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Shannon Whitworth rides the Tide 

Singer gets help from a friend for new album

"High Tide," the opening title track to Shannon Whitworth's new LP, is both insistent and easygoing, an unusual combination for a simple country tune. Her confident coos about hitting the road to outrun your troubles play out over steady bass and a hypnotic guitar. The instruments direct the song with a loose and lively tug. It's new territory for Whitworth, a sound augmented beautifully by Seth Kauffman, her bassist and producer. Their musical union is as rich as it is unusual.

Artists known for distinctive self-production often struggle when they attempt to record others. It makes sense. Adapting a sound born from a specific set of eccentricities to someone else's strengths is inherently tricky. See the collaborations between Brian Eno and Coldplay — awkward intersections of stately ambience and populist hooks — for one example of how these pairings can go very, very wrong. Whitworth and Kauffman, who will perform at the Evening Muse on Sept. 7, buck the trend.

"It's kind of like dating," Whitworth says with a laugh, emphasizing the importance of finding a musical ally she can rely on. Whitworth and her tight-knit band have stopped for a bite during a recent trek through Colorado. Kauffman notes that guitarist Barrett Smith and drummer Evan Martin are outside "really shredding" on a Hacky Sack. More than a group of hired guns, Whitworth is blessed with backers who are also fast friends.

For about six years, the Brevard, N.C.,-based singer has pushed clear-eyed country grandeur through gracefully spare arrangements. Kauffman, who resides in nearby Black Mountain, has a similar taste for minimalism, but his home-produced efforts as Floating Action are both more exacting and more adventurous, carving roomy expanses from bittersweet wisps of folk and funk elevated by an ever-changing array of lo-fi shimmers. And though this talented producer might seem too experimental for Whitworth's polished approach, their styles mesh perfectly on High Tide, a sleek and seductive collection that also happens to be Whitworth's finest recording to date.

"It's like the birds and the bees," the singer continues. "You want to be on the same vibe as the people you're intimate with, musically or whatever. It's gotta be there. I think that team was assimilated and then Seth kind of took charge, which is awesome. It's just been kind of organic, but it's slightly deliberate."

As one might guess, given High Tide's overwhelming chemistry, Whitworth and Kauffman have played together for some time. They met at an Asheville appearance of mutual friend Thad Cockrell. Kauffman was playing drums in his band, and Whitworth briefly added some harmony. The two hit it off immediately. Upon finishing her debut LP, 2007's promising No Expectations, Whitworth found herself in need of a band. Kauffman settled in behind the kit, anchoring performances that matched Whitworth's songs with Appalachian strings and a honky-tonk lilt.

A recent line-up shift stripped her backing of its mountain music base. Kauffman began playing bass and drums simultaneously, keeping time with his feet as he instilled more forceful grooves. Thus retooled as a spacious, striding folk-rock outfit, they entered the studio with Kauffman handling production. The clean cuts were then accented with what Whitworth lovingly calls "pixie dust," ethereal textures painted deftly by Kauffman and Bill Reynolds, bassist for the popular Band of Horses. The two producers added their garnishes, rounding out High Tide's spectral vision of country and rock.

"Anytime I'm involved in making a song, there's some kind of ultimate guide that tells you what needs to be there," Kauffman explains. "So I just assessed what we did in the studio, like, 'Oh, this could use a little more blank,' or whatever. I really only added one more noisy track on what we'd already done in the studio."

The album showcases Kauffman and Whitworth's complementary talents. The tender ballad "Waiting" proves Kauffman's lo-fi deception can still work in a more hi-fi context. Far-off swells from simmering cymbals and feathery distortion accent supple pedal steel and Whitworth's warming croon. The bold country surge of "You Are in Love" sees the producer create a crisp environment where every instrument sparkles while still allowing Whitworth's joyously soaring hook to steal the show in the end. It might be unlikely, but Kauffman's aesthetic fits Whitworth's songs just as snugly as it does his own.

"The sky's the limit for everybody individually in this group," Whitworth concludes. "Everyone takes turns going back and forth to their other projects. But I've definitely been having daydreams lately of getting back into the studio and busting a record out before the spring, if it's possible. I don't even know. That would be my dream. I don't even know when we'd release it, but as long as the songs are in there and these guys still want to play music with me, I'm game."

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