The conversation with Casey James’ brother Billy turned to some of the darker points in Casey’s life, from his brushes with the law as a teen to the horrible motorcycle accident that could have ended his life six years ago. We also had a long discussion about the concept of grit.
We first discussed the image portrayed on American Idol of Casey James as going from “hell raiser to heartthrob.” I was in particular interested in knowing more about the reckless driving, the DUI and the jail time. I could tell this was a sore subject; one that Billy thought was blown out of proportion. “The reckless driving/DUI? That’s such a crock. Part of it is true, he did get a DUI. But rather than fighting it, he did the right thing and paid his debt to society.”
Billy said he could have fought the ticket, spent thousands of dollars in the process. But if he lost, he would have had it on his record and ended up on probation for years. And Casey did not want this hanging over his head for years. “Being a musician, you can’t travel out of the county if you’re on probation. That’s how he makes his living. So he thought, I’ll just serve out my time and be done with it. He said, ‘I screwed up.’ What kid doesn’t do that?”
I mentioned that not every kid gets a DUI and Billy agreed. But then, for the first time, Billy relayed the complete story of what happened and it was different than the image a DUI typically conjures up. According to Billy, “What happened was, he was driving home. Knew that he shouldn’t be driving. Actually pulled off on the side of the road and turned the car off and just was going to go to sleep and just sleep it off and wait till he was okay to drive and then drive home. Well, he’d been asleep for I don’t know how long and the cop drove up, saw him there, even though he wasn’t driving and they still got him.”
How did Billy know this was true? “Casey was never a hell raiser. My brother’s not a drinker. Honest to God, I’ve seen him drunk three times and he’s been over 21 for eight years now. He might have a beer maybe like when we were playing. I think I saw him maybe once every couple of months he might have a beer. It got to this point where we’d be playing places and all the waitresses and bartenders knew that Casey wasn’t a drinker and one of the drunks in the crowd would say, I want to buy him a shot of whatever. So if they said whiskey, they’d pour tea in it, and it looked like whiskey, but it wasn’t. Or they’d say get him a shot of vodka, and they’d put water in it. He would be kind and he would take their ‘shot,’ but they didn’t know it was a shot of water or a shot of tea or a shot of Coke. No real human being, unless you’re Keith Whitley or had the liver the size of an elephant, could drink like that. But he was always friendly, never a drinker, so when they say from hell raiser to heartthrob he was never a hell raiser.
What about the reckless driving? “He didn’t stop fully at a stop sign. It another one of those things when you ask, did you read any of those things written about him and I knew it was all going to be twisted and it was all going to be bent out of shape. And they’re going to play it for their own ends, just like they’ve done. And this is one of them.”
We were discussing Casey’s reaction to being back home during Top Three week on American Idol and Billy started mentioning how unusual it is for Casey to show a lot of emotion. The conversation then turned to Casey’s ability to control his feelings. “My brother is an emotional Spartan,” was how Billy explained it. “And I mean that in every sense of the word. You can equate it with how physically tough the Navy Seals are. That’s how Casey is, he’s an emotional Spartan.”
Then Billy reflected back to the criticism Simon gave Casey for lacking the “grit” to carry-off the Gavin DeGraw song, I Don’t Want to Be. “Simon’ll be choking on those words that ‘you don’t have enough grit.’ That guy’s got more grit in his little finger …” Billy stopped himself, not wanting to be rude. But it was clear how Simon’s words stung — and how inconsistent they were with what Billy knew about his brother.
Composed, he continued, but his voice was a mix of simmering anger and hurt. Billy is clearly very protective of his brother. “When Simon has to learn how to walk again, and relearn how to play guitar, and when doing something he loves every time he gets near it it makes him hurt, then Simon can talk about grit. Because physically it’s painful for Casey to play the guitar.”
I expressed to Billy that it was sad to hear that pain was the price Casey has to pay for being able to do what he loves. Especially as a fan, it was hard to hear that my enjoyment of Casey’s guitar playing comes at such a heavy cost to him. But this led the conversation into an interesting, and unexpected, discussion of choices and consequences, and how Casey’s choice to ride a motorcycle came at a grave price.
