First Published October 2018
TAYLOR, HUNGER, & PEGGY SUE!
Back in late August we brought you Part 1 of a fascinating interview with singer/songwriter Charlie Worsham, a native of Jackson in Mississippi, as he celebrated the release of his new album, Beginning Of Things. Today, we’re delighted to bring you Part 2 of that chat. And we pick things back up by jumping off in a slightly different direction and away from music for a moment. I wanted to ask Charlie about his little dog who just so happened to be named Peggy Sue! I assumed that this was a Buddy Holly reference (Texan Holly, who died in a plane crash in 1959, aged just twenty-three, had a massive hit with the song ‘Peggy Sue’). And if I assumed correctly, did Charlie count Buddy as among his influences?
“[Laughs] I love that you ask that! We have a tradition in our family of naming our dogs with double-names, so two names for all of our dogs. I grew up with Ellie Mae. And the other part of the tradition is that those names come from favourite tv characters, and Ellie Mae was in The Beverley Hillbillies, she was Jethro’s sister. And my parents have a bassett-hound now called Thelma Lou, and Thelma Lou was Barney Fife’s girlfriend (from The Andy Griffith Show). I was gonna name Peg, Peggy Olsen, a character from Mad Men, one of my favourite shows, and actually, the show that gave me the idea for ‘Old Time’s Sake.’ But Peggy Olsen just didn’t seem to ring true. So I decided I would adjust the family tradition to include song titles [laughs]. And she became Peggy Sue! I have to admit, I haven’t listened to a whole lot of Buddy Holly over the years, but I’m learning to appreciate his role in American music more and more. And in part, through my friend Chip Esten, from the Nashville tv show (where he plays the character of Deacon Claybourne), because he’s done the Buddy Holly stage show. And Chip’s wife had to marry him with Buddy Holly hair, because he was doing the show at that time, which is nuts [laughs]. But that’s the beauty of music. There’s been a lot of great old music that’s still gonna be new to me when I discover it.”
Still staying slightly away from the music side of things, I asked Charlie about the Follow Your Heart Foundation, which he founded and which supports music education in Mississippi.
“Well, Follow Your Heart all began when I was visiting home in north Mississippi where I grew up, and my mom is a schoolteacher so I was going back to the school to say hey to my old teachers, and just wander the halls where I grew up, ya know. And I got talkin’ to a class of students, and I realised that they didn’t think that it was worth the energy to dream outside the lines. There was a girl in one of the classes who had always dreamed of being a Broadway actress, and she was almost too scared to even say it out loud. And that broke my heart because I grew up never thinking that it was weird that I wanted to be Vince Gill when I grew up. I just always assumed that’s what I would do, just play music. And I was fortunate to have a family that could afford, and would take the time, to make the investment to get me the education I needed. But that meant driving three hours a week, to the next town over, for banjo lessons. So I’m lucky here in Nashville to have friends at the Country Music Association (C.M.A.), and at the Academy of Country Music (A.C.M.), and other places, that do great work to support music education. So we’ve been able to set up a scholarship and we’ve been able to set up an after-school program that puts guitars in the hands of kids. I just believe with all my heart that that’s one of the best things that you can give a kid. Because all kids struggle when they’re growing up. It might be acne, or weight problems, or bullying, or something going on at home, that the rest of the world doesn’t know about. But that guitar is a friend for life. That’s really our goal. They don’t have to grow up and become Elvis, or Tammy Wynette, or Aretha Franklin. That would be great, but it’s really more about giving them a friend that’s sitting there in their room when they get home [from school].”
In a brilliant interview Charlie did with Rolling Stone, he spoke about his worry of ‘over-sharing’ in his writing. But the interviewer rightly stated that going all the way back to Hank Williams, vulnerability and honesty had been essential to making country music what it was. But looking at what country music is today, at least as defined by a lot of country radio, I wondered if one reason why Charlie worried about over-sharing might be because real honesty in songwriting might now be the exception rather than the norm in mainstream country?
“Ya know, I think at the time of that interview, that might have been part of my concern. And it’s true, there are two types of music: remember-music, and forget-music. And usually what you hear on the radio is forget-music. And that’s not necessarily bad. One of the great things about music is that it can help someone escape their troubles for as long as that song plays. And that’s something that mainstream country radio is really good at providing. I also thing that remember-music is important, though. I think that music is therapy. And I think that I naturally gravitate towards remember-music. Traditionally, country’s been both. I mean, my favourite country music is Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat Of Many Colours’, ya know. That’s a remember-song. I grew up poor and my mama loved me, she didn’t have much but she made me this coat out of rags, and I got made fun of. Bit I knew deep in my heart that I was loved. That’s the song. And that’s a really potent story. Then Merle Haggard, who had ‘Sing Me Back Home’ and stuff like that, he also wrote ‘I Think I’ll Just Sit Here And Drink’, ya know [laughs]. That’s a forget-song! [laughs]. I think, if anything, I’m interested in learning how to write forget-music, because I think country fans would appreciate me being able to offer that to them as well. But all I can do is write from my heart.”
