How Charlie Worsham Made the Most Vulnerable Country Album of 2017
Charlie Worsham lives alone in a boxy little house in East Nashville, where vinyl records line the windows, Persian-style rugs cover the floors and a large painting of George Jones hangs over a nicely worn black leather couch. Well, Worsham doesn’t exactly live here all by himself – he shares the space with Peggy Sue, a Golden Retriever/Beagle mix, who is his pride and joy. Peggy Sue, currently sleeping on an orange chair by the door and blending in with the cushions, even has her own Instagram account. But there’s another inhabitant here, too, albeit one less tangible and far less furry. Worsham calls it “his roommate.”
“It’s that negative little voice in my head,” Worsham tells Rolling Stone Country, seated at a desk in his living room in a polka-dot shirt and black jeans, the place illuminated from the glow of his grandmother’s old lamp. “I have to wake up every morning and beat his ass and lock him in his room and tell him to shut up, because I have work to do. On the last record cycle, my roommate kicked me out.”
That last record – Rubberband – was Worsham’s debut LP, released four years ago. It was a strong effort, filled with promise: the Mississippi-born, Berklee-educated Worsham stood out for his softness in a sea of manufactured tough, focused on songs that showcased tight, well-crafted hooks and ace musicianship. While his peers were following the tequila to another spring break, Worsham was following his heart (it’s a phrase he has tattooed on his arm) and he – along with his label, Warner Bros. Nashville – had high hopes for it all. When Rubberband failed to meet commercial expectations, Worsham was crushed. His “roommate” didn’t just move in – it took over the lease.
After a few years of wrestling with disappointment and searching for a new source of inspiration, Worsham finally released his sophomore LP, Beginning of Things, in April, with many critics predicting that this terrific collection of songs would, at long last, give him the banner year he deserved. After all, Chris Stapleton had broken out since the time of Rubberband and Sturgill Simpson landed on a major label, so maybe country fans were ready for subtlety like this; ready for sharp guitar and equally sharp observations about people and pain, laced with spikes of humor. Was Worsham finally going to strike commercial gold? Here in his living room, while a thunderstorm rages outside, it doesn’t quite feel that way. Beginning of Things – a clean slate title if there ever was one – is still relatively new, but he just can’t shake the feeling that, once again, things are slowing down. Copies of the LP aren’t flying off the shelves, and the single, “Cut Your Groove,” fell off radio faster than a tightrope walker in a hurricane.
“The record hasn’t been out long, and we have a lot more planned to launch it. But it’s going slow, to put it nicely,” he says, speaking softly. “And I started to get the hint of the feeling I got on the last record. Of being told that it was done.” A few nights earlier at a gig at Nashville’s City Winery, Worsham – often hilarious on stage, a huge presence even when up there alone – joked that the LP was “still shitting its own diaper,” but, in country music, those album babies basically have to exit the womb ready to run races. Slow builds to success are more rare than a woman on Music Row with a Number One song, and any time to stew and simmer just doesn’t exist.
But Beginning of Things is an album that needs a slow build. “This record isn’t background noise you can drive to work to,” is how Abe Stoklasa puts it, who co-wrote two of the album’s tracks, including the title cut. Indeed, it doesn’t have smash hits that infect the brain with paint-by-numbers melodies: it has strong feats of refined songwriting and confessions of a man in progress, not trying to be in charge. It has hints of Worsham’s bluegrass roots, and his Mississippi bones and deep country blood. Produced by Eric Masse and Frank Liddell, it doesn’t sound like anything else on the Billboard charts. Warm and mature like Worsham’s idol and mentor, Vince Gill, it’s not shooting for a proto-pop or an outlaw sound, with songs about getting stoned and swigging whiskey. Actually, the drinking tune, “Take Me Drunk,” is about a guy who can’t hold his liquor.
And it’s vulnerable. Emotional, even. While telling his story of the post-Rubberband depression, Worsham is honest with how the whole thing sidelined him; he doesn’t hide his disappointment or his fears for the future in his songwriting or conversations. On several occasions, here in his living room, his eyes moisten (“I do worry sometimes about over-sharing,” he admits, but that doesn’t stop him). In the days of Hank Williams, this vulnerability – an essential component of the genre’s prized honesty – is what made country music what it was. Williams was so lonesome he could cry, and he wasn’t too tough to tell everyone about it. And though history has framed the Outlaws – Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson – as a rough and tough bunch, really, they were relatable because they were broken, too.
“Charlie embodies everything I hold dear.” – Vince Gill
“Merle’s got the emptiest songs in the world,” says Worsham. “It’s all empty stuff. He did not make a career – what I call a country music Mount Rushmore career – out of zippity doo dah. That’s what I get pissed off about. I’m not mad at anybody, but I’m like, ‘Come on, y’all. We gotta be telling the truth.'”
