As Casey James, and the rest of the American Idol Top Ten, set off for their 51-city tour, it is a good time to look back over his journey as well as look forward to where he will go from here. Casey came to American Idol not as a youngster hoping for a short cut to instant fame, but as someone who had toiled for years and years as a working musician. Contrary to the story that American Idol wanted to tell – since their raison d’être is allegedly to discover and create new talent – Casey was a full time singer/guitarist when he arrived on the show. Being a full time musician meant playing whatever, whenever and with whomever. To make a living making music, Casey had to be versatile, able to perform in any genre at any time.
So Casey came to American Idol already armed with his own sound, his own style, his own direction, and his own self awareness. But what he didn’t have was an idea of how to move to the next level. Casey has readily admitted in interviews that he knew nothing about how to publicize himself, or else he wouldn’t have been playing in the same small venues after all these years. So that is where American Idol came in and he, for one, is supremely grateful for the opportunity the show has given him.
His fans are grateful as well. Over the months he was on American Idol, their numbers grew as one performance after another solidified him as the real deal. Years from now, his fans will remember back to the first time they saw him on American Idol, the first time he sang and they felt that connection with him as an artist, the moment they knew he was — as Randy Jackson once put it — a real singer-songwriter. They won’t remember that he didn’t win American Idol; they may not even remember the name of the person who did. But they will remember that once they heard Casey James sing and play, they couldn’t get enough.
They’ll remember watching him perform Heaven in the Top 24 and wondering why he sounded better than the original and why you might have thought he was a guest performer and not a contestant. They’ll think back to when he sang I Don’t Want to Be and they thought it was amazing – until some of the judges tried to tell them they were wrong. They’ll certainly all remember when they first heard him sing Jealous Guy (like earlier fans remember Fantasia’s Over the Rainbow or Kelly Clarkson’s Stuff Like That There or David Cook’s Billie Jean). One wonders if the judges would ever have the nerve to look back at the video from Mrs. Robinson and admit that it was probably the most moving, haunting performance of the year.
For the next few months, Casey James will still be associated with American Idol. But much of the baggage that came from being on American Idol will be gone. First, there won’t be a filter between the performance and the audience, that panel of judges whose own agenda meant that their comments often diverged substantially from the reality the audience saw and heard. After he sings and the crowd goes crazy, no one will chime in to tell the audience that they are wrong, that they can’t trust their own ears, that they didn’t hear what they thought they heard. Second, as Casey has remarked repeatedly now that the show is over, he’ll get to do full songs. Guitar leads, multiple choruses, guitar solos, all the verses. He can let go and let loose and get into a song the way you can only really do when you have the time. You could fake it, in a minute thirty if you were so inclined, but Casey doesn’t seem to be the type to feign emotion. It’s either there, or it isn’t.
Casey will be able to do some of what he did during his hometown visits – show the real Casey James. For the span of his set, the audience will get a chance to see the passionate, vibrant performer who would die if he couldn’t play music. They will see someone who is in rapture when he’s playing, almost so happy to be doing what he loves that he looks like he’ll explode. Casey was not meant to be a reality TV contestant; Casey is just an old-fashioned musician.
Unfortunately for his fans, this tour will only give them a taste of what he has to offer. Three songs, one duet, and he’s off the stage. I imagine the air will be sucked out of the venues at that moment, not to take away anything from Crystal, who is a very good singer. But Casey should have been the headliner. The American Idol judges who decided to back a different horse in the race, were not thinking about what would be the best for music, they were thinking about the best story for a TV show. Shlubby paint salesman becomes a star is a more interesting story arc. But now that the show is over, the focus now is on who will make the best record, give the best concerts, be the most successful artist. And the answer, clearly, is Casey James.
So who will sign Casey? That’s the question. Because of protocol, no announcement could be made until after the top two had their deals in hand. But now that those deals have been publicized, it’s Casey’s turn. There is much speculation about Casey’s future and all of it is pointing in the same direction – southerly. It looks like Casey is headed to sign with a country label. It’s a smart move, both commercially and musically. Casey has the blues in his soul, there’s no denying that. His hometown performance videos are electric when he’s on stage doing Satisfied or Drowning on Dry Land or King’s Highway. But that is not a genre that gets you played on the radio, or booked on Letterman, or headlining arenas, or being able to afford your mom a nice new house. But country music is. It’s a wide open genre that can accommodate just about any artist, any style. It doesn’t have to be twangy and you don’t have to have steel pedal guitars and multiple banjos going. The singer’s voice alone can make it country, and there’s no denying Casey has that country sound. And the Texan, who once tweeted about his love of his family, friends, music, his dogs, Jesus, and Texas, among other things, would seem an easy fit with the country music artists and fans.