Texan Casey James is a fighter. As an infant, he suffered seizures after being given the pertussis vaccine and doctors feared he might not ever talk. But when his mother heard him humming the theme song from M*A*S*H one night in his crib, she knew they were wrong. Years later, after a horrible motorcycle accident crushed his left arm and wrist, his doctor thought he would never play the guitar again. But again Casey proved that prediction wrong. Casey defied the odds and rehabilitated himself and relearned how to play. When Casey tried out for American Idol, it was doubtful that a blues guitarist would make it on the show. Casey not only made it, he excelled, finishing third and catching the attention of the music world with his remarkable guitar skills and bluesy, Southern vocals. This is a brief biography of Casey’s journey that took him from Cool, Texas to Hollywood to Nashville. Casey James was born in Plano, Texas on May 31, 1982. His father Beau, mother Debra and older brother Billy Cole moved to nearby Princeton, Texas where he lived until his parents divorced when he was four and he, his brother and mother moved to Parker County, Texas. It wasn’t easy going at first for the three. For awhile they lived in a tiny rundown house with shoddy plumbing, no heat or air-conditioning, holes in the walls, and so little room that the boys had to sleep on the floor. His mother, Debra “Bybee” James, worked two jobs while to going to college and they had a tough time.
Eventually, they moved to a small, one-bedroom home in Cool, TX, near their maternal grandparents, that was only in slightly better condition. But what they lacked in creature comforts, they made up for in other ways: in their shared love of family and of music. As Casey said, putting a positive spin on his family’s financial struggles, “As a poor family growing up we did a lot of things together that a lot of other people didn’t do.” As he explained, “Because you spend a lot of time together you do things differently and you value things differently.”
Casey grew up around music and musicians and jam sessions were a regular part of his life. His mother, father, brother, and cousins all play an instrument. So it was no surprise that at 14 Casey picked up a guitar on a visit to his father’s house and started figuring out chords. Up until then, Casey had been a rather shy kid. But playing guitar opened him up, helped him to express himself and made him much more outgoing.
Casey was a natural and, though he never had any lessons, within a short time he and his brother were accompanying their mom, herself a singer-songwriter-muscian – performing at local churches, weddings and retirement homes. It didn’t take long, according to his mom, for Casey’s skills to far outpace hers and he started playing regular gigs with musicians much older than him as well as playing with his brother Billy in their own band. In his high school yearbook, Casey wrote that his dream was to become a famous blues musician.
Growing up, Casey listened to every type of music imaginable, from Pavarotti to Pearl Jam. His first band, formed with his brother Billy Cole on bass and Bryan Lepard on drums, was named Casey James and Crossover. It’s no mystery why they chose that name as their music pulled from a variety of musical influences, part country, part blues, and part rock. Casey counts among his biggest musical influences two artist from different genres, Blues’ Doyle Bramhall, II and Country’s Merle Haggard.
Casey has never allowed himself to be pigeonholed into one musical genre and his voice and guitar cross all musical barriers. He would play a folk gig with his mother one night, and then jam on the blues with his brother the next. He could play a full set at a country venue, and then turn right around and play rock.
Casey played at every imaginable venue in and around Texas from the city pool to biker conventions, golf courses to restaurants. He garnered a following of fellow musicians and fans who were awed by his wicked skills on the guitar. But in 2004, his career was nearly derailed when a truck turned unexpectedly in front of him as he took his new motorcycle out for a spin and went crashing in the side of the truck. Casey thought his life was over, but the helmet he wisely wore gave him a second chance. He was, however, seriously injured, suffering multiple compound fractures to his right thigh bone and severely damaging his left arm and wrist. He was told he would never get much movement in the wrist and he wouldn’t be able to play again. Casey wouldn’t accept that prognosis, even asking his brother to put his guitar in bed with him once he got home.
It took Casey six months to get out of the cast and even longer to be able to walk again, but even while in a wheelchair, he picked up a guitar as soon as he could and started trying to make chords. He ultimately had two surgeries on his arm. Fans watching Casey rip it up on the guitar today may be surprised to hear that he lives with pain from the accident every day. But with the same grit and determination he used to battle back from the devastating accident to learn to play again, he doesn’t let pain slow him down.
A year after the accident, Casey married a girl he’d been friends with for years, Kellie Marie. They had met when Casey was nineteen at the Learning Tree Church in Mineral Wells, Texas. Although the marriage did not last, they remain good friends to this day and Casey stays in touch with Kellie’s daughter Adi as well. It was while they were married that Kellie found the basset hound that is still part of Casey’s life, Daisy Mae. Casey later added another basset hound, Buster Douglas, to join Daisy.
