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Casey James is playing the waiting game

Casey James

10:30 p.m. Friday

Billy Bob's Texas,

Fort Worth




Who was the best North Texas 'Idol'?
Posted 11:06pm on Tuesday, Jun. 28, 2011

Four hundred and six days (and counting) have passed since Casey James was eliminated from the ninth season of American Idol.

He finished third, behind Crystal Bowersox and eventual winner Lee DeWyze.

In the span of those 9,744 hours (and counting), Bowersox and DeWyze have released their debut albums, to decidedly underwhelming sales figures: about 193,000 copies for Bowersox's Farmer's Daughter and 141,000 for DeWyze's Live It Up.

Among those 584,640 minutes (and counting), there has been an American Idol Live! tour, which earned James, the blond-haired, blue-eyed singer-songwriter, some impressive notices. "The noise ratchets up another notch when Casey James takes the stage," wrote USA Today's Brian Mansfield in July 2010.

The former Fort Worth resident -- James lives in Nashville, although there are frequent return trips to North Texas -- was also tapped this year to open a short spring run for country superstars Sugarland. He is represented by Sandbox Entertainment (which counts Shania Twain among its clients) and Creative Artists Agency, indicating, if nothing else, that James is positioning himself for potentially big things.

None of which can really transpire, of course, until he releases a major-label debut. He signed a deal with Sony Music Nashville just weeks after his Idol elimination, but as 2011 nears its halfway point, there's no sign of a record.

For his rabid fans (and they are legion; Googling "Casey James fans" provides about 2.8 million results), the wait is tantamount to torture. But Casey James is a patient man. (Maybe it's no coincidence that James was raised in a town called Cool.) He knows the clock is ticking.

"My goal is to make a great record, not necessarily to strike while the iron's hot," says James, during a recent phone conversation. "If I make a great record, all that will heat up again. I can capitalize on that moment [ American Idol], but that was never my intention in the first place. My intention was to make a great album."

In other words: We should all have a little patience. And some faith. Given his talents and his status as one of Cougar Nation's reigning heartthrobs, it would be all too easy to release a hastily assembled album (like so many Idol alums before him) and tour the country to the sounds of adoring screams.

"I want music that's not just a catchy tune; [I want] something that's going to change your day," James says. "That's my goal: To make it count, to make it worth something, to be able to touch somebody's life -- that's what it does for me, and I want to try to reciprocate that."

Friday, the man who once made a living gigging at area bars like Keys Lounge will take the stage at Billy Bob's Texas, a landmark that James says he would have been happy just to play as an opening act a few years ago. It's the kick-off for a summer jaunt that will take him from Calgary to Albuquerque, his first major solo outing (although there are a couple dates with Sugarland in late July).

Apart from these few appearances, however, he's stayed mostly below the radar. And will for the near future.

Fans may not be able to stand the wait, but James can -- and will.

Grounded in music

If he's being honest, James never really thought his life and career would come to this.

The 29-year-old grew up all over North Texas, flitting from Cool to Millsap to Mineral Wells to Weatherford, before landing in Fort Worth. He began playing guitar in his early teens, the product of a deeply musical family (his mother, Debra, has a recording career of her own, while his older brother, Billy, is a successful bassist).

Debra James says her family always put a priority on music -- she'd be more likely to take her sons to a concert than to whatever was opening on the big screen that week. James still talks to her about his music, but not so much to seek her advice, because he knows what he wants to be.

"He has such a strong sense of self," she says. "We'll knock ideas around and we talk music a lot, but he hasn't really changed that much, so I don't think he needs a whole lot of advice. He's pretty grounded. If I say anything, it's just to reinforce something that he already knows, to try to stay true to himself."

He suffered a horrific motorcycle crash in 2004, followed by a yearlong recovery -- nothing builds patience like grueling sessions of physical therapy. (James suffered severe damage to his left arm and wrist in the accident.)

After auditioning in Denver, at his mother's urging, James -- who had never seen a single episode of American Idol -- soon found himself in Hollywood, competing among the top 24 American Idol contestants, before making it all the way to the top three.

"I'm surprised I made it past the first audition; I'm amazingly surprised I made it past the second audition and so on and so forth all the way up to the top 24," James says. "I really did think every night, 'This is my last shot; that way I cannot be embarrassed tomorrow when I leave.' I was continuously blown away, and that's the truth."

Keys Lounge owner Danny Ross was one of those watching as James progressed from round to round on American Idol. He'd spent several late nights jamming with James at the Keys, ripping through Stevie Ray Vaughan standards or old blues sides that would make Lightnin' Hopkins smile fondly. Nevertheless, Ross stands in awe of what James accomplished during his time on the show.

"On occasion they changed his tunes at the last minute before the show. To pull it off was amazing and was [his] on-the-spot maturing as a real pro," Ross says. "The Casey we know is the reason he's made it this far, and it showed through on TV. He was a person who was believable and who you wanted to see perform again. At jam sessions in my living room, he was the last one still going."

