American Idol is known for labeling — even pigeonholing — its contestants. You’re the rocker, you’re the Broadway singer, you’re the R&B artist, you’re the next teen pop star. Last year the official “country” contestant was Aaron Kelly who covered Rascal Flatts and Lonestar early in the competition and has, since the show ended, confirmed he’s heading for Nashville. Though hailing from Texas, Casey James was alternately the blues rocker and the sensitive balladeer.
But just a couple weeks ago, Casey found himself in Nashville, and rumor has it that he was there to discuss signing a record deal. A country record deal. Buttressing this rumor is a recent interview with Yahoo! Music in which Casey said this about moving in the country direction:
I would love to, and the reason is, is that these days…Country music is like a big wide open space for you to do what you want to do if you’re within a certain realm…I think that that will allow me to do what I want to do, if I go to Nashville. They’re going to let me play the guitar, they’re going to let me be edgy and rocky and a little bit bluesy, and a little bit old school, a little bit new school, and my country roots-which is where I was born and raised growing up listening to Merle Haggard and George Jones-all of that wrapped up into one big ball is who I am musically, and I’m not going to be able to do that anywhere else. So that’s what I’m hoping for.
There is much truth in what Casey said. Country is a fairly broad genre of music today that encompasses everything from the more traditional, twangy, bluegrass music to the mainstream crossover quasi-pop music of Shania Twain and Keith Urban. Country music and its fans are open-minded and accepting of a wide variety of styles. But, in today’s economic climate, what is most telling about country music is its continued success at doing what the music business generally is failing at — selling records.
While album sales have declined dramatically in the past decade, country artists are still selling. Last year, for example, total albums sales were down 12.7 percent compared to the preceding (also anemic) year. Country music, however, nearly weathered the story, dipping a mere 3.2 percent from last year’s numbers. The top selling artist in digital music is country’s Taylor Swift.
According to Billboard, two of the biggest selling albums ever are by country artists (Garth Brooks’Double Live and Shania Twain’s Come on Over). Of course Elvis Presley, the original country crossover artist, holds the record as the biggest selling artist of all time.
There is no question that to maintain a successful musical career, country music is a viable option. But is it a good fit for Casey James? The simple answer is an emphatic yes. While many of Casey’s performances during his hometown visits were bluesy, there is no question that he also wowed with repeat performances of Heaven as well as a duet of Wayfaring Stranger with his mother. Both of these performances would fit nicely into a CMA broadcast.
When Casey sings, there is a bit of the South that comes out in his sometimes honey-soaked, sometimes gritty vocals. He took John Lennon’s pop-rock Jealous Guy and made it a plaintive, country song of love and regret. Similarly, his take on Mrs. Robinson shook up the infamous pop song and transformed it, imbuing it with more heartache and soul than the original. He brings the best of country music — its heart, its relatability, its honesty — to whatever song, whatever genre he sings.
He has said repeatedly that he grew up listening to all genres of music, including country. In his American Idol page he listed Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and Nashville bluegrass singer-songwriter Ronnie Bowman among his influences. Casey has said in interviews that he grew up listening to country legends George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. He has a natural twang in his voice, and his small town roots fit in nicely with the country demographics. It is an ideal fit.
The platform of a country album would also give Casey the freedom to focus as much on his musicianship as his vocals. On AI the audience was shown just a glimpse of what Casey can do with a guitar, the live performances we have on YouTube tell a larger story — that of a gifted and passionate musician, utterly blissful to just jam away with other musicians, eyes closed, the world put on hold while he plays. If Casey were steered towards pop, he might not have the freedom to embrace his guitar as he can as a country artist.
And while it may be a stereotype, it is also true that there is a greater connection between country musicians and their fans. One thing that Casey as proved since American Idol ended is his strong connection to his fans whether it’s tweeting with them or acknowledging them in interviews. In country music Casey would find an extended family of fans who wish him only the best and want to see him succeed. What more can an artist ask for?