Casey James calls in a day before he has a concert in Denver, where he auditioned for American Idol a little more than three years ago. He likes to tell the story about how his mom bought him a truck so he could drive from Fort Worth to the Mile High City to audition after he missed the tryouts at Cowboys Stadium.
A lot has happened since then, but James is still talking about trucks.
"Oh my God, do you know that a new truck is $66,000 dollars?" he says as he walks back home from a car dealership to his Fort Worth house. "It's a freakin' F250 four-wheel drive. That's crazy! You could buy a house for that!"
This is not the sort of thing you tend to hear from people who have had Billboard chart success, but this unpretentiousness is a big part of James' appeal, as are his winsome smile and his curly blond locks. But all of that would have little effect if it weren't for James' guitar playing, which can be seen in its best setting - live - when James performs Friday night at Billy Bob's Texas. It's his third Billy Bob's show since he came in third on season nine of Idol, and for the guy who grew up in Cool and lived in Fort Worth, the homecoming will never get old.
"I still get freakin' so excited, because to me, this is one of those places that you dream of playing, especially if you grow up in this area," he says. "Just to be on the stage that so many people you love and grew up listening to have played. On top of it all, we've spent so much time away, touring the U.S., with no real opportunity for friends and family to come and see the shows. So that's an added bonus as well." (It is possible, though not definite, that James' mother Debra will join him onstage for at least one number.)
It took more than a year after Idol for James (the only contestant from his season who still has a record contract) to release his debut album, Casey James, a pleasant mix of country and rock that has spent 42 weeks on the Billboard country album chart, where it peaked at No. 2. The album's first two singles, Let's Don't Call It a Night and Crying on a Suitcase, have spent 36 and 23 weeks on the country songs chart, respectively, and Crying recently cracked the mainstream Hot 100 chart, where it peaked at No. 90.
Credit that staying power to James' fans, who have learned how to work the system, using social media to encourage one another to call radio stations to request James' music, keeping his songs alive.
"They are good, man," James says. "They're dedicated. I think a lot of these folks that are fans that I've come to know over the years, I don't think that they did know how to do these things. I think they've learned, simply because they want to help me. That means a lot to me, because there's a lot of folks that would just vote for somebody on a TV show, and then that's it."
But also credit it to James' nearly constant touring since the album was released.
"It has been nonstop, and yes, I am tired at times, but everybody's gotta work," James says. "The way I look at is, if I give 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as I can to accomplishing a goal, then hopefully it'll take me less time [to make it] in the long run. If I went halfway, maybe it'd take me 10 years, rather than five."
Still, the album doesn't quite capture what James is like in concert. Raised on rock and blues, he throws in a lot of covers along with the Casey James songs, most of which he co-wrote, and he performs with charm and energy. The highlight of his Billy Bob's appearance in March 2012 was an epic version of Tony Joe White's Polk Salad Annie, with the runner-up being James' own guitar work on Drive, a rocking Casey James cut that seems like a perfect choice for the album's third single.
And not only is the album due for a third single, it's getting to be time for James to work on a second album. Fans might get some previews at Friday's Billy Bob's show.
"I just got out of rehearsals for four days straight with the band at my house," James says. "We've got quite a bit of new material that may or may not make the CD when I make a new album, which is gonna be during this next year. We've been honing our show for over a year and things are kinda tight, but at some point you want to throw in new material. [We're] doing that now, because in this new year, we're gonna have a lot of options for what to play."