That drive should serve James well in his post- Idol career. But James admits he is grappling with a radically expanded view of the music business.

"The extent of my business in the past was finding places to play ... and getting paid at the end of the night. It's just a whole different deal now," he says. "I'm looking forward to getting finished so I can get into the music end of it. That's what I love, that's where I shine, and that's what makes me happy."

James has been writing (alone and with collaborators like Sugarland's Kristian Bush, Tom Douglas and Delbert McClinton) almost nonstop since parting ways with Idol. There are a few new songs (Drive, So Sweet and Bulletproof, among others) that have trickled out on YouTube.

Right now, everything is up in the air -- asked how the recording and songwriting process was going, James says simply, "Real good" -- with many layers of decision-making between him and radio airplay.

"The hardest thing, believe it or not, is deciding what's going to be on the album," he says. "The [as-yet-undetermined] single will be out, I think, in a couple months. I imagine, by October, there will be a single on the radio. Honestly, I don't know.... There's really nothing to choose from that I don't love.... I love 'em all, and if I hear myself on the radio, I'm gonna flip out regardless."

Sony Music Nashville Chairman Gary Overton has expressed supreme confidence in James: "I flew to New York to see him live with the American Idol tour, and I was blown away with his voice, guitar playing and stage presence," he said in a statement. "He has honed his skills as a showman with his years of performing live on stage."

Mark Phillips, program director for country station KPLX/99.5 FM "The Wolf," says he doesn't think that James will have any problems doing well when he does eventually release some music. He says the station still gets lots of calls asking what's up with James.

"Country music in particular has had a lot of American Idol alums do pretty well," Phillips says. "Obviously, Carrie Underwood's the biggest example, but even right now, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina [this season's champ and runner-up], but you've also got Kellie Pickler that's still active in the country music charts, and we've had some others like Josh Gracin along the way. I think if he had a strong song out, there'd be a good radio demand for Casey James."

Return of the hero

On Idol, James came off much more as a blues artist than a country artist, but country is a quicker route to commercial success than blues, so that's the route James has chosen. He has said previously, however, that no matter what he does, it will still have a blues flavor to it.

"The nice thing about country is it's a big tent," says The Wolf's Phillips. "So there's room for all sorts of different sounds, some that are more traditional, some that are more pop sounding. Really, country music is about having a great song. If it's got some blues influence, then OK, but it's got to be a great song, no matter what he wants to be influenced by."

Those who have grown up listening to a diverse mélange of Lone Star artists will instantly recognize his bluesy, countrified, rock-tinged songs -- tricky to categorize, but you know it when you hear it.

"No matter what I do, it always comes out sounding like me," James says. "In a lot of other places, [the sound is] very pinpoint specific ... it's very easily understandable, but it doesn't have as many aspects, it's not as deep.... A lot of the music I grew up listening to that really influenced me was very multidimensional, multicultural. Every aspect of it was multi-."

Yet even as James is explaining the unique nature of what he is trying by fusing blues, country and rock -- apart from possibly John Mayer, try naming another high-profile, mainstream young musician who embraces the blues so readily -- he acknowledges, once more, the fine line he must walk. For as much opportunity as he has before him, James must also be mindful of the marketplace.

"I'm making a record I know will be played on the radio," James says. "It's important that I put my best foot forward and give my best representation of who I am and what I do."

And as a native Texan, he's ecstatic about the opportunity to play Billy Bob's Texas, a landmark venue not only in this state, but musically.

"It's really mind-blowing, man," James says. "It floors me every day the place I'm in; I look at the calendar, see Billy Bob's on the first and think, 'This is really my life.' [Laughs.] I was thinking, 'Nobody's gonna be there; I don't have any music out.' But I'm super pumped about it -- it's going to be a great night."

Debra James is looking forward to his visit, especially since the past couple of times James has visited have been for sad reasons: His grandfather -- her dad -- died in May after a long illness. She divorced James' father when he was 4, and her own father was like a father to James as well.

"I can't wait for him to be here, bless his heart," she says. "It's been really hard on him the last couple of times that he's been home. My dad was the male influence. He was the patriarch of the family. He was the glue. And he was very ill, and Casey's been coming back and forth. This will be the first time that he's been home for a happier reason."

And, while he's onstage, doing what he loves most, the clock will cease ticking for James.

He won't have to be mindful of the months, days, hours, minutes slipping past with no singles on the radio, no months-long headlining tours booked and no albums available on iTunes. For a little while, he'll still have his whole career ahead of him, one he knows rests squarely upon him delivering nothing less than the best batch of songs he can muster.

"I want to get it done; I want to get it right.... I know that the fans are eager to hear the music and get something. But on the other hand, I want it to be worth your support and I want it to be worth all the people that have been continuously supporting me.

"I'm extremely proud to have fans that are that way. If I make a great album, all that stuff will come back."

Nevertheless, the morning after the Billy Bob's gig will mark 408 days since Idol (and counting).

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