NASHVILLE SINCE 2006
Grenada, Mississippi native Charlie Worsham has traveled the world playing his music. He’s toured with his idol Vince Gill, who’s sung with him on his own songs. He’s appeared numerous times on the Grand Ole Opry, playing songs from his masterful solo records. Now he’s making sure any kid from his hometown with an interest in the arts has the same shot he did at pursuing their dreams.
“I get more more out of it than anybody,” he says, “‘cause when I go see those kids, I see myself. That was me, like when I first could play a G chord, oh man, I felt like I could fly.”
Charlie’s life has been about music from the start. In Kindergarten, he took his first piano lesson. In second grade he got a banjo. In fifth grade he took up guitar, and started playing bluegrass. He studied music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, then packed up a moving truck for Nashville to join the band KingBilly.
“Even before I recognized the clear picture of wanting to be in music, I sort of subconsciously knew that I wanted to be in Nashville,” he says. Between family vacations to Music City and his long-standing desire to be in country music, making the 615 his permanent address was the natural next step.
After a stint with KingBilly, Charlie signed as a solo artist to Warner Bros. Records. He released his first solo record, Rubberband, in 2013. “I never had a second thought or a sense of fear and anxiety until I put an album out on a major label and was out there in the great locker room that is country music, and every day is a cold day in the locker room in this business, and that shook me up a bit,” he says.
The record impressed critics but didn’t do well initially. “The advent of social media lined up in a really sadistic way with my first professional solo career major label heartbreak, so that I had all of it happen and I had all of Instagram to swim around in and compare myself to,” he recalls.
While with KingBilly, Charlie and the band played a show with Marty Stuart, a fellow Mississippi native and one of Charlie’s idols – “Marty Stuart is my other navigational constellation next to Vince Gill,” he says. Though he didn’t get to spend much time with Marty, his parents bought a book and had it autographed. The star wrote, “To Charlie, follow your heart.” Charlie has the handwritten line tattooed on his forearm, and started taking pictures with the slogan throughout his travels around the world.
“Somewhere along the way, I realized that what I was getting to do, I was getting to do because of the community that raised me,” he says. “Being back home, I saw that not every kid is as lucky as I was.”
“I just don’t want the next B.B. King growing up right now in Mississippi to give up on that,” he says. “I want him to come from Grenada, by God!”
The Follow Your Heart Arts Program is changing lives in Charlie’s hometown both immediately and over the long term. He’s raised almost $100,000 for the scholarship fund, to which anyone from Grenada interested in an artistic pursuit – music, screenwriting, being a chef, music business accounting – can apply. Seniors at nearby Delta State University serve as teachers, and some students from the first year are now teaching aides. He partnered with Fender to give guitars to students. He recently wrote a book to raise further funds for the organization.
“The idea is in 10 years if you’re a kid in Grenada at any age and you want to play guitar, you get a free guitar, all you have to do is complete a set of lessons and you earn that guitar for free,” he says. “And if you stick with it, we’ll help you with resources until you’re ready to graduate from high school and at that point if you wanna follow your heart to any creative art, there’s a scholarship you can apply for.”
The program currently supports 37 students in its second year class. “Not all of those students are going to want to continue, but that’s okay,” he says. “We just want them to get that first year under their belt. They’ve earned a guitar. So even if they don’t stick with it, they have a guitar in their bedroom now, and if their parents are fighting and heading into an ugly divorce, they’ve got that guitar as a best friend.”
Community is important to Charlie; he grows incredibly animated discussing the potential the kids have and emotional at how much some of them struggle with in their day-to-day lives. “For a lot of these students, they won’t necessarily go on to play music, but they don’t necessarily fit in on the football team either,” he says. “This is a place where they fit in.”
“I just believe that music’s one of the most powerful things we have,” he continues. “It’s not necessarily the big hit song that’s the most powerful, it’s a kid with a guitar instead of a gun.”
Follow him @charlieworsham