Interview: Charlie Worsham Delivers with His Debut Album, 'Rubberband'
If you love great songwriting and top-notch musicianship, you owe it to yourself to check out Charlie Worsham’s debut album, Rubberband.
I was turned on to Worsham by hit songwriter, Marty Dodson, who co-wrote the songs “Could It Be” and “Trouble Is” on the album.
Dodson, who writes with hundreds of other writers and performers, chose this album as his favorite release of 2013. Who am I to argue with that kind of cred?
Worsham, who went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, had already played banjo on the Grand Ole Opry stage with Earl Scruggs by the time he was 12.
The debut single from Rubberband, “Could It Be,” reached #13 on country charts, ranking as the highest charting debut single of 2013.
Worsham has spent quite a bit of time as a studio session player, selected by artists like Erick Church and Dierks Bentley. So it’s not a surprise that many in the industry are pulling for this talented performer’s debut album.
Favorite cuts include “Trouble Is,” an ode to the pull of temptation, and “Love Don’t Die Easy,” with its painfully lovely lyrics and its pleasing shuffle. And the funky and fun “Tools of the Trade,” which he recorded with Marty Stuart and Vince Gill, got me moving and put a smile on my face. Mission accomplished.
I spent a few minutes with Worsham catching up on what life’s been like since the release of Rubberband.
So, you have been touring like crazy, right?
CW: I have, yes. We’re actually playing tonight. At first, you don’t know what to make of the road, and you lose all your routines and then you kind of get them back in a road version. And I’m sort of there now. I actually don’t know what to do with myself after three days.
What was your biggest adjustment to living on the road?
I think the biggest thing is learn to... if someone’s like me, I’m very binary. If I’m into something, I’m in it 100%. If I’m not, I’m out of it, but learning to flip that switch a lot more quickly, learning to get something out of a 20 minute version of something you usually get an hour to do.
If it’s writing, or even just writing exercises, learning to take 10 minutes and being okay with that or exercising or whatever it is. But also, I think, keeping the windows open or the shades up. You have to be able to see out the windows and that’s really the coolest thing about this life on the road. I get to see the whole country. And making sure you don’t forget to do that, I think, is an important thing.
You’ve toured before, right?
I moved to Nashville about seven-and-a-half years ago. I actually toured with a band across the country those first few years and that was my first experience being out that much. Back in I want to say 2011, Taylor Swift was on her Speak Now tour. She was kind enough to bring me out as one of the openers on that tour. Between her and Miranda Lambert, who also helped me out that year, I got a pretty non-typical first tour as a fellow artist.
Right. Those are some big crowds.
Absolutely, but they’re friendly and they’re open. It was very cool that their fans were so accepting.
Check out "Want Me To"
And so are there any songs off of Rubberband that you particularly love to play live?
You know, we actually play every song on the album anytime we have a longer set, which I’m really proud of, and I believe in doing that. I also believe in playing covers. But I love them all for different reasons. “Tools of the Trade” is always a fun one. There’s a lot of room to pick on that one. We just started doing a song called “You Can’t Break What’s Broken,” and we really stretched that song out and it makes it very dynamic. And that’s one I’m looking forward to. It rotates, you know? It rotates, and I try to keep at least a couple every night that I don’t know what’s going to happen with the arrangement so I challenge myself as a player.
Yeah, that’s a good idea. Keep it a little spontaneous. Have you been writing anything new while you’ve been doing this? Have you tried out any new songs while you’re touring?
Gosh, I wish that I have. I wish I had a few new songs to play out loud. I just started back writing. Last year was so crazy in airplanes and in the van. Being home just long enough to do laundry, you know? I didn’t really, although, I did practice a lot on my own writing. Sort of in the airplane, writing in a journal. But I’m just now getting back into getting songs, actual songs, written. I don’t have anything yet but I’m down to show anybody but I feel like it’s coming.
I feel like the writing on Rubberband is really, really strong. How do you like to approach a co-write?
I believe the better I can write on my own, the better I can be of service in a co-write. The big thing with a co-write is trust, and it’s not so much what you get the first time you sit down with that writer. It’s the relationship that you build that you’re in. So you can trust throwing out all your ideas and how strong you think they might be. And then, trusting that they’re going to take it instead of just dismissing it as though, “Okay, I see what you’re going for. How about this?” You just go back and forth until you finally land on a line that is obviously the line. I think that’s how the best songs are written.
I think the key is knowing it’s the one, you know? If you can know that, then knowing when it’s not the right line, the flip side.
You know, the other thing though is knowing that maybe this isn’t the right line, but knowing it’s time to move forward and get forward momentum in the process. You can always go back. That’s a hard lesson. Being too precious, treating my ideas with too much care. They’re supposed to change if you’re going to co-write. If they go to a place I don’t like, nobody’s going to stop me from writing my own version of the song.
