With his debut album, Casey James knows that he comes to many music fans as a totally unknown quantity, while being greeted by just as many others as a familiar face, if not star. “It is a little weird,” admits the American Idol season 9 third-place finisher, “because sometimes when people meet me, it’s like, ‘Oh my God’ – they could be meeting the president! And then, of course, the rest of the time, you’re just a brand new artist.” That’d be enough to give most artists emerging from the show a case of whiplash.
But James figures Idol aficionados are in the same boat as non-viewers when it comes to needing an introduction to his true identity as a singer-songwriter – “because I had to do covers. Yes, you get a taste: You obviously know my voice and some of my style. But as far as the music that you create, nobody has any idea. This is finally the first time that anyone can say, ‘Okay, you don’t know who Casey James is? Well, listen to this,’ and it’ll be accurate. For me, that’s huge.”
His double-threat status as a guitar slinger as well as vocalist made him an obvious standout from the start. But as he concedes, he’s “ambidextrous, so to speak, musically,” which made him equipped to tackle any musical style. “I play everything from bluegrass to heavy metal.
And just as Casey James, the artist, is Texan by birth, so is Casey James, the album, country by birthright. As James points out, “Southern rock is really influencing country music right now, and I just love that” – an affinity heard loud and clear in barn-burners like “Drive” and “Tough Love.” Meanwhile, anyone with the slightest affinity for emotional balladry in any genre will find grittily tender tunes like “Love the Way You Miss Me” and “Undone” meeting them right where they live and love.
One constant between the up-tempo charmers and sad or sexy love songs is the presence of James’ guitar. If you saw him on Idol, you know that he doesn’t leave home without it, professionally speaking. Judge Jennifer Lopez was even moved at one point that this was a singing contest, not a multi-talent competition, as if James bringing along his trusty axe constituted some kind of newly officially sanctioned cheating. But for him, playing guitar while he sings is no more a “choice” than being country.
“It’s who I am, and if you’re gonna have me on the show, then I’m gonna play guitar, just like I would on a Monday night or Wednesday night or any other night of the week,” James says. “I do this for a living. And it was never an option for me. Yes, people were saying ‘This is a singing competition.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I realize that. But I’m in the competition, and I play guitar, so now it’s a guitar-playing/singing competition!’” The powers-that-be on the series “never really said anything, and I think they enjoyed the fact that I can actually play. I couldn’t really imagine doing any of those songs without doing what I do on the guitar, because it was so crucial to the way that I performed and even sang the song.”
That point underscores the fact that James was something of an anomaly on Idol, as an already seasoned performer who’d already clocked hundreds of hours in recording studios and thousands playing live gigs, albeit regionally. On season 9, he was the oldest contestant, at the ripe old age of 27, making him a far less malleable candidate than most.
That goes some way toward explaining why he gets a co-producer credit on Casey James, alongside that of Chris Lindsey, a familiar Nashville hitmaker. That’s an exceptionally rare thing for a new country artist, and James is quick to emphasize it’s not an honorary title.
“They’re very serious about that type of thing and, everybody said, ‘You should be listed on there.’ And I take that as a huge honor, because I’d have been fine without having the credit. Sometimes, especially in my situation, you could see a guy coming off of a TV show, walking in the studio, sing some songs, and you’re done — boom, CD. That’s not the case.
“These songs are coming from my heart. I co-wrote them and fought every bit of the way to make them what they are, from picking great musicians that I’d heard about or worked with to picking the studio and the producer. All those things went down (A) because I was given the leniency and respect and allowance to do that, and then (B) because I freakin’ worked for it! I could have sat back and let it happen in a totally different way. That’s just not who I am.”
Who is he, then? The product of a very musical family, for starters. His mother, Debra, even released her own independent CD a few years ago, under the name Bybee D. James – on which, naturally, Casey contributed electric and acoustic guitar, slide guitar, flamenco guitar, mandolin, and harmonies. Just about everyone involved in his rearing had an impact on his expansive musical tastes.
“Some of the very first music that I ever listened to was Ricky Skaggs,” he says. “My family would sit around singing his songs, and Pappy had his records, and I would start ‘em over when I was 3 years old.” His grandpa listened to Haggard and Jones; Dad favored Travis and Strait; his brother was into Garth. “And then, keep in mind that I’m about to be 30” – which means that, like anyone of his age who was within earshot of a radio, he had a Soundgarden/Pearl Jam/Stone Temple Pilots phase. “Even at that time, though, I was listening to Aaron Tippin, John Anderson, Diamond Rio, the Mavericks – the list goes on and on.” Give him a few minutes -- or hours -- and he’ll reel off a list of the modern blues masters he subsequently got into, from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dr. John to Doyle Bramhall and Susan Tedeschi. His folk and rock affinities stretch from Gillian Welch to the Dave Matthews Band. “It just goes all the way across the board -- and I truly mean that,” he emphasizes. “Because I hear people say ‘Well, I listen to everything,’ when what they really mean is they listen to pop and country. And the real truth is, that’s really not everything. That’s like 2 percent!”
As a guitar player, he’s always favored the guys who did the most with the least notes, like Keith Richards and David Gilmour. That’s why you won’t find a lot of show-offy six-string work on Casey James, even though he’s playing all the lead parts on the album.
“I love to play. It’s my passion.” And on the album, he picked different guitars for different moods – sometimes on the same song. On the first single, the slinky, sensual “Let’s Don’t Call It a Night,” he says, “The very first lead part is on a Telecaster, and then the end is on a Strat, just because I felt like the end needed to be more sexy. And where Strat says sexy to me, Telecaster says country.” Why not both, right?
One extreme on the album is “Tough Love,” which James calls “my rocking, Bon Jovi-esque, rock-anthem love song.” The other is the tender “Love the Way You Miss Me,” which started off as a ballad about musicians connecting with their significant others on the road, but ended up as anthem for modern military couples. No wonder he premiered it at Camp Pendleton.
It’s been more than a year and a half since season 9 of Idol ended. The highly dedicated fan base he built up over the course of those months naturally felt that James was robbed when he didn’t make it into the top two, but “I was happy to make it into the first round, much less third place,” he says. “I mean, I could go through every step and tell you how amazed I was. I’ve felt and still feel and feel very strongly that I needed exactly where I needed to land.”
One reason he’s pleased to have ended up as No. 3 is the extra time it afforded him to zero in on just what he wanted to accomplish with a debut album. There’s always a tremendous amount of pressure on the top couple of Idol finishers to get their discs wrapped up as rapidly as possible. But James is grateful he had the opportunity to take things a little slower and collaborate with the top writers on Music Row – ultimately co-writing nine of his debut’s 11 tracks – while also taking time out for some road excursions, like the leg of Sugarland’s arena tour which found him enlisted as opening act.
“I had the opportunity to come out with something quickly, but we all know that that didn’t happen, and there was a reason,” he says. “Because the music wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t ready. With the massive amount of change that happened to me in the last two years, I would have been regretful if I’d made an album before all that happened. I’ve changed and grown as much in those past two years as I’ve ever grown. And I feel like the album reflects that.”
James’ beloved grandfather died while he was writing for the album, while at the same time, he was besotted with romance in his life – a mixed state of emotions he tried to capture in songs like “Undone.” “Thank God you go through phases in our life where things may be really horrible or may be really great,” he says. “I was obviously feeling a lot of love in the past couple years to write these songs… and a little bit of sorrow as well. But overall I think the message of the CD is love, whether you’re finding it or you have it or you just figured out how much you love it. Is it weird to say I love love?”
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