In Part 2 of my interview with Casey James’ brother Billy, we discuss some of the highs — as well as the lows — for a family member sharing their loved one’s American Idol experience. One of the parts of American Idol that Billy recalls with some bitterness is how sick his brother was for so much of the show – and how little the audience ever heard about it. According to Billy, Casey “was sick the whole time. He had walking pneumonia, he had laryngitis, he had tonsillitis, and then he had H1N1.” It was frustrating for Billy to know his brother was so sick and that not only was he not getting any better, but his illness was not known to the viewing — and voting — public.
This came to a head during Idol Gives Back week, when Casey sang Don’t Stop. It was clear from Billy’s reaction to the memory, that this was still a sore subject, weeks after the show had ended. “I was not in Hollywood that week but I knew how horribly ill he was, he was on his fourth round of antibiotics. Fourth. I’m a nurse and I know, there’s something not right about that.” Interestingly, the diary video from that week (Top 7) of Casey James on the American Idol home page shows him looking and sounding sick.
I told Billy that when I heard Casey James that night, he sounded great to me. But I did notice that there was a certain spark missing in his performance. Like the rest of the public, I didn’t know at the time what accounted for that. Even Billy couldn’t tell at first how much Casey’s illness was affecting him. “When I watched it that night, I didn’t notice it. But when I went back the next day and I pulled it up on my computer and I watched literally about two seconds of it and turned it off. It made my heart hurt because his head looked liked a pumpkin. His whole head and face was so swollen, it actually scared me. They had to do a CT scan of his head to find out what was going on.”
I asked Billy how hard it was for him knowing that Casey was not healthy and yet that nothing was said on the show about it? According to Billy, while Casey’s health problems made him worry, the fact that the show never mentioned them made him mad. “They never said a word. And the protective part of me wants to turn into the Incredible Hulk and thrash somebody. Because the worst things go through your mind. I know the show must go on, but are they getting the best care can get? What’s the saying, emotion is the mortal enemy of rational thought?”
It seems ironic that at a time when your loved one is one of the most famous faces on TV, seen by tens of millions, you can feel so helpless and concerned about their welfare. But that’s how it was for Billy. “Seeing him like that, I was a big ball of emotional worry. When I talked to him on the telephone it was like – he sounded like Darth Vader. It was scary. I know when you have a problem like that it sounds worse than it is, but from two thousand miles away, they’re running him like a dog, he never had any downtime, if they’d just let him rest for a little time he wouldn’t be so sick.”
But along with the worry, the memory of that performance in particular brought Billy to recount one of the highlights of the show for him. Billy was referring to the infamous guitar Casey played during Don’t Stop. “There’s never been an Idol contestant on that show that’s gotten to play another famous songwriter-musician’s instrument. Casey got to play Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar on the show.”
Billy recounted what he knew about how that moment came to be. “One of the guys on the show was either a sound man for Fleetwood Mac or a guitar tech for Lindsay Buckingham – one of the two, I can’t remember — and is good buddies with Lindsay Buckingham. The guitar is not a Fender, or a Les Paul, or a PRS, it’s one of those guitars that’s made by a well known, small company, and they only created a handful of those specifically for Lindsay Buckingham. He designed that guitar. It’s not just like you can go down to the corner store and get one of those. Lindsay Buckingham actually chose that guitars on his tours, that specific one that Casey played Lindsay Buckingham played that one as well. Lindsay Buckingham is one of his influences because he’s not only a phenomenal songwriter and performer but he’s a ridiculous guitar player. So Casey got to play his guitar.”
This memory led Billy to rattle off a number of other firsts for which Casey will always be known, his voice full of big brother pride. “He’s not only the only AI contestant to play a guitar lead on the show, he was the first Idol contestant to play his own amp on the show, because they had told him at the beginning absolutely not, you’re not using your own amp, you can’t do that. Yeah, well, he did,” Billy chuckled. “Then he played a lead and then he also played another famous singer-songwriter’s instrument. And if you know anything about guitar players, I can’t think of a better way to put this other than asking to borrow another guitar player’s guitar is like asking to date somebody’s girlfriend. It’s just not done. If they offer the guitar willingly, then, of course, you play it. You don’t ask for it. It was just nutty that that was offered so he got to play that.”
Billy forgot another first on the Idol stage. Casey was the first musician on American Idol to sling two guitars on stage as he did on the finale during his duet with Bret Michaels. But then Casey is a musician first — not a construction worker or part-time or wannabe anything. Casey broke the mold for a singer-musician on the show, highlighting with equal passion his guitar skills and his amazingly versatile voice.
Each week Casey James came out and gave a micro-mini-concert on the show, displaying a very small slice of what he would do on stage when Idol was over and he was back able to just play. Casey didn’t sacrifice his authenticity and package his performances to conform to the show. He played what he loved, from his heart, showing range and depth — and that’s why he has so many fans itching for more.
And speaking about more, there’ll be plenty more from Billy’s interview coming soon!