During my interview with Debra “Bybee” James, we discussed a few of Casey’s performances on American Idol. At one point, speaking as a fan and not a writer, I had the chance to tell Mama James that Mrs. Robinson was my favorite vocal of his on the show. I found it to be the most raw and emotional of all his performances, the one that moved me the most. She then told me why the song meant so much to Casey and why the performance that night was so special. And it gave me a new insight into Casey James.
First, to dispel any assumption as to why that song was selected, Debra told me that Casey had always been a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel “because they have beautiful harmonies.” He was raised listening to them, she said. But there was more at play that night, there was something special about that song. Any eagle-eyed viewer would have noticed that he seemed to have tears in his eyes by the end of the song.
“I’ll tell you a little back story on that,” she explained. “One of our really good friends, who is a lead guitar player and tours with a historical band out of England, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, every world renowned guitarist came out of his band – Eric Clapton, is just one – every one of them came out of John Mayall’s band. Well, this friend of ours tours as his guitar player. His name is Rocky Athas. His son, just a week or so before the performance, was horribly injured and almost killed in a horrific car accident. It was right before this performance.”
She said, “Casey texted me and he said, ‘Mom, there’s a verse in this song, that goes to the Athas family.’ It’s that verse – ‘Jesus loves you more than you will know. Heaven holds a place for those who pray.’ When you see Casey closing his eyes as he’s singing that verse, those spiritual lines, he’s singing that to the Athas family.” She shared that Rocky, Jr. is on the road to recovery, though he suffered very serious injuries including the loss of his eye.
I mentioned to Debra that the day of the Mrs. Robinson performance also marked the six-year anniversary of Casey’s motorcycle accident. I asked her to revisit that terrible moment in their lives and I could hear how painful a memory it still was.
“There are a couple years there that are just a blur for me – the accident and his recovery. It’s hard to remember. ” In the interview with Billy Cole James, I learned that neither he nor his mother knew that Casey even had a motorcycle, the day they heard about his accident. As Debra explained it, they had discussed his desire to get a bike, but she was adamantly against it and thought that was the end of the discussion.
“He asked me to help him get it financed and I said I wouldn’t. He wanted the motorcycle because of cost. Gas for a motorcycle was a lot cheaper than for his truck. He said he’d use the motorcycle to get around town and use the truck for gigs where he had to haul his gear. But I thought he was too young and it was too risky and I said no, I just didn’t’ feel good about it.” Never was mother’s intuition more dead on.
“Next thing I know, I got a phone call.” Debra had no clue that Casey had bought the motorcycle, a Kawasaki Ninja, anyway and took it out for a ride and that on that first day riding it, things went horribly wrong. “I could hear a helicopter in the background. And the voice asked, are you the mother of Casey James? She asked if I was driving and she told me to pull over. And so I started screaming then, and crying. I knew. I said, ‘is he alive?’ and she said I need you to pull over. I just kept screaming, ‘is he alive?’ I knew, I knew I was going to get a call.”
How did she know she was going to get a call like that? Debra told me she had written a song “Birthday Boy Blues” that explains everything. She apparently knew when Casey was born that it was going to be a rough go for a while. If you read the words to the song and compared it with Casey’s life, “it’s prophetic.”
That fallen angel is going to try and steal that child away, Lord spoke down to me early,
All the sorrow, tears and woes, the devil’s going to fight you for his heart and soul,
Talk of sorrow, talk of trouble, talking of suffering there below,
Remember what the lord said son, you’re going to reap just what you sow
Casey’s stubbornness to get the motorcycle despite the objection of his family had immediately led him to “reap just what you sow.” But Debra didn’t know that when she first got the call about the accident. “So I pulled over and she said he’s been in a terrible accident, but she said the good thing is he had on a helmet. I said, ‘Helmet? I was like, what?’ I kept thinking, why would he have a helmet in his pickup? I just didn’t understand what she was saying.”
After she pulled over, the lady on the phone explained what had happened to Casey. “I knew he was alive ’cause I could hear him screaming. They were packaging him. Putting him in a neck brace and stabilize his wrist and leg. It was difficult to listen to him screaming, but I knew that was a good sign; I knew he was alive.”
She later learned from the people on the scene that he had told the care flight people “don’t tell my mother I have a motorcycle.” “Now, they were amazed number one that he was alive and number two that he was coherent enough to give them my phone number with the extent of his injuries, and he was in and out of consciousness. But when he said, ‘don’t tell my mother, I have a motorcycle,’ the nurse told him, ‘I think you’re momma’s going to know; I don’t think we can keep this from her.'”
Debra somehow managed to drive herself about three miles to a nursing home where a real good friend of hers worked and where she had worked hospice for a time. The drive itself is a blur to Debra, but she knows that she walked in screaming for her friend, Becky, “I was a blithering idiot, I’m quite sure,” Debra said with a little laugh. Then Becky drove Debra to the hospital to see Casey.
‘I got there and they wouldn’t let me see him. He was in the orthopedic trauma room. I kept trying to get through the door to see him. Just for a little while. I’m sure I was making quite a scene, I just wanted to get to him.”
