It took a number of attempts before I was able to interview Debra “Bybee” James, mother of American Idol finalist Casey James and his brother/bassist Billy Cole James. Debra was reluctant to talk to me about her sons, having recently been stung by some criticism of her giving an earlier interview. Welcome to the world of celebrity. Because the TV that she and her boys so famously went without for the past twenty years has turned her youngest son from journeyman musician to American Idol heartthrob and his family into mini-celebrities in their own right. And along with the good – having Casey’s music heard by a wide audience – comes the not-so-good.
As I told Debra, his fans want to know more about Casey and who better to ask than his mom. Especially when she is not just his mother but also the person who helped spark his interest in music, who performed with him for years, and who encouraged him to go try out for American Idol in the first place. But, what makes Debra an even more intriguing interview is that she has a story many can relate to. She is an immensely talented artist – musician, singer-songwriter – who put her own aspirations aside while raising two kids as a single mom. Only after the boys were grown did she reconnect with music and begin writing, performing and recording her songs.
When talking with Debra James you can see where Casey gets his inner strength and grace. She does not go into much detail of her marriage and divorce with his father, saying just that the two split up when Casey was about four and his brother Billy Cole was about eleven. It was clearly difficult, but she was supported by her small, but close-knit family back in Cool, Texas. She took the two boys from where she was living with their father in Plano and moved next door to her parents – well, next door, Texas style. “We all lived on about 40 acres in Parker County. We all had property like it was the Waltons. I had a little less than 10, my dad had 20, my sister had 10 and we were all on the crest of this hill. We were all in and out of each other’s houses. We never locked our doors.”
Casey’s fans have come to appreciate his positive attitude and determination to look at difficulties as challenges and not obstacles. As I interviewed his mother, it became clear where he drew that rosy outlook on life. I asked Debra how difficult it was to go through the divorce and raise the two boys without a father and she takes an optimistic view of this, as she does will all life’s tribulations. “I’m a believer in God and that everything is like a piece of the puzzle. It’s going to be a very, very pretty puzzle when all the pieces get in place. It’s just going to take a minute to get all that done. I believe that everything happens for a reason and this if you go about things like it’s a puzzle; it’ll all fall into place. It just takes a while.”
While Debra is reluctant to discuss the bad, she is readily forthcoming with the good. I asked her to relay an early story about Casey and one immediately came to mind. “When he was a toddler, maybe three – I don’t think I’ve ever told this story, I will never forget this – I was running the vacuum cleaner in the living room and he was a little bitty guy and he had to reach up to get to the piano, to climb up to the piano bench. And he was plucking around trying to find the note that the vacuum cleaner was making. He was trying to match that pitch on the piano. He found it and he was playing that note on the piano.”
When I asked if Casey ever took piano lessons, Debra said no with just a tinge of regret. “He never took lessons, and I play and to this day, I feel bad about not teaching him because he’d know how to play now. But he just seemed to gravitate to the guitar.” I was surprised to learn that guitar was not Casey’s only instrument, though. “Casey has picked up the trumpet every so often and it is amazing what he can do on the trumpet. He’s also an awesome drummer.”
I asked Debra when she first knew that music meant so much to Casey and it was clear that to some extent Casey was born into it. “Early teens ,,, 12, 13. Music was important in my life and I’m not saying that’s why he ended up that way. But I think if your focus growing up is on an intellectual level, on a scholastic level, you’re going to be geared more that way. If Dad or Mom are taking you to science fairs from the time you were six or seven years old and they buy you telescopes and you’re looking at the stars, your interest is going to be triggered in that direction. All of us are a product of our childhood.” With Casey, he had been surrounded by music his whole life, and so it was surprising to Debra that it would become such an integral part of who he is.
While Debra could take credit for exposing Casey to music at an early age and supporting and encouraging his passion, like a typical mother she wonders how things would have been had she encouraged his more intellectual side instead of the musical one. “Casey is a very brilliant person, I don’t even know how high his IQ is, but I’m sure its higher than mine! But I never did do that.”
Debra started taking Casey to concerts when he was nine. She couldn’t recall the first concert she took Casey to, but one of the early ones that stands out in her mind was when he was ten and Billy was about seventeen. They went to see the Arc Angels. Anyone who knows anything about Casey knows that his most frequently mentioned influence is former Arc Angels lead singer/guitarist, Doyle Bramhall, II. So it was not surprising that Debra said this first exposure to the band and Bramhall, “burned an impression on Casey’s mind, obviously. They were phenomenal. Completely raw Texas talent. And.we became lifelong fans of Doyle Bramhall Jr. His father was the one who wrote a bunch of songs for Stevie Ray Vaughan. Doyle Bramhall, Sr.”
