“You aren’t a human,” begins one of the top comments on Charles Butler‘s YouTube cover of Daft Punk‘s “Get Lucky.” “You are a Banjo god!” It’s one of nearly a thousand comments on the video, which has seen over 1.7 million views since it was uploaded a year ago. On the surface the rendition seems unlikely, featuring the traditionally bluegrass and jazz-focused musician taking on an electro-pop chart-topper, but in explaining the video via email, Butler says the cover isn’t much of a stretch. “I am a Daft Punk fan, and was excited when Random Access Memories came out. ‘Get Lucky’ was stuck in my head, so I had a feeling I could make it work.” It’s even less of a stretch when considering the sort of music the Youngstown, Ohio native grew up with. “I used to bounce on the couch to ‘Electric Avenue‘ and ‘Abracadabra,'” he says, reflecting on a childhood listening to his father’s sound system. “His enthusiasm for a good jam rubbed off on me.”
From an early age Butler took an interest in music, learning the mountain dulcimer at 12 before receiving a banjo for Christmas when he was 14. It was around this time that his family relocated to Vermont. A year later he “found a teacher and learned a few actual tunes.” While still attending high school in Burlington, Butler studied under the Emmy Award-winning instrumentalist Gordon Stone, but upon graduation he set his sights on The Big Apple. “I ended up studying at SUNY Purchase because they would take a banjo player into their jazz program. Actually, they created a major for me, and plugged Tony Trischka lessons into my curriculum, which was exactly what I asked for.” “It was a great time to be there,” continues Butler. “I used to play with Langhorne Slim and Regina Spektor. We all graduated together.”
After graduating, Butler looked for a change of scenery as an alternative to the cramped nature of living in New York. “I was curious about Nashville, so I drove down here and never left.” That was over a decade ago. Since moving south, the banjoist has developed a group of “interstellar bluegrass voyagers” who perform as Charles Butler & Associates, though it’s his role as a teacher that might have led to last year’s YouTube success. “If I remember correctly, my brother Henry submitted it to [Reddit’s banjo page], where my student saw it. My student then posted it to [Reddit’s music page], which is a much bigger pond.” That thread has received nearly 1700 up-votes since being posted last May, spurring numerous high profile outlets to pick the video up.
“Banjo player extraordinaire Charles Butler gave the electronic beat a little bluegrass twang with his surprisingly catchy banjo cover,” wrote The Huffington Post, two days after the Reddit posting. As Butler’s video took off, he teamed with Beats Antique to release another collaborative rendition of “Get Lucky,” blending his banjo with the Oakland-based collective’s electronic-fusion of Eastern and Western styles. “The final product was finished and posted online all of five days after my video,” says Butler. The resulting track has since been played nearly 300,000 times on Soundcloud.
As for how any of last year’s success has affected his career, “not much has changed, really.” Butler still teaches and continues to play live, moving forward with his enthusiasm for a good jam while having gained a newfound gratitude following his brush with fame. “There are so many musicians out there who don’t get recognition, for a moment the light shined on me and it felt great.”
Charles Butler & Associates will be performing at The Building May 22. Click here to read the Fringe’s complete Q&A with him. To connect with Charles online, follow him on Facebook, watch more videos of his on YouTube, or listen to his past releases on Bandcamp.