Parents who are afraid that extended exposure to television will lead children to join gangs or become serial murderers should check out the story of Charlie Cushman, whether they are fond of bluegrass or not. As a Tennessee tyke, he hunkered down on Saturday afternoons, never changing the channel from local affiliate WSM-TV and a lineup of programming that included The Ernest Tubb Show, The Wilburn Brothers Show, The Porter Wagoner Show, The Flatt & Scruggs Show and, needless to say, The Grand Ole Opry.
The banjo style and exciting repertoire of Earl Scruggs are frequently cited as motivators for players of Cushman's generation, not to mention banjoists such as Tony Trischka, who were born more than a decade earlier. More commonly, these players first heard Scruggs in the context of themes to mainstream entertainment such as The Beverly Hillbillies television series or the film Bonnie and Clyde, not by becoming addicts of country & western variety programs. These broadcasts stuffed his ears with whining pedal steel guitars, screeching fiddles, and the charismatic philosophy of the country and bluegrass stars themselves, but it was the banjo that really got him going.
Apparently this obsession started as early as the age of four. It was his grandfather who finally went out and bought a banjo for Cushman, but on the sly because other powers in the family dynasty equated musicality with the scum of the earth. As the family Cushman chronicles it, the little boy began taking weekend lessons with a local picker who was the lead guitarist for Webb Pierce, but a pretty basic banjo player. Cushman started picking up his own material off of records and soon scared this teacher away; Pierce would have described it as a case of the "Heebie Jeebie Blues."
His age still in the single digits, Cushman's life was now filled with talent contests and marathon practice sessions alongside his trusty record player. At ten he began performing on the Tennessee Valley Jamboree radio broadcast out of Waverly, TN. A pizza parlor known for a crust that tastes like crackers was responsible for his first paying banjo gig. Cushman's parents made sure he went to bluegrass festivals, however, where he became inspired to do more than play cheesy ragtime knockoffs with a flatpick. At 14 his playing abilities had gotten him a regular spot on The Carl Tipton Show, broadcast on WLAC-TV in Nashville and devoted to bluegrass and country. Cushman became part of the accompanying unit for whatever guests were scheduled, a list that included the regal bluegrass presence of mandolinist Bill Monroe as well as the sculptured voice of Tennessee Ernie Ford. Not every guest wanted or needed banjo: Cushman also had to learn both guitar and upright bass.
Cushman has continued to be based out of Nashville, running a business as well as picking in groups such as James Monroe & the Midnight Ramblers, Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys, and Mel Tillis & the Statesiders. His discography of recording sessions includes backup on an Andy Griffith project. From 1986 to mid-1990 he was part of the Opryland USA house band, featured on all of his instruments. One of his frequent playing partners is banjoist Mike Snider; they have worked together not only on The Grand Ole Opry but in the Mike Snider String Band. Cushman has participated in nearly all of the Pickin' On series of compilations in which bluegrass artists take on the rock and pop repertoire of Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, et al.