Reporting Kurt Wolff
With his album Rubberband finally set for release August 20th, Mississippi native Charlie Worsham is excited.
“I’m dying for folks to hear it,” he says of the album. And for good reason: It’s his debut, and he’s been working on it for the past three years.
We’re sitting in the back lounge on Worsham’s tour bus that’s parked outside Joe’s Bar in Chicago, where Charlie is set to headline a Saturday night show. The bar is packed, but the show has been delayed due to an NHL playoff game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings that went into overtime.
Charlie, though, doesn’t seem bothered by the delay one bit. An easygoing guy with a friendly smile and a slight Southern drawl that’s as relaxed as his demeanor, he sits back and chats easily about his background, his lifelong love of music, and how he came to be one of Nashville’s most promising new artists.
If you’ve heard of Charlie, it could be because you saw him open for Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift (the latter during her 2011 Speak Now Tour). Or because his new single “Could It Be” is gaining radio airplay and steadily climbing the charts.
“Could It Be” is well worth paying attention to. It’s a seamless blend of bluegrass-influenced elements with a smooth, country-rock melody — think Vince Gill meets Keith Urban. It’s fresh and wholly contemporary, and it gets in your head and sticks.
And it’s also unique. For instance, “the first thing you hear” in the song, according to Worsham, is a “slide mandolin.” It’s played by session vet Jedd Hughes, and it creates a sound that Worsham describes as “Ravi Shankar meets Bill Monroe.”
That mandolin part is also an example of why Worsham, who’s proficient in several instruments, chose not to go the Hunter Hayes route (writing, producing, and playing every instrument on every song on his debut) and, instead, bring in some studio players during the Rubberband sessions.
“I just know too many badasses that I love being on the playground with,” Worsham says. “I could have played mandolin on that song, but it wouldn’t have been that cool.”
If Vince Gill comes to mind when hearing Worsham’s music, that’s not coincidental. Gill was the person Worsham says he initially modeled himself after, “as a player, as a singer, and as a personality. ‘Liza Jane’ is still one of my go-to songs, when I need a reboot.”
You can hear shades of Gill’s tenor voice in Worsham’s vocals on “Could It Be.” And elsewhere on Rubberband, you can actually hear Gill himself. The Country Music Hall of Famer is a guest (along with another of Worsham’s heroes, Marty Stuart) on the song “Tools of the Trade.” “My mind was blown watching them [Gill and Stuart] record, because it was like seeing behind the curtain of my influences,” he says.
But more than that, it was a validating experience for Worsham. “As a musician, I have a long, long way to go,” he says, but seeing them play made him realize “I haven’t been walking down the wrong path.”
Worsham co-wrote all of the songs on Rubberband, including “Tools of the Trade” and “Could It Be,” and he co-produced the album with Ryan Tyndell. He met Tyndell through his publisher, ole’s Arthur Buenahora, and they became fast friends.
“He’s the big brother I never had,” Worsham says of Tyndell, who is probably best known as one of the writers behind Eric Church’s “Springsteen” and who also wrote a handful of songs for Dierks Bentley’s upcoming album Riser.
Rubberband, though, isn’t Worsham’s first rodeo. He’s spent nearly his entire life, in fact, playing music, going back to learning banjo, fiddle and guitar as a child growing up in Grenada, Mississippi. He won Junior National Banjo Championship in Smithville, Tennessee at age 12, and soon after he landed a spot playing on the Grand Ole Opry. As a teenager, he played in bluegrass bands with veteran pickers two or three times his age. He learned some tricks and techniques of sound recording along the way as well, including from producer Norbert Putnam (who’d set up a small recording studio in Grenada).
The latter interest led him to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied production engineering (“I just became fascinated by the process”). From there he moved to Nashville, where he joined the group KingBilly. Eventually, though, he chose to venture out on his own, which led him to meeting Buenahora and Tyndell — and signing, in 2012, to Warner Music Nashville.
Rubberband was cut at a number of different Nashville studios, with numerous players, and is, in Worsham’s words, “this crazy collage of the best moments along the way.”
“With the writing, the recording and my singing, it was three years of development for me, in every way imaginable.”
Among the first songs Worsham recorded were “Could It Be” and “Trouble Is,” though they have since been revisited in the studio more than once. The title track “Rubberband” was the only track, he says, that they cut in just a single take. “We just all had fun, and we kept it, blemishes and all.”
Worsham’s background in sound production (from his Berklee days) also paid off during the recording process.
“I’m really grateful to have learned the language,” he says. “When you’re collaborating, especially something as daunting as putting a record together, there’s no way to wear all the hats. And yet there is a way to do your best to speak all the languages. And I feel that my job, more than anything right now, is to speak all the languages. So to sit down at Pro Tools and comp a part together and say, ‘This is what I’m hearing’–even if I’m not the fastest or cleanest editor–at least helps me express my vision.”
And speaking of hats, Worsham does wear quite a few on Rubberband. In addition to co-producing the album, co-writing all the songs, and singing, he also plays acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, mandolin and some percussion.
“The whole record was trial and error.” Which is part of what, ultimately, makes it so strong. As Worsham explains at another point in our interview, “the thrill for me is the challenge,” whether it’s “figuring out the key to making a song go from good to great,” or — on the performance front — “winning over an audience.”
Which brings us back to Joe’s Bar.
When he finally takes the stage in Chicago, it’s closing in on midnight, and the patrons — many of whom have been there for hours watching the game — are extra energized from the Blackhawks’ win (and more than a little lubricated). Worsham’s debut album won’t even be release for another two months, but that doesn’t matter, they cheer him on anyway. Quick on his feet, he plays a couple of covers, and even throws a few Chicago and Blackhawks references into his lyrics, and the crowd eats it up. They may not yet know his songs, but he caught their attention. And it’s a good bet they’ll remember him.