Billy Cole James comes from a musical family. “We grew up around music, everybody in my whole family sang and played. My mom played several instruments, my dad played guitar, my uncle played. So, at all the family get-togethers it was nothing by a big jam.” He left out one notable member of his family who also plays. Baby brother and American Idol third place finisher Casey James.
I had the chance to talk with Billy about his brother, the rest of his family, and being part of the American Idol experience. It was clear that he is still trying to come to grips with just how much has changed in such a short period of time. Less than a year ago, Billy (also known to friends and family as BC) was playing bass alongside his brother on guitar and Jacy McCann on drums. Then his mother, Debra, began pestering Casey to go audition for American Idol. Eventually, she wore him down and the rest of the story is well known to Idol – and especially Casey James — fans. Casey borrowed their mom’s truck, drove up to the American Idol auditions in Denver, made it to Hollywood, and went all the way to the Top 3.
Since the day that Casey James left for Hollywood, nothing has been the same for Billy or the rest of the James family. Billy refers American Idol as a double edged sword because, as much as it has given his brother and meant for his career, it has come at a price. Before American Idol, not a week would go by that Billy didn’t talk to his brother on the phone. But during the months Casey was on the show, Billy barely got to talk with him. “There was a time during the show that I was lucky to get a text from Casey maybe once every two weeks, maybe three weeks. I spoke to him maybe once a month and most of the time that was when we were there. There were times we’d go out there and spend three days and literally never get to see him other than on stage.”
I asked Billy how hard that was for him, especially being part of such a close knit family. “I can’t explain to you how frustrating that is to be that close to your family and loved one and not be able to speak to them or touch them other than to wave at them from the crowd and for them to see you and see it’s cool that you’re here. They keep them under lock and key, they’re in their own little bubble. They don’t have their phone most of the time, they take their phone from them because there’s rehearsing, there’s practicing, they’re in the studio for the song they’re recording, they have to do the Ford commercials, they have to do all the media, all the interviews, they had to do the interviews for the videos on the AI website, the Garnier Shining Moments and the Coca Cola backstage, then they had to do the recording for the MP3 that they release, they had the studio version of everything, there was no downtime.”
What you hear many fans of Casey James point to as one of their favorite things about Casey is his family and their close relationship. I asked Billy if he had heard that too and what he thought about that. “I’ve been getting messages like that and I don’t see us as being that much different than anyone else. I don’t know — aren’t most families like that?” He mentioned in particular how close and loving Tim Urban’s family, also from North Texas, was, calling them “super cool” and “kind.”
He also had very nice words for the family of Casey’s first roommate, Tyler Grady. Tyler, who was voted off the first week, remains a good friend of Casey’s. Billy told me that had Tyler hung around longer, “you would have seen the same thing with Tyler’s mom and Tyler that you saw with us. She’s something else. We got to hang out with her a little bit after the show. She reminded me quite a bit of a northern version of Momma. She was just cool and very loving and supportive. It was very special that we got to meet and talk with her and get to know her.”
Billy made a number of trips to California to see the show and got to know some of the other families during that time. At first, he said, it was a bit awkward hanging out with the families of contestant who were in competition with one another for the same prize. “When we were there for the top 24, they put you in the red room, the Coca Cola room, or the sweat room, where they have all the families seated, elbow to elbow, when they’re announcing who gets voted off. And you can tell they all love and support their child and their hopes and dreams are riding just as much as ours are and you’re sitting right their when they get crushed.”
Still, even with the competitive nature of the show, Billy made friends with some of the other contestants’ siblings. “Lee [DeWyze]’s little brother is pretty cool. We had that, you know, brother thing going. As a family member going to that show, there’s always a little bit of tension under the surface. It’s like a whole bunch of gymnastics parents all sitting in the same group and you’re hoping that the other person’s kid falls off the balance beam, but doesn’t get hurt – not in a mean or derisive sort of way, you just want your family member to succeed. But with Lee’s little brother, it really wasn’t there. It was pretty cool.”
Billy also made a connection the first time he met Andrew Garcia’s brother. “Andrew’s big brother, we were sitting next to him when Casey sang Heaven, that’s when I first met him, and he reminded me so much of one of my best friends from home. He has a sweet, kind spirit, just like Andrew. Just nice as the day is long. Unfortunately, the subsequent times that I was able to go out there, he wasn’t there. But, I finally did get to see him at the finale. We were so busy running around like crazy that I didn’t get an opportunity to talk with him and I would have liked to because he was just so nice. I remember we were sitting there that first week and we were just glowing with that big brother pride and I can’t say that I have that connection with any of the other contestants, because they’re all so young. He was the only big sibling that I met. It was cool to have that connection with Andrew’s brother.”
Thanks to his brother’s successful run on American Idol, Billy James has been thrust into the spotlight as well. And for this 34-year-old bass player, used to standing off to the side, being out in front is new and a little uncomfortable. But whether it was in the audience at American Idol or on stage during Casey’s hometown performance at the Keys Lounge, Billy was willing to do whatever it took to support his brother. He says it’s in his nature, it’s probably why he became a bass player. “I’m tickled with being the background person. My whole point in being is – if I’m playing with Casey – is to provide a bigger launching pad to make him sound better. To fill up as much of the back space as you can.” You’re Casey’s support, I offered. Billy agreed. “That’s it. That is my job. That’s why I’m sucking air here.”
In the next part of the interview, Billy discusses Casey James’ experience on American Idol — and how hard it was to deal with some of the negative things that were said..