“American Idol” notes: Casey James interview, Savannah auditions, Kelly Clarkson

NASHVILLE, TN – NOVEMBER 04: Singer Casey James performs at The Grand Ole Opry at Ryman Auditorium on November 4, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

Casey James was positioned season 9 on “American Idol” as a country singer. Judge Kara DioGuardi practically fell over herself for him. In the end, he came in a respectable third place and nabbed a record deal with Sony’s BNA Records.

He release one album for them and generated a couple of minor top 40 country hits. His second album didn’t work out and the two sides split ways. James had to figure out his next move and in 2016, he decided to put himself out there by going on Kickstarter to raise $30,000 for an independent blues album. His fans ended up giving him more than twice that total.

In June, he released “Strip It Down” and is currently on tour, coming to the Atlanta City Winery on Sunday, October 29. (Buy tickets here.)

I talked to him for the first time earlier this week. He was very frank about how he does not see himself:

“I’m not a country artist. Never was.”

But he knew that was the most commercial route the folks at BNA wanted him to go. So he went that direction.

“It really wasn’t a bad thing,” he said. “I got a lot of exposure from it. I gained a lot of contacts. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t taken the journey.”

But James felt like he was often performing in front of the wrong crowd. “I felt like a chain saw juggler at an art gallery,” he said. He recalled finishing a country set and the next artist came up and opened a beer and the crowd went bonkers. James thought, “Man, this is not my crowd.”

So now he’s embracing the blues, his first love. Sure, it’s a far smaller pond to be in but he hopes enough of his fans from country and “Idol” days will jump over and give him a shot to make a living in that world.

James’ earliest memory is at age four hearing Ricky Skaggs song with a bluesy undertone called “Walkin’ in Jerusalem”:

“I knew how to start the record player and play that record over and over,” he said.

He grew up with a variety of musical influences from his mom, including R&B, standards, rock, big band and swing. “I became a huge fan of everything from Pavarotti to Pantera.” His older brother introduced him to Stevie Ray Vaughn, then Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the Arc Angels. Later, he learned the classics from B.B. King, Alfred King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Muddy Waters.

And while blues by definition addresses tough subjects, James said the music, the beats, the shuffles make him feel good. His favorite performance on “Idol” was Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming.” “That’s roots to me,” he said on the show at the time while being mentored by Atlanta’s Usher. “That’s where it all comes from.”

Even when he sang a pop song like Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” on the show, he didn’t use the normal melody line. Instead, he went for a minor key to give it just the slightest bluesy feel. “They never want you to vary too much,” he said. “You do what you do to get through.”

James said he’s no longer in a big tour bus. He’s driving himself and loading his own equipment and setting up his own merchandise. “I’m doing it all,” he said. “I’m okay with that. The reason is that I’m actually doing what I love. That’s a trade off.”

Even many of his country songs have enough of a blues roots feel to it that he plays them on his sets now. And he feels his crowds have remained just as receptive as ever.

Doing the Kickstarter campaign, James said, required him to swallow his pride and not feel so guilty asking fans so directly for money. He offered up some personal guitars and outfits he wore on “Idol” as enticements. It worked.

He is now living in Nashville and enjoying it.  After “Idol,” he hated the city and ended up moving back to Texas. But it wasn’t worth it. “I decided to go with the flow and stop trying to hurry back to Texas,” he said. “Everything I was trying to get back to doesn’t really exist. I decided to commit to Nashville, really allowing myself to dig in and have a life here.”

He has no desire to be the next Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton. He said even after leaving Sony, he had opportunities to join other country labels. He told his wife he could do that and be miserable with a shot at being a superstar. “I’d rather enjoy the journey,” he said.

James said just a couple of months ago he had an epiphany and found peace with his life. He has slowed his life down and focuses on the here and now instead of rushing to the next thing. His anxiety levels are way down. Ironically, he thought of a classic country song as an analogy: Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry.”

“I’m supposed to be where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “For the first time in seven, eight years, I understand my place. I’m okay with it. I’m joyful.”

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Although the “Idol” bus tour went through Atlanta this past summer, the “main” audition site in this area was Savannah. So that’s where the three judges Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan and Katy Perry will be on Saturday to sift through some of the Southeast’s best talent rounded by from earlier rounds.

My wife is recuperating from surgery so unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it down.

Slate, by the way, made total fun of ABC releasing photos last Friday of “Idol” throwing a puppy-themed birthday party for Perry in Nashville.

The photo above, for instance,  included this descriptive:

Here, a puppy is handed out of a cake with the help of an unidentified wrist-watched employee whose job it was to sit in a cake and hand puppies to Katy Perry. Lionel Richie is delighted. In the background is a limited-run Gibson SJ 200 with a ribbon on it, retail price $4,899, plus the cost of hiring someone to sit in a cake and hand out puppies. You definitely don’t want to miss this photo!

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NASHVILLE, TN – MAY 16: Singer-songwriter Kelly Clarkson speaks on the the Featured Presentation: Music’s Leading Ladies Speak Out panel powered by Nielsen Music during Music Biz 2017 at Renaissance Nashville Hotel on May 16, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Music Business Association)

Kelly Clarkson told an Australian magazine she was miserable when she was thin though that didn’t necessarily mean being thin made her unhappy. It just masked her pain. Since she was thin, nobody noticed her misery.

As CNN contributor Peggy Wexler wrote: 

Clarkson’s willingness to talk about how being thin didn’t mean that, magically, she was also happy, even if other people may have expected it to, is an important message. Nothing is ever as it seems. And thin isn’t everything.

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Clay Aiken Tweet of the week. No, he’s not running for president:


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