Sometime last year a Texas blues player drove his mom’s truck up to Denver to audition for American Idol. As loyal viewers of the show know, before a contestant even gets in front of the judges they have to make it past an initial screening. We haven’t seen what Casey James did to impress the producers to make it to the judges’ round, but we can guess that they saw what his many fans have seen over the past few months – a gifted singer-songwriter-musician who lives for music.
Casey made a memorable impression on many levels during that first televised performance – he had a good voice, he was cute, and handled awkward situations with equanimity. But what was most clear was this was a dedicated musician who just wanted the chance to show what he could do. When Casey got to Hollywood, he did just that. He brought out his not-so-secret weapon, his guitar, and played and sang I Don’t Need No Doctor like he’d written the song and been playing it all his life. It was instantly clear this was a talented artist, not a wannabe musician who was trying to take a shortcut to fame.
Casey had no way of knowing what the whirlwind of American Idol would do to or for him. He is now known to millions and has fans literally from around the world. Yet it’s not clear that the casual viewer of American Idol really knew him at all. This became eminently clear when the first videos from the Final 3 hometown visits started trickling out, shown– sadly — not on the program, but on uploaded videos from camera wiedling fans.
We’ve now been shown a side of Casey that only his fans from back home had seen before. He sang with abandon, he played guitar with gusto, he charmed the crowd, he reveled in jamming with his band, he sang a beautiful duet with his mom. Unlike the sometimes stiff, sometimes reserved Casey that we saw on the Idol stage, he was fully in command of every performances. He was comfortable, he was dynamic, he was expressive, and he looked to be about the happiest guy on the face of the earth. Playing music to him seems as important as breathing air to the rest of us.
And this voice, sometimes so subdued on the show, came out of nowhere. He had a husky growl and a sweet falsetto; he had smooth sustained notes and a sexy vibrato. The voice was mostly bluesy, with a little country thrown in. He played an original song which, as they often say on Idol, could be a hit on the radio right now.
We knew Casey could sing, we’d heard him play around with his voice before, making it do so many different things on so many different songs. But set free from the time constraints – and maybe feeling the love of the home crowd – he was able to give some truly remarkable performances. And he was able to do what he appears to love the most – jam. He can play guitar better than anyone who’s ever taken the Idol stage, without question. He might be one of the best guitarists out there, period. He certainly imbues it with the most heart.
The contrast between the adored Casey back home in Texas and the underdog Casey in California was striking. In Texas, he was a star — clearly destined to be the next American Idol. Yet back in Los Angeles, the judges had already written him off as inconvenient, a disruption to their plan. So focused on their dream final of the two Midwesterners, Ellen and Randy did not even mention Casey’s name in their pre-show interviews. Ryan had counted him out as well in his own interview ahead of the Final 3 performances, ahead of the votes.
The scale was firmly tilted against Casey on that night, and anything short of Lee or Crystal kicking a puppy on stage would not have overcome the runaway train that was the preselected final two. But, with the show now safely in our review mirror, and the drumbeat of support for Lee/Crystal now over, an interesting phenomenon is happening. People are listening to Casey without the American Idol filter to tell them what they think. And the more they hear him, the more they like him.
They listened back to “Mrs. Robinson” and realized it might have been the best vocal of the year by any contestant, or at worst second only to his performance of “Don’t.” They realize that he wasn’t adequately praised for “You’ll Think of Me” and his ability to change up and rock out on “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” was overlooked as well. They realize that no one has had as affecting a moment on stage this year as “Jealous Guy,” and that he can do all this while being a veritable virtuoso on the guitar. And maybe most importantly, they’ve checked out the many YouTube videos from his hometown performances and discovered what a star he already is.
This competition for the title AI9 winner may be over, but there is a new competition brewing. That is the one for the title most successful AI9 alum. I’m picking Casey as the winner of that one, and this time I’m certain my pick will win. The journey that began on the road from Ft. Worth to Denver will never truly end, but will take Casey to as yet unscaled musical heights. .