record a follow-up shortly after their debut, but life got in the way. In 2017, Mark and Brian opened their Tex-Mex restaurant The Tipsy Burro Saloon & Cantina on Monroe Road. Mexican food proved to be an ideal concert for the brothers, since they’re both vegetarians. As the pandemic shut down Charlotte, The Thirsty Beaver closed its doors for nearly a full year. By then, the brothers had started raising children. Brian has a two-year old daughter.
Nonetheless, Brian says a new album by The Loose Lugnuts should come out this year. Like Half Tight, it will be all originals, courtesy of Mark, and it will be recorded live to tape.
In the meantime, the band has continued to gig — with the exception of the period during the pandemic. Contrary to the half-joke about the band’s origins, The Loose Lugnuts do not play exclusively at The Thirsty Beaver. The band’s favorite recurring venues include Mac’s Speed Shop on South Boulevard and The Comet Grill. The band once opened for outlaw country singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, one of the Wilsons’ musical heroes, at the storied but since-closed Double Door Inn.
“He actually listened to us and said we were really good,” Brian says. “That spurred us to keep going.”
Brian also remembers one of the group’s stranger gigs playing a double bill with local Filipino-American Elvis Presley impersonator Renelvis at a Chinese restaurant at which the Lugnuts were situated next to the buffet.
“We’ll play anywhere — backyards — we’re not proud,” Brian says with a chuckle. “That’s how we end up endearing ourselves to people. To us it’s playing in front of people and enjoying it, so it doesn’t matter where it’s at. It doesn’t necessarily have to be up on a stage on Friday night.”