Playing the songs: Charlie Nason has been performing music since the 1950s
BEMIDJI -- As he often did as an 11-year-old, Charlie Nason came home from school, picked up his guitar and went out the back step of his Las Vegas home to play.
But this day was going to be different.
"I happen to look up and here was this red-headed feller looking at me. He said 'Boy, you're pretty good. You mind if I come over and sit in?'" Nason recalled.
"He went out on the back step and he said 'play me a song.' I said OK, and started playing a Les Paul song. He said 'My god, where did you learn to play that?' I said 'Off a record. A 45 of Les Paul.' And he said, 'That's who I am.' I just about fell off the porch. He said 'You're really good. You learned my songs.'"
But maybe that meeting with Les Paul shouldn't have been too much of a surprise for Nason. His first professional job in music was at the advanced age of 8.
"I was sitting in a half circle of old Vaudeville musicians, steel guitar player, bass, drums piano. They all worked the Interstate 80, Interstate 90 circuit, from East to West." Nason said. "And the one I liked the most was a pudgy fella whose name was Sleepy Hodges. He sat and played like he was nodding off all the time. And that's how he got his name. He looked like he was asleep half the time, but he wasn't, he was right on the mark. But they taught me a lot of songs."
From those early years, Nason embarked on a life of guitars and music and the road.
And the 71-year-old Bemidji man still likes to play his guitar, often performing with his band at various area gigs.
Learning the craft
When he began, Nason could only play lead guitar. But through the help of a guitar-playing neighbor, and by watching others, he learned to play chords. At first, he played what you'd call the Chet Atkins or Merle Travis style of guitar, using the thumb for the rhythm and picking the lead with the fingers.
"There's not many people around the country who can play it that way. I think I'm the only guy here in Bemidji who can do that," Nason said.
As his music education and career continued to build, Nason traveled extensively with bands in the late 1950s.
He had a rock and roll band in Las Vegas. They were hired by the Chamber of Commerce there to play conventions around eastern California, northern Nevada, Salt Lake City, Utah, down to Arizona and back to Vegas.
"That took a year to do," Nason said. The chamber provided them with cruiser buses, with sleeping compartments atop the living quarters.
"But I can tell you being on a bus with five other musicians, by the end of the year you're about to kill a couple of them. You don't ever want to see them again," Nason said with a laugh.
Finding a girlfriend in each town to wash their clothes was one of the main things they had to do. "So, we'd draw straws to find out who could get a girlfriend. They were all show clothes, they had to be washed and ironed," Nason said.
Back to home
Nason played rock and roll and didn't know what Country music was until he got back to Minnesota.
"I came back in 1959 and my older brother and I played up and down from Grand Rapids all the way up to Ely," Nason said.
Since most of the places in Minnesota wanted country music, Nason had to adapt. "I was playing these jazz licks over this country music rhythm," Nason said. "People were confused at first, but they came around."
He has played all over, from Canada to the West Coast. His first full band had his first wife, Thelma, on bass. They played from International Falls to Grand Forks, N.D., to Minneapolis.
"We were making good money and paying taxes just like a business. So, you have to treat it like a business. You can't be up every night drinking and raising Cain. We played it straight and got by real well," Nason said.
They decided to come to Bemidji about 1974. First stop, the Blue Ox Lounge.
"We would go in there and listen to the bands and thoughy this would be a nice place to come up and play," Nason said.
They talked to the owners, who happened to have a tape of their material.
The ended up playing there for almost two years. Same place, same night.
A lot of people ask him about his guitar.
"I bought that brand new for $875 back in 1962. That's one of the last American made Epiphones," Nason said.
He's put a lot of miles on it, he said. While many guitar players have two or three models they play, Nason said he uses his Epiphone exclusively.
"They ask me how much it's worth and I say 'I don't know.' I got a friend that lives out in Thompson, N.D., and he got on the computer and he found out that guitar is worth about $28,000," he said. "So, there's a lot of times when a fellow will come up and ask if he can play my guitar and I say 'Noooo.' That does not work."
Nason's been playing with his current lineup for quite a few years. He said they gel really well. He also plays with his bass player at Brigid's Pub some Saturday nights. His wife, Grace, has been with him for the past 12 years. She helps with the amplifiers and PA systems, he said.
"We play a different variety of songs" he said. "Music is my life."