When Keith Arneson's father bought a banjo, the 12-year-old never looked back. Today he is the senior chief musician of the U.S. Navy's Country Current, the bluegrass ensemble performing Tuesday at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.

Before joining the Navy, the native of Waldorf was an established performer with the Classic Grass, Dixie Rambler and Mountain Laurel bluegrass bands. His solo album and original songs are heard frequently on radio stations from coast to coast. When he is not rehearsing or performing with Country Current, he presents banjo workshops nationwide.

"I hadn't thought about joining the Navy until I learned that Bill Emerson, the ensemble's famous banjoist, was retiring after 20 years and auditions would be held for the opening," he said. "I was married with two young kids and the first thing I knew, I was chosen and headed for boot camp.

"Our busiest time of year begins in the spring and runs into the fall. We play at bluegrass festivals and travel all over the country performing in places like Nebraska where young people aren't exposed to the Navy like those on either coast. Our main focus is to wear the uniform and spread the message that Navy life has much to offer."

U.S. Navy Band Country Current
Where: Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F Street NW
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Info: Free; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

Each musician chosen performs on a professional level. Before joining Country Current, each of the seven members had a successful recording and touring career in Nashville, New Orleans, New York or another major musical hub. Today the ensemble performs with top country artists, celebrated members of the Grand Ole Opry or before U.S. presidents and other dignitaries.

Each member may solo on one of his several instruments. They include the banjo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, fiddle, electric bass, upright bass, dobro, pedal steel guitar and drum set. Arneson, like his colleagues, is often engaged in composing.

Following the Millennium Stage concert, Country Current will join the other Navy ensembles for the Navy Birthday Concert at DAR Constitution Hall in mid-October. It will be followed by a Christmas holiday show in the same venue. This is an important year for the Navy because it marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 when it played such a vital role.

"My father often told me that if you get a job you love, you'll never work a day in your life," Arneson said. "This is especially true for me because every day is fun for us and our audiences."