Billy Cole (BC) James is not just Casey James’ brother, he’s also his bassist. BC started playing the guitar before Casey ever picked one up, but not long after Casey started playing, he switched to bass. He likes being his brother’s musical back-up and support. It is, as he told me, “why I’m sucking air.” We talked about their musical collaboration and how long and hard both of them had worked to make it as musicians and what the future has in store for the James brothers.
It was hard for BC to pinpoint when they went from jamming brothers to a band since they grew up around music their whole lives. They had accompanied their mother Debra when she performed, and their first paying gigs were with her. But after a while, the boys wanted to branch out and play different types of music. As BC told me, though, with a seven-year age difference between the brothers, there were some logistical problems. “I basically had to wait for Casey to get old enough so we could actually go to certain places. For a while, Momma had to come with us, because he was too young. When he was finally old enough, we’d go to clubs and play, mostly blues, classic rock, little bit of country. We did that for years.”
But before that, there were many, many shows at every place imaginable from private parties to Casey’s high school graduation. BC remembered back, with a chuckle, to one of the very first gigs they played as a band — the city pool in Mineral Wells. Casey was about 14 – 15, his brother about 21. Being the older “very anal” one, was worried about all that equipment around all that water. So he duct-taped all the wires, cords, anything electrical so, thankfully, no one was electrocuted. Back then, Casey was just the lead guitarist, but when their singer left, Casey took over. BC said Casey was a natural front-man, so the switch was great — except for the fact that the singer left with their drummer and a recurring problem hit the band — the difficulty in finding, and keeping, a drummer. “We spent a lot of time always on the hunt for a good drummer.”
The first venue the brothers played regularly was Lumpy’s, “that’s where we came into our own.” According to BC, they had the most appreciative audience and it really helped them develop to get such positive feedback. They venue was packed — “the place was standing room only.” They first patterned themselves after Stevie Ray Vaughan and BC said his favorite compliment was when people would tell him he reminded them of Tommy Shannon, Vaughan’s bass player. Casey was a hit with the blues crowd, despite his young age, and he quickly developed a reputation for his guitar-playing with the local musicians.
In 2001, they finally found a good drummer, Brian Leopard, and the three of them started playing blues and trying to get gigs. It was then they came up with the name Casey James and Crossover. “We had that country and bluegrass thing going on, and classic rock, and I had gotten into metal, and Brian came from Texas country background, Casey was knee deep into blues at that time, and we thought it fit.” Plus, around where they live there is a highway and every quarter mile there is a “Crossover” sign so BC thought, “It works for the music and it’ll be something that people will see all the time.”
Without a demo, they had to go audition, playing at open mike nights. BC remembered a particularly important audition they had. They went up to the Captain’s Den in Ft. Worth on jam night to see if they could get booked. Apparently, the owner liked what he heard. “We went there, we jam out and we played like two songs, the bar owner said play another one. Usually if you’re trying out they don’t let you play that much, but we ended up playing five or six songs, a lot more than we expected, and the crowd went berserk and the owner booked us there. That’s how we got started.” They built from there, parlaying their gigs at the Captain’s Den to get them jobs at other venues.
While this trio was playing the blues, they all had their side projects. BC would be playing with his friends and Casey would play at a variety of other venues in a variety of other musical genres as well. “Casey would be playing at the Cliffs golf course out there in Possum Kingdom Lake and doing private parties.” They would be playing often five nights a week.
Some of their concerts were at less than ideal locations. “There was this one gig that we did, as we drove in they were shooting skeet over our heads. Great plan. The things you do when you’re young and stupid.” But they had even stranger gigs. “We ended up getting — I have no idea how it happened — but the Boozefighters, a motorcycle gang, they liked us and followed us everywhere we went.” I suggested that this was their first set of groupies and BC laughed. “Groupies-slash-built-in security. We didn’t have any trouble.” They started developing a following in the biker community and played at the Boozefighter’s national rally.
But they wanted to expand beyond just the biker crowd, especially since some of the gangs were not as nice as the Boozefighters. BC recalled one particular gig where they learned that lesson. “We had played for six hours. Casey’s voice was absolutely gone by the time we were done.” Exhausted, they packed up their gear only to be handed just $60 for the night. They were stunned. It was not what they had agreed upon; it wouldn’t even cover the cost of the drive up to the venue. As BC delicately put it, “we then made the mistake of bringing that to their attention.”
He relayed what happened next. “The head guy, he picked up his glass and threw it at the three guys sitting next to him and there was yelling and cussing and then he pulled out a piece and slapped it on the table. At that point, Brian and I stood up and realized it was time to go. They all looked like Vikings and they outnumbered us about 70-to-1.” But apparently, Casey wasn’t as willing to just walk away without getting paid what they were owed. “We actually had to drag Casey back to the bus. I grabbed him by the arm, put my hand over his mouth so he wouldn’t get us into trouble, and dragged him onto the bus.”