Check out the single “Could It Be”
You play a lot of instruments – banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle.. Can you give me the rundown of your go-to acoustic-related gear?
Absolutely. When I’m at home or in the studio, I have a 1963 Martin. It’s a D-28 and I love that guitar. I write on that guitar and it’s the first guitar that I put a pickup in and ran through an amplifier, splitting the signal to the amplifier and a DI or in the studio mic’ing it traditionally and putting an amp in the other room. It’s something I messed with for a long time, and I’m really starting to get it down to a little more of an art.
Yeah, that’s interesting.
Yeah, I love it. It allows me to build much more space with that instrument. The lines to me between acoustic and electric guitar are better off blurred anyway.
What amp do you plug it into?
Right now, I’m playing a Morgan. It’s an M50 and it’s a kind of blackfaced Fender-style and sounding amp. So it’s cleaner, but it will break up. And I use quite a few pedals. The Ibanez Tube Screamer, for whatever reason, is a great distortion pedal for an acoustic guitar.
When I’m playing live I have a Martin M-36. The newer model... it’s got a shallower body. I love playing through that. That’s kind of my acoustic. I have an old Gibson J-50 from the ‘50s for studio stuff as well. And then, on the electric side, I’ve got a ‘70s Fender that I actually bought from my good friend, John Osborne. He’s in a group called the Brothers Osborne. And I have a late ‘90s reissue Strat that I just got. It’s got two Teisco pickups and a P-90 in it.
Do you experiment with new gear or are you pretty much have your set up locked in?
I experiment all the time. The biggest thing in my life lately is in my pedal board. My needs change and I’m always experimenting, especially with the acoustic amp stuff. I got a bunch of Strymon gear lately. They have a few different reverb-style and delay-style pedals. When I’m playing the acoustic through the amp, the DI signal, you know, the first thing that my guitar hits on my board is a tuner or something. And then an A/V switch. The A/V switch goes directly to the DI and then to my electric guitar chain, only engaging the B channel or the DI channel for acoustic. But with all of my electric stuff, I have access to it with the acoustic as well. For my front of house guy, he can bounce the two depending on the song.
Do you experiment at all with alternate tunings?
Absolutely. Well the title track “Rubberband” all started when I tuned the E string way, way down to A. So that I’ve got the A and A are both in octave, you know?
The thing about alternate tunings that I love is when I went to college at Berklee [College of Music], I kind of had the same attitude. I was like, I want to learn as much as I can, but I don’t want to ever get too comfortable with extremely complicated stuff, because I still want a G chord to be magic. I still want the likelihood of something that I play to make me turn my head, because I didn’t know it was going to sound like that.
The longer you play an instrument, the fewer surprises that that instrument has. I mean, obviously you can play until you’re 400 years old and still be finding new things. But, in general, when I play in standard tuning, I know when my finger lands on the string, what it’s going sound like, more or less. I have an idea.
But my favorite thing about guitar and the thing that always drew me to it when I was first learning to play it, was those moments when you think you know what it might sound like, but you don’t and then you hit it, and it’s a total surprise. You hear it with really fresh ears. Alternate tunings, for me, they give that back. I’m always messing with all these tunings. I love the open C tuning that Zeppelin used – C-G-C-G-C-B. Chuck Cannon actually turned me onto that a couple of years ago. If I’m playing solo acoustic, I’m almost always in drop B to get a little more range. I love what alternate tunings do for your brain.
Now you’re touring in support of your own music. Have you had challenges adjusting to being right up front rather than a sideman?
Absolutely. One of the challenges when I first started touring as the front guy was I’ve always been onstage strictly as a player. So, maybe I need to make sure I look decent or whatever but all of my mental focus was on my tone and my playing. And now, as an entertainer, if I can spend 25% of my mental energy on that, I’m doing good.
Can you play intricate guitar parts and sing at the same time?
There are about four parts that I can play and sing at the same time, yes. In general, if it’s new material, I absolutely have to kind of stop. I can chunk, I can kind of cover some rhythm, but specific parts and intricate rhythms are hard.
Besides the obvious ridiculous amount of touring, what else have you got going on, if anything?
I just got to play my first songwriter round at the Bluebird. And anytime I’m in Nashville, reconnecting with my friends is important. Getting back into writing but also getting back to the social side of music. That’s what I’m focusing on.
Find out more at www.charlieworsham.com
Laura B. Whitmore is the editor of Guitar World's Acoustic Nation. A singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area, she's also a veteran music industry marketer, and has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Peavey Electronics, SIR Entertainment Services, Music First, Guitar World and many more. Laura is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the She Rocks Awards and the Women's Music Summit and co-hosts regular songwriter nights for the West Coast Songwriters Association. More at mad-sun.com.