Charlie has toured with Taylor Swift, opened for Miranda Lambert, for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and for Lee Ann Womack. When he gets those opportunities, does he ever get to be around those artists enough to actually watch what they do and maybe learn from them in that time?
“Absolutely. And it depends on the tour, and the artist. For example, Taylor Swift is just about the most generous person I’ve ever encountered, and also the most hard-working person I’ve ever encountered. And on the tour she did where I opened for some of the dates, she was flying back and forth, as the tour unfolded, to piece together a ‘live’ dvd. And of course we didn’t know that until later, but she was doing triple-duty! But some artists I have less of a chance to encounter on a one-on-one basis than with others, depending on what people have going on, and that’s the nature of the business. But even if the only thing I get to do is sit out in the crowd and watch the headliner wander on stage…I mean, I have yet to open for someone that I didn’t learn a great deal from. And the thing that rings true across the board is that there just aren’t a lot of people up at the top who aren’t nice. Pretty much anybody who made it to the top, made it to the top because they’re humble, they’re kind to other people, and they work really hard. They give back. They take care of their crew and their band. And that’s been the universal lesson, whether it’s been Miranda, Taylor, or watching Eric Church or Dierks Bentley, or Lee Ann or any of them. The lesson is they take care of the people around them, and they treat people with kindness. They maintain a work ethic and a humility that you mightn’t think they’d have way up there at the top, but they do. That’s the big lesson.”
Going back to Charlie‘s debut album, Rubberband, and to Vince Gill whom Charlie had just mentioned, there’s a song on that album called Tools Of The Trade with Vince Gill AND Marty Stuart, two bona fide legends of country music. What was it like to work with both of those guys on the same song, and on his very first record as well?
“That was a highlight for me, getting to spend time with Vince and Marty. And I’ve been fortunate to get to know them both better since. That moment, ‘Tools Of The Trade’, was definitely my geek-out moment [laughs]. I don’t get starstruck by a lot of people. Honestly, I think half the tv stars out there right now could be next to me in line at Starbucks and I wouldn’t even know! But man, you put me in a room with Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, different story, let me tell ya! Because more than anybody else in country music, Vince and Marty are the guys whose records I studied, whose songs I studied, whose shows I went to see. I wanted to be able to play guitar like them, and to sing like them. I wanted to dress like them! I wanted to be a standard-bearer for where country music had been. Just like I had that chance to spend that experience with Marty and Vince, Chet Atkins took Vince under his wing, and Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash took Marty Stuart under their wings. It’s part of the great tradition in country that the circle stays unbroken, that you pass on what you learn. Any time I think of Vince and Marty, I’m mostly just filled with gratitude that I get to sit at the foot of these masters and learn firsthand from them how to do music and how to do life. And there aren’t any two examples better than those guys.”
My last question to Charlie was on the subject of success. For him, what defines success, not only as a songwriter, but also as an artist?
“Ya know, I was just on my bachelor trip, and leave it to me to have one of my friends as my therapist! [laughs] And we were riding around on a lake on a boat, and this conversation came up: what defines success? Because look at country music, and how many talented people get you scratching your head wondering why are they not selling out stadiums?! And then you have the opposite true, too. And then there’s songwriters like Lori McKenna creating some middle path where they write these songs that other people sing, but they also make these beautiful records themselves and find their own audience. I think success can come in many forms. But I think the common denominator for success is to find a way to be content with your hunger. And what I mean by that, is that you always want to be looking at a point in the distance and striving for that. Trying to get better. Trying to get further down the road. But, you don’t want to sacrifice the beauty of where you’re standing in the moment, because you’re looking down the road. And for me, that’s a big lesson I’ve learned this year. I’m getting married, and if you’d asked me in my mid-twenties if that was a good idea, I’d have been like, ‘Noooo waaaay!’ [laughs]. I would have been saying, man, you’ve got to be available twenty-four/seven for your career. But boy, was I wrong. It’s so much sweeter to have someone. And it doesn’t take away from the dream. So, am I still wanting to have success in ways that I don’t right now? Absolutely! I’m hungry for a lot of things. But I’m trying to learn to be content with my hunger. And I think I’m getting there. And I am successful. If I went back and told my twelve year old self, ‘Hey dude, you’re going to put a record out that’s gonna have Vince Gill and Marty Stuart on it’, I’d have been like, man, get outta here, that’s a joke, you’re kidding’, ya know [laughs].”