In 2002, they recorded a CD, so they would have a demo to give to club owners to book gigs and to sell at their concerts. During American Idol, Casey’s fans found some of the songs on someone’s (not the band’s — they never put the songs on the web) MySpace page, including Road to Coming Home and Freezing. Fans have been enthusiastic about the songs not realizing just how old they were. In fact, Freezing was the first song Casey ever wrote. Of the first ten songs the band wrote, five were a collaboration, three were written by Casey alone and two by BC. Sometimes the music came first, other time some lyrics. “It wasn’t the same way every time.”
Having a CD did help them get more gigs, some on a regular basis, others wherever they could find them. They had just discovered how to use the Internet to start promoting themselves and it was really starting to pay off, when things literally came crashing down as Casey suffered that terrible motorcycle accident in the first half of 2004. They did get back together after Casey was able to play the guitar again after his grueling rehabilitation and the three of them actually played at Casey’s 2005 wedding. BC calls it simply “the best show we ever had.”
Around that time, BC took a year off from performing to finish nursing school and Brian left the band to join his sister who was recording her own CD. Meanwhile, Casey continued playing gigs and blues jams all over. In September of 2007, “Casey and I put the band back together,” and the two began playing together and rehearsing together whenever they could. After about a month or two, they met Jacy McCann, their current drummer.
“We started jamming and it was like an immediate spark. Jacy is an amazing drummer. We played our first show at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth. We had a phenomenal response.” They were playing something he called Texas rock, a mixture of rock and country and blues and metal and everything they like and are influenced by. “Casey was still doing his own thing on the side, but we were the band that if he were going to get signed, we’d be the band he’d want to get signed with.” They practiced almost daily for six months to get as tight as they could. “But Casey still had to pay the bills just being a musician.”
So when I told BC that I was enjoying hearing about how his brother became an overnight success thanks to American Idol, he chuckled, then rattled off some of their other more memorable “school of hard knocks” stories — which are much funnier now than they were then, in light of how things have turned out. He told me about one instance where, after driving up to Missouri, they plugged in their instruments only to find the PA system was blasting Tejano music from a local radio station it was picking up instead of their microphones.
Another time, they were playing in the sweltering summer and his amp died of heatstroke. He explained how he MacGuyver’d a solution involving many plastic trash bags and ice to get it back to functioning. And speaking of improvised fixes, BC explained how he Super-Glued Casey’s fingernails back to his fingers (a tip he learned from the autobiography of Stevie Ray Vaughan) every couple of songs when they came off and started bleeding from playing on the thick, blues guitar strings. Ah, the glamorous life of a musician.
But the best story came from earlier in their career at some “hole in the wall place” out in Possum Kingdom Lake. They were playing at a bar where, apparently, the electricity was hooked up wrong. Within about 30 minutes, two PA systems and one guitar amp had blown out. They still had at least two-to-three hours left of the gig, with no PA system which meant no singing. “So we just improvised. We did literally a 30 or 40 minute version of Third Stone from the Sun from Jimi Hendrix. It was the most nutty thing. At that point, it turned from an actual musicians’ show into a circus.”
BC went on to describe a show sadly not recorded for posterity. “Casey was holding the head stalk of the guitar with both hands and had his feet on the guitar on either side of the neck, pogoing his guitar across the stage. Seriously, jumping on it like it was a pogo stick. I had taken my bass off and was playing it on the ground. Casey was breaking strings, playing his guitar with the drumstick. I was playing my bass with the drumstick. We played behind our backs, the only thing we didn’t do was set our guitars on fire. It kept them entertained and it was so funny. By the time we were done I was holding my bass up by one string and playing the other three. Casey, by the time he was done, had one string left that was attached, because the more strings he broke the more nuts they went. It got to the point where he was playing lead on one string.”
BC has, like Casey, a good attitude about all of this. As he said, you do it — the music — “because you love it, not because it pays the bills.” But Casey, a full time musician, had to play as many jobs as he could get so he could pay the bills. Casey played whenever, wherever, and whatever he could while also working with BC and Jacy on their band. But that routine started taking its toll.
Not long after they started playing together, Casey lost his voice. “It was from singing every night, and singing rock and really overworking his vocal chords.” Apparently the band was experimenting with different sounds, including much harder edged vocals. BC made it clear that Casey was pushing himself too hard and trying to do too much — a theme that was reminiscent of how he had rehabilitated himself after his accident. But this time, his stubborn determination to work as hard as he cold came back to bite him.
As BC explained it, Casey had to learn that even he had his limits. “It’s very much like any other part of your body; it’s a wake-up call. It’s like an NFL player playing a game every night of the week, because Casey would play five nights a week. And I don’t mean play like just showing up like these monster stars do, just show up and sing for 60 minutes and then they’re done. I’m taking about singing for these four-hour-marathon gigs every night of the week and then practicing for three hours with us two nights a week. So his voice just went. It took a vacation. So we had to let the rehearsal complex go.”
