My conversation with Billy James turned to the American Idol judging. I didn’t want to rehash much of the Kara the Cougar discussion that had grown so old, so fast and had become such a distraction for Casey. But when I asked Billy about the first time he came out to see his brother perform on Idol, it just so happened that he had been there for the very first show, when Casey performed Heaven. While he was widely lauded for his performance, it was the judges’ behavior during the performance and joking after that almost stole his thunder. While good-natured, it perpetuated the stereotype of Casey as Cougar-bait and not the veteran musician that he is. I asked Billy his feelings about the judge’s antics that night.
“From where they had us, we couldn’t see the judges clearly. They were goofing around. It was a little disrespectful; they were all joking with Kara and not listening. It was kinda cute and a little funny. Then Kara said something about ‘you were a little pitchy when I was in your arms.’ My brother pitchy? I’ll be honest, I’m a musician first and my brother is never pitchy.”
That brought us to discuss the infamous week where Casey was stripped of his guitar and had his poorest performance of the show, singing Blue Skies. If you listen back to the tape of the live performance, there are moments there that showcase Casey’s voice beautifully. But there is no question that the overall performance was not a success. Having an insider’s perspective, though, helps add some clarity to that performance. It seems there were two things working against Casey that week and, incidentally, neither was the lack of a guitar.
First, according to Billy, Casey “couldn’t hear himself,” when he was on the stage. The mentor for that week, Harry Connick, Jr., mentioned that as well, coming to Casey’s defense after the performance by noting that “you can’t hear anything up here.” He even added that Casey’s rehearsal performance was much better. But there may also have been a case of nerves at play during this performance. Because, unlike the other mentors, Harry Connick, Jr., was one of Casey’s biggest influences.
Billy could tell that this mentor meant more to Casey than any of the others to that point. “That was the first mentor they had on there that was an actual musician. So I would have to say that was probably – I don’t know this because I haven’t asked Casey – but I would imagine … I could tell he was nervous. Harry Connick is a living legend. It’s as close to Sinatra as you’re going to get. And on top of that the guy is personable, and funny, and you could see he’s actually taking a hand in arranging music for the contestants.”
Billy elaborated. “It’s not that the other mentor didn’t matter; it was just that this is one mentor that Casey was intimately familiar with. It was probably one of the only times that Casey was ever – I don’t know what you can even call it, I don’t know that my brother ever gets star struck, but that would probably be the best way to describe it. Because I mean he has every Harry Connick CD.”
Discussing the one shaky performance took the conversation to some of the negative things that were written about Casey, a natural result of being on TV. I asked Billy if he went on the internet to read what people were saying about Casey.
“Truthfully, I never looked. The best way I can explain that to you, I read the autobiography by Stevie Ray Vaughan and the first time he was invited to the Montreux Jazz Festival, he was booed off stage. He released Texas Flood and it was a smash and then David Bowie’s after him. Then he goes back there and they’re all wearing T-shirts saying Stevie Effing Ray. You’re going to get that. I don’t really care.”
He knew that negative comments were coming and so hasn’t really followed what has been written about Casey by “the nameless, faceless internet people can type and write whatever they want with no consequences and repercussions.” As Billy asks rhetorically, “Why even mess with it? “
But Billy does read the positive comments posted on his personal Facebook page from fans. And he’s been very impressed with the people he is friends with on the social media site. “Almost to a person the people that I am friends with on Facebook — I don’t know them personally — but the messages I get, the things they leave me, it’s like…they’re good people. They’re supportive, they’re kind, they have morals, they have values, and they’re honest. I’ve gotten some comments on there that I didn’t particularly care for,” he said with a chuckle. “But they were honest. They don’t say anything in a mean way.”
Even though Casey had a number of highly praised performances during his run on American Idol, as luck would have it, Billy and his mother Debra were there for a few of the ones where the judges were less than kind. I asked Billy how he managed to keep his composure when he was at the show and live in the audience. He had a quick answer. “My momma was sitting next to me.” Momma obviously raised those boys right since only once did Casey question one of the judge’s critiques, when Simon told him he lacked the “grit” to sing Gavin DeGraw’s I Don’t Want to Be. More on that in the next installment of this interview. But the rest of the time Casey took the criticism with grace and aplomb, a true Southern gentleman.
Billy said he tried to put the show into perspective as a way to deal with the ups and downs. “The fact is, everything about the show is Pop. That’s why Casey was so surprised when he got to the top. It’s not that he’s not talented enough. He’s got more talent than anybody else on the show. But he’s not a clone. He’s not a Justin Timberlake; he’s just an honest musician and singer-songwriter.”
Growing up the James’ boys were exposed to all types of music by their mother Debra and their grandparents. Ultimately, they found themselves drawn to the blues. “Growing up we listened to classic rock and country and a little blues. We didn’t really discover blues until the year Stevie Ray Vaughn passed on.” Billy explained that they gravitated to the blues because of how it spoke to them. “When we started playing we picked the most emotional type of music there is because blues is not so much what you can do but how you feel what you’re playing. It’s raw.”
That is the best explanation I can find for the difference between the American Idol contestant Casey James and the Casey who tore up the stage at four different hometown venues. As electric as his Idol performances were, the truncated version of the songs often left something missing. What was missing was the love and passion that is hard to turn on and off like a light switch. But having the time to do whole songs revealed the real magic of what Casey can do with just his guitar and his voice.
Blame it on the blues. As Billy told me, “That’s one of the reasons if you want to know why blues is not commercial, it’s because it’s lost in the translation. When you record it, and you play it in your CD player in your car, it’s not really there. It’s one of those things that you have to be there to see it and feel it.”
By comparison, according to Billy, Pop is manufactured in a way to be easily, commercially accessible. But once you strip away its glossy veneer, there’s not as much left. “In order to have the song stand on its own two feet you’ve got to have a ridiculous light show, really cool choreography, half naked people, suggestive dancing, and all that, just to have it stand up for two months. So people will remember it long enough for it to get into the top ten or the top forty and then it falls away.” But by comparison, “people will know The Thrill is Gone that B.B. King wrote in ’69 forever. That song is still as relevant today as it was back then and it always will be.”
In Part Four we discuss music – and the motorcycle accident that almost cost Casey the ability to play.