Alumni Profile: Charlie Worsham
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Rising country star Charlie Worsham was whisked away to Nashville before he even had a chance to finish his degree at Berklee. Since then he’s opened for Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert, performed for huge crowds at venues like the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, signed a record deal with Warner Bros., and is releasing his first full-length studio album. A music production and engineering (MP&E) major at Berklee, the multi-instrumentalist engages his audience with his YouTube cover challenges, in which he arranges, records, and mixes a song chosen by fans in 24 hours. While the production on these videos gets slicker as his star rises, what remains at the core of them is a display of his considerable musicianship. He often lays down tracks for guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and drums for a single cover challenge.
Worsham spoke with us about singing “Gagnam Style” with a Mississippi accent, the start of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee, and how Berklee prepared him for the tours with Lambert and Swift that would launch his career. The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.
His single, "Could It Be," is available now, and his record will be released next year on Warner Bros. Records.
I loved your “Gagnam Style” cover. Were there any challenges with that particular song?
I had a lot of fun with it. I’m really tickled that PSY is a Berklee alum. It was definitely challenging learning Korean, and I apologize in advance to anyone who does speak Korean, because I’m from north Mississippi, and my accent with the Korean language I’m sure is atrocious. Even though I don’t know the language, it’s a great lesson in phrasing, pronunciation, and the emphasis on different beats with different syllables. I think the song is very well constructed from a songwriting standpoint.
Describe your process for the cover challenges, in which you arrange, record, and mix a song in 24 hours.
I begin with taking time to listen to the song, to listen to it different times of the day, in different environments, using intense listening versus background music. I try to objectively let the heart of the song impact me so I can better gauge my intuition as to what’s important in the song, what production techniques in the original recording should stay in, and what I should feel more open about taking liberties with. Then it’s all intuition from there. I try to add parts as I hear them. Sometimes that gets me in trouble and I have to go back and redo a part. But since it’s a time-sensitive challenge, it’s sort of freeing in a way, because I have to let things be and let happy accidents be exactly that.
Your YouTube presence is strong and well-cultivated. What is it like being part of the brave new world musicians must navigate today?
Having a YouTube channel, having a web presence, and having one that I’ve built long before I was involved with a major label is, in one word, invaluable. The greatest and most challenging fact about the music industry today is that anyone and everyone can make a record. When you’re talking about YouTube, anyone and everyone can have their own television network, so to speak. The great thing about that is that if you’re talented, if you’re responsible, if you surround yourself with people who challenge you and push you to be better, you can use those assets in a way that no generation of musicians and artists have been able to get their hands on.
You were a proficient multi-instrumentalist and a performer before you came to Berklee. Why did you choose to come?
I went to the Five-Week Summer Performance program at Berklee just before my senior year of high school. It revolutionized what I imagined a life in music could be. Because all of a sudden, I was thrown into this really cool city where this really cool group of people were teaching me really cool ideas about music and turning me on to artists and genres and sounds that I never experienced before. It wasn’t just a YouTube video, it was in front of me—in my face.
To this day the most valuable thing about my Berklee experience and having been fortunate enough to go there is the relationship factor. I have three musicians in my band that are traveling with me now—two of them went to Berklee. My good friend Eric Masse engineered my debut record for Warner Bros. Eric and I used to sit in MP&E classes with Stephen Webber together. That’s how we met. The relationships at Berklee, you can’t beat it, you really can’t.
Tell me about the opportunity that took you away before finishing your degree.
Well, I’m still six credit hours shy of graduation! I took off to Nashville in the fall of ’06. I finished the classes for my major by flying into Boston once or twice a month to take my senior project classes. The MP&E Department was incredibly gracious working with me so that I could join a band and sign a publishing deal in Nashville. But I elected just before that to take a class on building your own set of studio monitors instead of Counterpoint 1 and 2. I should probably make a phone call or two to work out my Counterpoint requirements. It would be nice to get the degree. I know my mom will appreciate it!
The opportunity at that time was with a band that had a publishing deal. I was not the frontman. I was one of several musicians who sang harmonies and cowrote the songs. But it was a shot at a real publishing deal and a chance to work with a producer who had a good track record. If I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. I learned a lot of lessons that now, as a solo artist, I realize would’ve been much harder to learn had it just been me and not my best friends and me together.
You came to Berklee near the start of the American Roots Music Program. What was that experience like?
Actually, it wasn’t in full swing, but the rumblings were there. John McGann, God rest his soul, he was there, Matt Glaser, Dave Hollander, my good buddy Joe Walsh. So it wasn’t here on paper and official, but you could see that it was going to happen, and I really can’t thank Roger Brown enough. His first semester and my first semester were the same. It was very inspiring to be there at the start of his time at Berklee. He is incredibly open minded, and he is exactly what Berklee needed, and I’m a fan.
Gosh, I got to play with Earl Scruggs the year they gave him an honorary doctorate—our bluegrass band performed with him. I always felt that everyone at Berklee was very welcoming about that style of music.
How was it touring with Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert?
My first tour experiences as a solo artist were actually opening for Taylor and opening for Miranda, and boy, that was a shock. My last gig with Taylor on that tour was at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. I actually played with Rachel Loy and Adam Popick on that tour—we went to Berklee together. My band now is Brad Shapiro and Scott Quintana, both Berklee alums. It’s a very small world.
How did Berklee prepare you for that experience?
There’s a saying in Nashville: “It all begins with a song.” I would not be anywhere near the songwriter that I am today without Pat Pattison in and outside of the classroom. He has been a very large influence on my musical voice. Rich Mendleson, Stephen Webber, Mitch Benoff... Mitch really grilled me on vocals, whether it was my vocals or me producing someone else’s vocals, and he was one of the first people to really expose me to just how deep you have to dig to get a great vocal on tape. I don’t sing a vocal that I don’t think about what he taught me. I could talk to you another hour about the influence of Berklee. It’s a family of professors who became friends, and a family of friends who became my music circle.