After about six months, “His voice was just coming back, we were just about to start putting everything back together, we were picking up where we left off. The next week we were going to go get a rehearsal complex and then Mom got after him (about American Idol).” BC said that it was not much of a discussion. As he described it, “when you’re a free person, you get volunteered to do something… . Well if mom’s around you get voluntold. So he was kind of voluntold.”
Casey was reluctant but “she just insisted, here you take my truck. You just go up there. So that very first audition where it looks like he had been on the road for 18 hours? He had.” So what did BC think of American Idol before Casey went on it? He was a bit sheepish as he answered. As a musician, he said, he used to look down on the show. “I used to think they were just looking for Justin Timberlake cookie cutters.” Then he laughed, “Well, I stand corrected. I bet they don’t do that anymore. I bet Casey has changed the whole dynamic of the show.”
One of the highlights for BC of Casey’s long ride on American Idol was the hometown visit after Casey made it into the Top Three. “That was absolutely insane.” BC had the chance to join Casey onstage at the Keys Lounge to do Ian Moore’s Satisfied. It was the first time the brothers got to play together in six months. BC recalled that he had to borrow someone else’s bass, so he “was nervous like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” But he had a blast. “It was cool and awesome.”
I asked BC if he thought Casey would end up playing so many songs during his set at the Keys Lounge, considering what a packed, whirlwind weekend it was. He said he wasn’t surprised at all. “I expected it to be long. They hadn’t let him turn loose on the show and this was the first time he got to play blues since he’d been gone. So I expected him to come out and basically – the gloves would come off. He’d play the guitar and beat on it like it owed him money. And he did.”
BC said you could really tell how much getting to play there, for his friends and fans, meant to Casey. “There was a point where, during the John Mayer song, when he said it’s so good to be home and he just…” His voice trailed off, searching for the words to describe what any of us who have seen the video recognized, that Casey was overcome with emotion. On the video you can see him sighing loudly then talk about what he was feeling. But that was apparently out of character for Casey. “My brother is a tough guy.”
Some of that toughness, according to BC, come from their grandfather, their mom’s dad, who acted as surrogate father for the two of them after their parents divorced when he was eleven and Casey was just four. Paw Paw had a great deal of influence on the James’ boys. “That’s where Casey and I get a lot of our old school, World War II, hard-headed, hatred of computers and most things that are modern.”
But despite that techno-phobia, both Casey and BC are starting to embrace technology as a way to connect with fans. Casey has been using Twitter to talk with fans since the show ended, and BC started a Facebook page to communicate with fans during the show. He thought that interest in his Facebook page would die down after the show ended, but he was in for a surprise. The number of friend requests he receives has only continued to grow even after the show ended and the page is very active. “Casey has made an impact on a lot of people and helped them get through a minute and 45 seconds of their day as they’re listened to one of his songs on the show.” So BC has no plans to shut down the page. “You can’t turn that off. The fans are so sincere and supportive. Everyone on there is so great, I wish I could do more to show my appreciation to them. They’re amazing.”
But the fans don’t just want to share their feelings about Casey and send their love and support. They also want more information on what Casey is doing next, when he’ll get his record contract, and whether BC will be part of Casey’s post-Idol band? And those are questions BC can’t answer. Still, he knows what he hopes will happen. Referencing a Facebook message he had received from a fan who told him that many other Idols have brought their old band mates into their post-Idol bands, BC said, “It’s not out of the realm of possibility that I might get to be Casey’s bass player again. It would be a great way for this to wrap up. It would be…ideal.”
But BC isn’t just sitting back and hoping for that to happen. He’s working hard at his craft while Casey is off playing on the American Idol Live Tour. BC brings out his bass, at a minimum, three hours every day and performs live every chance he gets. He’s even taking formal lessons for the first time “and it’s blown the doors wide open for me musically.” BC seems newly energized about music, and feels “like I did when I was first playing.”
I aske BC what direction he thought Casey’s music might be headed and what he thought of the rumors that Casey would be heading to Nashville. “Growing up with Paw Paw as our father figure out here, we had a healthy respect for Waylon and Willie and Merle. That old-school, three-chord country. We listened to that a lot.” But he could see Casey taking his blues-rock vibe with him into the country genre. “Modern country music is just so diverse and broad. Especially the Red Dirt or Texas Country that people like Pat Green and Zac Brown are playing. It’s like Pearl Jam meets Hank Williams, Jr., such a crossover thing.” Crossover, there’s that word again.
“When you come from a musically diverse family, it’s difficult to get crow-barred and shoe-horned into a special category. It’s no fun playing just blues, it’s no fun playing just country, it’s no fun playing just rock. Why can’t you do everything you love?” BC thinks that is possible under the country umbrella. Plus, he noted, with the slight Southern tone in Casey’s voice, his music will always have a country feel to it, regardless of what anyone calls it.
So how does Billy Cole James feel about Casey’s American Idol experience? “It has gotten him in a position where he can actually do something now. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.” But, for a number of reasons, BC is glad it’s over. “I’ve got to speak to him more in the last three weeks than I have in the previous six months.” Only time will tell if the brothers get more chances not just to talk, but to play together as well.