This is clearly a favorite recollection and I could hear Debra nearly transporting herself back to the concert as we were speaking. “I recall that concert; it is really fresh in my memory like it was yesterday. Casey couldn’t see. We were right up against the stage and he couldn’t see, so Billy Cole and I both picked him up so he could see. God it was loud! They were phenomenal musicians.”
It wasn’t long, however, before Casey went from attending concerts to playing guitar with other musicians and developing his skill. Casey had an instant connection with the guitar and was a fast learner. As she explained it, Casey was a natural who went from teaching himself to becoming extremely proficient almost overnight. She recalled that he first picked up a guitar when he was about 13 or so and within a year he was playing on stage.
“When he started playing guitar, I started taking him to the places that were safe. I never took him anywhere where it was unsafe, but I would take him to some of the jams around Texas as young as 14-15, so he could get in. He was too young to get in by himself so Billy Cole and I would take him. He started jamming with the big boys he was pretty young, fifteen, sixteen.”
Debra is still amazed looking back at just how quickly Casey developed his guitar skills..”It was very fast. At 16 he was playing jams at J & J Blues Bar, and at that point it was a huge venue. Not huge in size, but huge in the quality of artists that would come in there and play. It was like the cool place to be. And I would take him there a lot to jam and it just went from there.” A year later, Casey was playing Lumpey’s, a club in Possum Kingdom Lake. Debra remembered how the owner John Lumpey had been a huge believer in Casey’s talent and had predicted he would be a star one day. Unfortunately, John died a few years ago before he had a chance to see his predication come true.
Was there any discussion about Casey going to college after he graduated from high school? Debra said at one point he had given some thought to going to college and then going to officer’s training school. Casey thought he might make a good pilot, and his mother thinks he would have. “Casey is very cool under pressure. He doesn’t lose his wits. And he’s so smart. But that never did follow up on that. Music was just in his soul.” Did she regret that Casey didn’t go to college? She thought for a moment. “I know this sounds odd, but not really. It would he been great for him to go and get a music degree and be knowledgeable about music theory, but I’m not really disappointed. Kids have to choose their own path and you can support them or fight with them.” Without saying so, it is clear that every step of the way, Debra chose to support Casey’s choice.
I asked Debra if she recalled the first guitar that Casey ever played. She said she gave him her black Takamine acoustic and that he had an old Fender acoustic that he played as well. “It was one that he and his father had when we were married.” She remembered that he bought himself a Taylor acoustic with the money he had earned playing gigs. She said Casey recently told her that he wishes he still had that guitar.
Both Casey and his mother feel about guitars the way Imelda Marcos felt about shoes. I could see them some day on the show Hoarders – I have too many guitars. If she were going to collect anything it would be high quality guitars. Debra was insistent that you should never use a cheap guitar. “In my mind you’re only as good as the instrument you play.” Debra’s current instrument is a Taylor GS 8, though she’s quick to point out that she’s nowhere in his league, explaining that while she plays guitar, Casey PLAYS it.
“Taylor’s my guitar of choice, but I’ve also played Gibson and Martin. In fact, my Martin went to Hollywood with Casey. I’ve lost that guitar. The little twerp’s got it,” she said with a laugh. “But he did pay me for it so I can’t complain. I asked for it back and he said, ‘Mom, I played it in Hollywood. It’s got memories attached to it now.’ I’d love to have it back, but he paid me for it, so it’s his now. It’s the guitar he played I Don’t Need No Doctor on. The first electric I bought for him was a Fender Stratocaster, 40th year Anniversary Edition, I think he was 16.”
As far as Casey’s guitar preference, “He’s a Strat man; he loves the Fender Stratocaster.” Debra explained from a guitarist’s perspective that you’re often most comfortable playing what you first learned on, you get used to a certain feel. She also mentioned another reason Casey may prefer the Strat – it’s not as heavy as the Les Paul. Because of Casey’s arm and wrist injury in a 2004 motorcycle accident, a lighter guitar makes it the logical choice.
In Part Two we will discuss the near-fatal motorcycle accident that almost ended Casey’s guitar playing and how he fought back to play again.