That idea of “Truth” is what birthed Beginning of Things. In the wake of Rubberband, Worsham took a sanity break in Austin, Texas, and it was there, at indie record store Waterloo Records, where he picked up a pack of Moleskine notebooks and wrote “truth” on the cover. It was on those pages that the lyrics began to form. Liddell and Masse, a close friend from back in his Berklee days, wanted to help him discover that Mississippi side. Together, they brought out moody, swampy grooves and introspective inquiries into what makes a person human, not what makes them perfect. “Charlie embodies everything I hold dear,” says Vince Gill. “I have the greatest respect for his talents and his humble nature.”
“I am not surprised that Charlie’s art isn’t welcomed onto country radio,” says Stoklasa. “There is a sophistication to it. You have to care about music.”
Indeed, “Cut Your Groove” wasn’t welcomed by country radio – it didn’t even chart. An inspirational song about finding your own key to life, it boasts a catchy chorus with a confessional message. But, these days, the genre’s leading men can only sing about one weakness, and that’s women (or maybe liquor). And “Cut Your Groove” is about taking the time to understand what makes your heart beat, not the girl who stole it.
“‘Cut Your Groove’ is one of my favorite songs I have heard in the last five years,” says Kip Moore, a frequent tour companion of Worsham. “I wish I would have written it so badly.”
Moore, like Worsham, is forward with his feelings and connection to the darker side of life. It may have won him dedicated fans, but doesn’t follow the mold of how a male country singer can perform, which extends not just to the Luke Bryans of the world, but the Chris Stapletons, too. Either sing about spring break, or let the beard grow long, the voice grow deep and the shit get kicked. Worsham doesn’t doesn’t fall into either category. His label, according to Worsham, has assured him that his career will be more like a Guy Clark, relatively unknown to the mainstream as it builds but then recognized by history for his legacy power. But Worsham, like any musician with something to say, wants to be heard, by as many people as possible.
“If I’m Guy Clark, and I mean not by bad-assery but by audience size,” he says, “which by the way, Warner Bros., I am not! I am a commercial country artist who fits in the main ballroom! But if logistically I have to do it in a van, then all right. If I end up with ten buses and twelve trucks, then that’s cool too. Chances are it will be somewhere in between. It still beats any other job I can imagine, but I’m supposed to make records and sing for people, and on a big scale. I told my team, ‘Get me to the Ryman and I will get to Bridgestone [Arena].’ Just help me get there, and I can take it from there. Maybe I am dead wrong.” He stops and laughs loudly. “Right now I’m doing good to fill up [East Nashville club] the Basement East.”
A little over a month later, Worsham is backstage at that very club, prepping for the first night of his Every Damn Monday residency – which is, quite literally, every damn Monday in July. Wheeler Walker Jr., his partner in “Hot Possum” night, an ode to country classics, is tweaking a light for his lyric sheets. They laugh, because all they can find is a megawatt bulb that could very well blind the entire audience.
Worsham is excited but tired – the past week was packed, as he opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and he traveled home to see the first graduating class of his Follow Your Heart foundation, which supports music education back in Mississippi and offers scholarships to budding artists, something that was fundamental to Worsham growing up. Proceeds from the night will go directly to Follow Your Heart, even though Worsham himself isn’t exactly breaking the bank from record sales.
“Well, since we last spoke, my song died at radio,” he says, cracking open a Miller. “But two of my other favorite songs died, too. [Miranda Lambert’s] ‘Tin Man’ and [Little Big Town’s] ‘Happy People.’ I started going, well, shit, this is the music I love. If it isn’t working, then maybe it’s not me. Maybe it’s not radio either. Maybe there is a split. Jason Isbell put out a new record that’s awesome. Where is he getting spins? Maybe that’s where I belong.”
Charlie Worsham didn’t let down country radio, country radio – and an industry that praises talent but won’t take a gamble – let down Charlie Worsham, and he knows it. But the roommate is back, here and there. Worsham hasn’t had time for boxing class (“anger management”) or therapy lately, and “the roommate has been winning some days,” he says. “In this moment, I have some legit concerns. Overall, at the end of the day, it’s not your moment until it’s your moment. And the only thing that defines that is the right song and the right time. I can be shitty and miserable about it, or fucking fired up. And I’m either six months away from my Stapleton moment or six months away from calling my session guys and saying ‘Hello?’ But I feel like I am close to something, and I don’t know what it is.”
An hour or so later, Worsham, his band and Walker are onstage, barreling through George Jones, the Byrds and Haggard tunes. At some point, an audience member makes a quip that Walker’s massive light is getting in the way of her ability to post suitable photos to Instagram. Worsham looks out at the packed house. “What’s more important,” he asks the crowd, in his glittering blue Hot Possum uniform. “The lyrics, or the social media?” Everyone laughs, but the question stings. Fighting for words over likes is a battle that Worsham – with his roommate upstairs and Peggy Sue at his heels – is nowhere near done trying to win.