Billy was concerned he might sound like “an unfeeling, uncaring brother” as he starts to discuss Casey’s fateful motorcycle accident of 2004. But a bit of back-story might explain things and put Billy’s feelings about the subject in perspective. Both Billy and his mother Debra had warned Casey about riding a motorcycle and both had told him emphatically that they thought it was a terrible idea. But he went ahead – a single-minded, stubborn 21-year-old – and got the bike without their knowledge and road it for just two days when his rash decision almost cost him his life.
Billy said in some ways he was not surprised when Casey ended up seriously injured as a result of riding a motorcycle. “There are consequences; you ride a motorcycle something like that’s going to happen.” So you don’t ride?, I asked Billy. He responded with an emphatic, “Hell no. I was a paramedic years before I ever became a nurse and I’d seen what it does.”
Billy believes in his heart that divine intervention is the only explanation for why Casey’s accident did not turn out even worse. “We have a very gracious, loving God that took pity on my brother and answered our prayers. That’s the only reason my brother’s still here. That’s the truth.” And then he choked up.
Billy cleared his throat and continued. “When I say, there’s a price to pay. For everything there are consequences. When Casey had his wreck, he never asked for pity. He didn’t cry, not that we could see, he didn’t whine. He didn’t beg or say woe is me. He would just grit his teeth and do it. Whatever it was. The only way you knew he was hurting is he would grit his teeth and his nostrils would flare and that was it. He never once was, you know, the whole ‘woe is me’ thing. Not once. So when I say that he’s accepted that and there’s a price to pay, he’s already paid it. It’s part of his character now.”
Billy was haunted by his baby brother’s near-fatal accident for many years afterward and is still emotional as he discusses it, now six years after the fact. “For two, three years after that, no matter where I’d be, if I went down the highway and had my window down and one of those crotch-rockets passed me, where you could hear the engine [whizzing by], it would just flip me out and I’d immediately call Brother and tell him I love him and hang up. Or any time I’d hear sirens, same thing. I immediately called Brother, hey man how you doing, you doing all right? Yeah? Okay, cool. Well, I love you. I’ll talk to you later.”
Though it was difficult, I asked Billy to relive what he could of the moments when he first learned of the accident. “Mom called me frantic. I answered the phone at my hip and I could hear mom screaming before I even got the phone to my ear. And I was outside in the middle of Keller. What happened, Casey was on his way towards Weatherford or towards Granbury, I don’t remember which, and there was a truck in front of him. And there was a lady a couple hundred yards behind Casey, the truck in front of Casey put his right blinker on, pulled off to the right shoulder. And then right about the time Casey got to him, the guy just pulled right out in front of Casey. His right blinker was still on. And the lady saw the whole thing.”
“Casey he pinned it, put the crotch rocket, dropped it several gears, pinned it, thought he was going to get around the guy. Realized that wasn’t going to happen, and he’s not about to lay the bike down and slide under the truck while it’s moving, and get ground up into hamburger meat. So he just aimed right for the truck and just jumped. And he made it over the truck, unscathed, more or less except for his right leg hit the truck and that’s what broke his right femur. He did the cartwheel in the air and landed in the ditch on that left hand, and that’s what shattered his radius and ulna in his left arm. And basically, the rest of the ditch was lined in angel feathers. He cracked his helmet.” So he was smart enough to wear his helmet, I offered. “Well, yeah, he’s not completely daft.”
“The lady saw the whole thing and she got there, called the paramedics, the lady got Casey’s phone and called Momma from Casey’s phone while the paramedics were packaging him to put him on chair flight and while they were straightening out his leg mom could hear him screaming in the background while that lady was telling her what was going on. So mom is so overprotective…”
Billy paused and cleared his throat again and said it was so strange to talk about this. But he continued. “So she called me and told me where he was. He was tore up and he had very little road rash that’s what I’m saying about the ditch being lined with angel feathers. I’ve never seen a motorcycle wreck where somebody was that tore up and didn’t look like they’d been through a cheese grater. There’s no rational explanation, not one that your average Joe Shmoe without having some type of belief system would understand.”
“He was tore up so bad. They redid his wrist; they had to redo the whole joint, the bones and everything, and his right femur they had to put in a titanium rod. They were actually sewing up holes in his left leg from his right femur, that’s how bad it was. That’s what I mean when I say Simon doesn’t know what grit is.”