It seemed like forever that Debra had to wait to see her son. “They finally let me in the trauma room and he looked at me and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ My daddy was with me and Casey tried to say, ‘Paw Paw, I’m sorry’ and we all just squalled. It was rough”
Debra spoke to the doctor and told him how important it was for Casey to be able to use his left hand to play the guitar. “I remember him acknowledging me, but as a physician he explaining to me how traumatic it was and how the ligaments were shredded and it wasn’t looking good. [Dr.] Cory [Collinge] explained that he would lose movement; he wouldn’t be able to move his wrist. That’s when it became apparent to me that Casey wouldn’t be able to play again. It was horrible. He said Casey just wouldn’t have much movement in that wrist, the injuries were just too extensive.”
One of Debra’s few regrets surrounding this event was having told Casey the truth about his wrist and arm. “He kept pressing me, ‘my wrist, my wrist, what’s happening, what’s going on with my hand?’ I had to tell him something.” It was after Casey’s surgery, while he was still in the hospital and “the job went to me, to tell Casey the extent of his injuries. I had to tell him something. So I told him, ‘I’m not sure you can play anymore, Honey.’ He turned his face from me. It was bad. It was very bad.”
But by the time Casey left the hospital, according to Debra, he had rallied. “I know my kid; he had already made up his mind that he wasn’t going to buy that. As soon as he got settled in his bed back home, he asked me to put his guitar in there with him. So that told me that he had already made up his mind that he wasn’t buying that bill of goods, he just wouldn’t have it.”
Debra felt some regret about having told Casey he might never play again. “Had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. But I told him the truth and I wish I hadn’t. ‘Cause it hurt him so bad.” Yet, just as quickly, Debra recognizes that the regret is pointless, “Who knows, maybe if I hadn’t told him maybe he wouldn’t have worked as hard as he did. Maybe it was for a reason.”
Debra recalled the many months that Casey worked on his recovery and rehabilitation. They had many conversations when things weren’t going well, when Casey could not even make a chord with is left hand. But he said, “I’m just not going to give up yet.” She thinks had he never been able to rehabilitate himself, he might have switched to left handed or picked up another instrument. “He wasn’t going to not do music,” she said. “He would have done whatever he had to do. He just kept working.”
As a mother, and as a nurse, she felt that Casey had rushed his recovery. His hospital stay, she said, wasn’t as long as it should have been she said, but Casey wanted to go home. She also thought that he went off his pain medications faster than maybe he should have. “He had these horrendous muscle spasms, which is normal for a multiple compound femur break. It’s a normal thing, but very painful.” But he didn’t care for feeling altered, so wanted to get off the meds.
Her pride in her son is evident as she describes his work to play the guitar again. “It was just day by day. He would sit on the couch and play a little bit. He couldn’t for very long because it was so painful. Some days he would only be able to play for a few minutes. And when I say ‘play,’ I mean just trying to get his fingers into place. I’d have to massage his hands because his fingers for a long time wouldn’t straighten right. It was a fight; it was a very long rehab.”
In addition to the potentially career-ending wrist and arm injuries, Casey broke his femur in three or four different places, according to his mother. She described them as complete breaks and explained how the doctor threaded a titanium rod through the fragments and attacked it from his pelvis to his knee. Casey had to learn to walk again.
At first, after the cast came off, “he had a profound limp,” according to Debra. “Then my friend Mike Gremminger (a physical therapist with Brazos Valley Physical Therapy) worked with him until he could walk without a limp.”
She notes that he walks with just a little stiffness, but that “the femur actually healed up well. We just couldn’t have asked for any better with the extent of the injuries he had.” She surmises that “he probably deals with some knee pain, but won’t say anything. He’s as tough as nails. He’s a survivor.”
Debra knows about surviving. While Casey was recovering from his injuries, Debra was diagnosed with breast cancer. Juggling helping her son through rehab and her own treatment was likely excruciating, but you won’t hear any “woe is me” from Debra. She feels blessed to have survived that — and a recent battle with thyroid cancer. She quickly moves the conversation back onto Casey and his strength and tenacity. She won’t take my suggestion that he obviously gets it from her.
Instead, as we were talking, Debra was reminded of something she had forgotten and hadn’t mentioned before about those first few months after the accident. “I would load him up in my car, when he had his cast on, put the wheelchair in the trunk and taking him to different places (including J & J’s and the Keys Lounge). The other guitar players would help, we’d put a chair on or near the stage, depending on the place, and he would sit and play. As soon as his wrist could get around the neck of the guitar, he started trying to play again.” She also told me how supportive the local musicians were, even visiting Casey when he was in the hospital.
When I suggested that it was probably very good for his soul to get back to playing music, she agreed. “That’s why I did it. I knew it would lift his spirits.” But it not only lifted his spirits, playing was, pun aside, instrumental in healing his injured arm and wrist. Debra is, quite understandably, proud of how much hard work and effort Casey put into being able to play again. Also impressed, apparently, was Dr. Collinge. When they went back to see Dr. Collinge during the hometown visit, she said that the doctor commented on how well Casey had rehabilitated himself, saying that, through his playing “Casey had regained some movement that he never should have had.”
Debra still has the x-rays of Casey’s injuries and at one point had the pictures taken by the emergency personnel who had airlifted Casey from the scene of the accident. That picture has extra solemnity for what it does, and does not, represent. “If they believe something is going to be a fatality, they take a picture of the scene and keep it on file for the investigation.”
She also still has the helmet that saved Casey’s life. “I’ve never cleaned it off. And I won’t. The crack is all over the top of the helmet and it ripped the face shield off. Casey’s blood is still on it but I won’t…” Her voice stops. “Every couple of years I’ll kiss it. It’s the whole reason he’s here.”
In the next part, we discuss how Casey turned his life around completely after this accident and the new direction his life took.