The banjo picking of Earl Scruggs caught Charlie’s ear, amidst all the electric guitars, fiddles and vocals of these incredible talents. Charlie had to have a banjo!
After months of persistent talk and dreams of having a banjo, his grandfather bought a used one with a repaired neck at the local music store. “My grandfather bought the banjo behind my grandmothers back, as money was tight, and Grandma didn’t care for music in the first place,” says Charlie.
The search for a teacher began, and soon Charlie was taking lessons every Saturday. His teacher played electric lead guitar for Webb Pierce, and occasionally for some other Nashville based acts, and knew only a couple of three finger style tunes on the banjo. He agreed to give the lessons, and after a few months, Charlie was showing him things he had learned at home, from his Earl Scruggs records. His “formal” lessons were over.
During the next 2 years, Charlie played the banjo in talent contests, at luncheons, and parties around his hometown. Most of his time was spent at the record player, learning sounds and tones from his favorite records, and applying them to the neck of the banjo. “When you have to find notes without visual clues, you develop an “ear” to distinguish where they are on the banjo neck,” Charlie says. “This was vital to learning the tunes, developing left hand patterns, and forming technique.”
Age 10 found Charlie playing over station WPHC in Waverly, Tennessee each Saturday night on the “Tennessee Valley Jamboree”. This was a Country music radio/stage show, featuring some fine local talent from the middle and west Tennessee area. His dad would compete each week at the local drag strip, and his mom and dad would alternate driving him to the shows he played, as most parents of musical children so often do. ” I owe so much to them,” Charlie says.
His first paying job was at Shakeys’ Pizza Parlor on Riverside Drive in Clarksville. “I played the banjo with a flat pick along side an excellent Ragtime piano player. We had the words to all the old “saloon” songs projected upon the wall, so the patrons could sing along. My banjo had a DeArmond pick-up on the head, held on by rubber bands. Can you imagine that sound?!!”
In support of his interest in music, Charlie’s parents started taking him to Bluegrass festivals. This is when he first began to understand what Bluegrass was all about. “I still love to participate in parking lot picking sessions and hear people play with so much enthusiasm”. He also saw most of his musical heroes in person, and later became friends with many of them.
In early 1974, 14-year-old Charlie began playing the banjo six days each week on the Carl Tipton Show. The show was on WLAC-TV in Nashville, and was broadcast for over 25 years. The show featured Bluegrass and Country music in a down home format.
The show featured a wide variety of guest artists from Bill Monroe to Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many local talents. It was during this 5-year period of employment that Charlie learned guitar and upright bass. He was often called on, to back up the guest performers, and gained tremendous musical experience, along with making some life long friends. “Carl was a fine disc jockey, and a successful businessman. His family treated me as they would one of their own children, and I will remain forever grateful to them.”
From 1979 till 1986, Charlie worked as a musician and business owner, in Nashville. He played the banjo with James Monroe and the Midnight Ramblers, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, Mel Tillis and the Statesiders, and also became a part of the Nashville session scene. Opryland, USA, then employed him, as a multi-instrumentalist from 1986 to mid 1990.
On September 20, 1990, his long time friend and fellow banjo picker, Mike Snider, hired Charlie. Charlie went to work with Mike as his bass player, and later switched to guitar after some personnel changes in the band. Mike became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in June of 1990. Charlie was employed by Mike Snider playing road dates and the Grand Ole Opry until September 1, 2004.
Charlie enjoys playing music with a variety of artists and friends. He is an in-demand session player on banjo and guitar and is available as a free-lance artist. He also enjoys working on Mastertone style banjos, and appreciating antiques. When he’s not involved in music, he enjoys spending time with his family and friends. Charlie Cushman is a people and music enthusiast.