Once Casey was able to play again, he kept up a rigorous schedule playing anything and anywhere he could. He developed a following among the local music fans for his bluesy, Southern vocals and his impressive skills with the guitar. In 2008, Casey formed The Casey James Band with his brother Billy Cole on bass and Jacy McCann on drums. They played a mix of rock, blues and country at a variety of venues in and around the Northern Texas area. They were planning on recording a demo when Casey lost his voice, the result of putting too much strain on his vocal chords from singing for too many hours in too many small, smoky rooms every night. It took him many months to get his voice back and when he did, he took it to Denver to audition for Season 9 of American Idol.
His mother encouraged Casey to try out for American Idol after some friends of hers suggested it might be a good opportunity for him. Casey was not familiar with the show. In fact, he wasn’t familiar with much on TV as he’d been without one since he was seven. Back then, a lightning strike blew out the TV antenna at their house and it was never replaced. When he moved out on his own, he was accustomed to being without TV and never bought one.
Casey credits not having a TV with giving him an independent spirit and the ability to develop his own tastes and his own interests. As his friend Danny Ross, owner of the Keys Lounge, where Casey frequently played, said in an interview last summer, Casey “had no cell phone, no computer, no TV. He’s a real traditional guy.” Noting that even as a young musician Casey was always able to get along with the older musicians he’d play with, Ross said, “He’s a throwback — he’s got a house, and he’s got these two basset hounds and, you know, I think he’d be happy just living there, with them, playing gigs. He’s honestly in it just for the music.”
When Casey finally did audition for American Idol, according to the rules of the show he had to do so without his guitar. He sang John Mayer’s Slow Dancing in a Burning Room and was passed on to Hollywood with three of the four judges’ votes. As he said during the audition, he was just hoping for a chance to get to Hollywood so he could show what he does. When he got to Hollywood, he strapped on his guitar and wowed the judges, his fellow contestants, and the TV audience. There had never been a guitar player of that caliber on the show before.
Week after week, Casey set the bar higher for all future musicians. In the process, he set many “firsts” for the show. He was the first to play a guitar lead, the first to play a guitar solo, the first to use his own amp, the first to use another famous musician’s guitar, the first to play four never-before-played songs on the show, the first to sling two guitars on stage. He elevated the musician side of American Idol to new heights. He also brought an amazing vocal talent to the mix. He could go from rough and raw, wailing on covers of Sam and Dave and The Stones, to tender and vulnerable, moving the audience as well as the judges with his touching versions of John Lennon and Shania Twain songs.
When Casey went back home as a member of the Top Three, he played four separate shows that illustrated the enormous range of his talent as a musician. With the time to play full songs, he delivered jam after jam, pouring his heart and soul into every performance. But the most noticeable thing about each performance was how happy Casey looked being on stage. Unfortunately for the home viewer, none of those performances were aired on the show. Instead, fans discovered videos of the shows on You Tube.
Though Casey’s run on American Idol stopped just short of the finals, he ended up with the most talked-about performance on finale night, a rousing, show-stopping duet with Bret Michaels of his song Every Rose has its Thorn. From there, Casey went on tour with the rest of the American Idol Top Ten and delivered an electrifying performance at each stop which garnered him a host of new fans and critical acclaim. His four-song set, which included a duet with Mike Lynche, displayed his wizardry on the guitar as well as his versatile vocals.
During the American Idol tour it was announced that Casey had signed a record deal with Sony Nashville and their BNA label. Sony Nashville Chairman and CEO Gary Overton said at the time, “We at Sony Music Nashville are incredibly excited about signing Casey James. I flew to New York to see him ‘live’ with the American Idol Tour and I was blown away with his voice, guitar playing and stage presence…and so were the thousands of fans in the amphitheatre. He has honed his skills as a showman with his years of performing live on stage! I can’t wait to get him into the studio to begin recording his debut album.”
In January, 2011, it was announced that Casey James would be opening for the platinum-selling duo Sugarland on their Incredible Machine Tour during the month of March, beginning on March 4th in North Little Rock, Arkansas. On the Sugarland website, they said, “We’re thrilled to announce that American Idol favorite Casey James has joined the 2011 Incredible Machine Tour as an opener on eight dates this spring!” For his part, Casey said, “I am so excited. I think it’s an awesome opportunity to play in front of people that love great music. I can’t wait to get back out there and share new music with the fans.”
Casey’s first single is due out in the spring, with his debut album due later in 2011. Accomplished country music songwriters including Aimee Mayo, Jaren Johnston, Alabama’s Randy Owen, Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, and Grammy-winner and Oscar-nominee Tom Douglas have each been working with Casey on his album.
Casey told me in an interview, “My music is an extension of who I am and what I went through and what I know musically.” He promises he will bring something new to country music. “I’m not going to sound like anyone else,” he said last fall in the interview. ”Because my musical background is so diverse, it lends me to have very much my own style.”
The Texan who has fought all these years is going to keep fighting. As he said at the time of the signing, “I’m going to work hard to make the best album possible!”
Many thanks to Shari Gellar for her outstanding bio of Casey.