Charlie Worsham was onstage earlier this summer with the Cadillac Three, leading the country-rock longhairs through ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” when he looked out at the audience and had a revelation. “It was a lesson in letting the path be the path and in finding your crowd,” says Worsham, who was joining the Cadillac Three for a few days on the road to write songs. “They’ve got their crowd and it was really cool to see that connection.”
The Mississippi native has spent the better part of 15 years in Nashville in search of his crowd, first as a member of the band KingBilly (with Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne), later as a moonlighting member of Old Crow Medicine Show, and most prominently as a solo artist who released two stellar albums for Warner Music Nashville. Along the way, Worsham did find his audience — a devout base of country purists, including living legends like Vince Gill, that regard him as a future pillar of the genre — but an indisputable hit song has so far remained elusive.
Worsham, 35, admits that his Nashville journey, with all its ups, downs, and oh-so-close moments, has been a slog. He’s frequently exhausted, occasionally disillusioned, and sometimes even angry.
“The crazy thing about anger is that it needs a place to go, and there are healthy and unhealthy ways to let it go,” he says. “At least up until modern times, our bodies knew what to do. If you needed heat in the winter, you’d go out and chop wood, where swinging an ax is a great way to get anger out of your system. We don’t often enough have those natural opportunities built into our day.”
Fortunately, ironically, the very thing that has roiled Worsham has also been his release: songwriting. He summoned all of the frustrations of his career — albums that failed to make a chart impact, singles that stalled, live performances that were taken for granted — when he sat down to write the brutally honest, vulnerable, and pissed-off “Fist Through This Town.” Driven by Worsham’s pained vocal, it is a cathartic opus that builds and releases tension, culminating with his gutbucket guitar solo. “For all the half-truth flat-out lies/for every broken compromise/for all the ‘give it one more try’/more than I can count…I want to put my fist through this town!” he is howling by song’s end.
The centerpiece of Worsham’s new EP Sugarcane, “Fist Through This Town” is a song that only someone who has been through the Music Row ringer could write. Having a record deal hasn’t necessarily make the road any less rocky.
“Being on a major label is walking out in front of 20,000 people and saying, ‘Pay attention to me,’” Worsham says. “When I look back, my whole life was on the road of music. I was down there in Mississippi and it was literally and figuratively a two-lane road where I’m driving out of the Hill Country into the Delta to go play a bar gig and then driving back. It’s real plain to see where you’re going. Then you move everything to Nashville and sign that contract and what happens is you are now entering the 10 lanes of the interstates and you have the wheel. I’ve been driving on the interstate and in some weird traffic now for about a decade.”
Worsham hasn’t wanted for acclaim. Both his 2013 debut album Rubberband and the 2017 follow-up Beginning of Things were hailed as important works from an artist known not just for his songwriting, but for his multi-instrumental prowess. He made fans of Gill, who gave him a 1960 Gibson 335 guitar as a wedding gift, and of Eric Church, who enlisted him to play on his breakout album Chief. That’s Worsham’s spiky guitar that underpins Chief’s most macho number, “Keep On.”
Worsham went on to work on more Church projects, most recently the triple album Heart & Soul, and became an in-demand session player, adding his versatile guitar tone to songs by Dierks Bentley, Luke Combs, Brent Cobb, Drake White, and the Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett.
“One of the things I love the most about Charlie is how thoughtful and caring a musician he is,” Neil Mason, drummer in the Cadillac Three, says. “He can play and sing anything under the sun from country to bluegrass to rock & roll and he knows it all inside-out.”
Mason recalls Worsham teaching the Cadillac Three — a band that bleeds Southern rock and roadhouse boogie — the correct way to play ZZ Top’s 1979 cocksure blues number when they spent that weekend together on the road in July. “Dusty Hill had just died and, after a few beers, we started talking about how influential he and the band had been on both of us,” Mason says. “That conversation led to us getting a lesson in how to play ‘I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide.’ Charlie knew every push, every lick, how to count the odd bars, the words to the song, every nuance. We are all up there just hanging on for dear life.”
But playing fast and loose while recording his own songs has sometimes proven difficult for Worsham. Rubberband and Beginning of Things have moments of inspired, without-a-net derring-do (see the latter’s hillbilly rap “Lawn Chair Don’t Care”), but it wasn’t until Worsham recorded Sugarcane with Church producer Jay Joyce that he dropped the reins. Or was forced to.
“Stepping into the room with Jay, he was the boss,” Worsham says, recounting how Joyce rebuffed Worsham’s entreaties to fix bad notes or fumbled solos. “He was like, ‘That’s your take. That’s staying in. I know you think it’s a mistake, but that’s the coolest thing you played on this song.’ But we both speak that player language and we could get where we needed to go really quickly. I’ve never worked with a producer who spoke that very specific dialect of musician language.”
Joyce also challenged Worsham, a self-admitted gear junkie, to limit not just his number of takes, but the guitars he hauled into the studio. Worsham disciplined himself to three instruments for the Sugarcane sessions, primarily playing the Gibson 335 gifted to him by Gill. “That was my Excalibur,” he says.
As if pulled from stone, all six of Sugarcane’s songs have a magical essence, simply because they are among Worsham’s most personal. The majority were inspired by or in tribute to his marriage to wife Kristen. The title track was written about their Costa Rican honeymoon; “Half Drunk” is about the first time he told her that he loved her. Like “Fist Through This Town,” they are vulnerable declarations, but ones that emanate from the heart and not the gut.
But Worsham wonders will any of them ring the bell? Will this batch of songs yield the hit that finally transforms him from a Nashville cult hero (“The baddest dude in the room,” Jaren Johnston calls him) into a household name?
“The one missing piece in this crazy jigsaw puzzle of the scenic route to stardom is that breakthrough moment,” Worsham says. “I think it’s going to be a song that does it. It may be a song I’ve already written. It may be one of the songs on Sugarcane. It may be an outside song.”
Worsham recorded a few songs he didn’t write for Beginning of Things, but as he makes plans to return to the studio with Joyce to cut another six-track EP before the end of the year, he’s entertaining even more material by other writers. With the caveat that they make sense for Charlie Worsham.
“I’ve been in pitch meetings and people will play me something. It’s like, ‘Man, if you spent 10 minutes Googling me, you would know already that there’s no way I’d ever cut that song,” he says. Still, he’s found a few outside songs that hit the mark — one even has a lyric about a truck bed — and make him optimistic that a hit song is nigh.
“The funny thing is, even though I don’t have platinum albums on my wall — yet — I feel like I have a golden ticket,” Worsham says. “But even the golden ticket doesn’t mean you’re going to get out of the chocolate factory in one piece. My name’s Charlie, though, so my odds are good.”