Interview: Jerry Castle on recording with Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys

It isn’t very often that Americana UK gets the chance to bring a little bit of musical history to our readers first hand but that is exactly what happened when AUK’s Martin Johnson meet up with americana songwriter, guitarist and road warrior Jerry Castle in his Nashville home studio over Zoom. Jerry Castle has had a long and varied career to date, which includes a number one radio single on the Roots Music Folk Rock Chart, and all the signs are that his career is going to move to the next level with the October release of his well-received record ‘Midnight Testaments’ that reflects his newfound confidence in who he is as a musician and person. His new single ‘With The Band’ is maintaining this momentum and has the added attraction of being one of the last sessions that the late Rolling Stones sideman and legendary rock’n’roll saxophonist Bobby Keys played on. Castle admits to being not a little starstruck on the original session and being impressed by Keys’ easy-going confidence and willingness to still learn even at the end of a long career.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I’ve probably been social distancing most of my adult life, so it is not a huge deal as when I’m not on the road playing shows and I am back home I’ve never been a big goer-outer for a long time now. However, it definitely reached a place of getting out of control, like just losing hope, and I feel that now I am just getting on the other side. How about yourself?

You just put up with it. Technology allows you to do what has to be done and I have not been financially impacted by COVID and that is better than a lot of people.
I had never done a Zoom meeting before COVID.

I am the same, as are a lot of other people.
We are in good company then.

How did you maintain your career during the pandemic? What did you do to try and keep your income as stable as possible and keep your fans aware of you and your music? Was it the obvious stuff or did you do something new?
In a lot of ways, it is the obvious stuff. The best thing for me has been that I had actually finished a record just before the pandemic hit and I was ramping up to go on tour to support the ‘Midnight Testament’ album. I have been in this album cycle for a while now and it seemed like I would write a record then go into a studio to record a record and when I am doing that I don’t tour very much. I do the minimum amount to stop from getting rusty. Then when I am done, I will go out and play my arse off until I can’t stand it anymore. I then come home and start writing again. The cool thing for me was that instead of going out and playing I got time to write more stuff which has a lot to do with the tunes that I am getting ready to come out. In that way, I wouldn’t mind being a Harry Nilsson if I could. I did a bunch of animated videos that I have never done before. I stumbled across this dude and he said yeah if you can come up with the concepts and the storyboards I can put them to live. That had a massive impact on my YouTube followers and views. In those ways, I guess it has been good and in the obvious ways it has sucked.

The music industry is not going to be the same going forward I don’t think. There will be good and bad changes.
It is not going to be the same and I am trying to focus on what I can control. I do wonder when we will be allowed to be crammed into a 200 seat club with everybody elbow to elbow, drinking their arses off and singing the words back to you. I’m not super hopeful that is anywhere soon in the future.

It is going to be at least 6 months I think possibly a year even with the vaccines. It will come, but there is still a long hard road ahead.
I’ve heard of and thinking of by the Fall. Other friends in the music industry are hoping for Spring but I think they are being a little over-optimistic.

Jerry Castle. Are you primarily a performing artist or a songwriter?
I probably am a performing songwriter. I have been through the whole songwriting thing, trying to get cuts or hits for other people through Nashville’s Music Row. All that lead to for me was writer’s block. The recording and being in the studio, the going out and supporting records are all part of the total equation for me. That is not to say it is always going to be like that, if there comes the day that I am cool with just writing then so be it, but that has not been the case, it is all those pieces of the puzzle. Being out touring can certainly be a drag sometimes, and it is obviously exhilarating at times also, if there was part of the equation that I could probably step away from the most it would be that. The songwriting alone, I love it when it comes together, I am just mystified by it like how the hell did that happen, but that wouldn’t be enough for me. When I was doing the Music Row songwriting bit it always felt so damn weird to write this song, pour yourself into it and then go OK John Smith’s a great singer who sounds like, insert country music mainstream artist, we will have him sing it. That was always so damn weird to me, so performing singer-songwriter is what I am. Stylistically I have been around for years and I am just now settling into what I do, and that is some country and definitely very heavily roots. The roots part for me is where I have to put zero effort in, that is naturally what I do, you could give me a modern pop song and I would turn it into a roots song. During my teenage years and early ‘20s, I didn’t really listen to roots music or country. Even to this day, when I listen to music there are things americana and roots-wise that are my go-tos, like Jason Isbell, Hailey Whitters, but I am a song lover so when I hear a good song it really doesn’t matter what genre it is. The cool thing with americana is most americana musicians play their own instruments, write their own songs, it is not like some hugely manufactured part, which is why you can have such large variations in style within americana, at least in the US. I can say everything from classic rock to all way to being right on the verge of modern country. You can’t say mainstream country and americana in the same breath in the US, if you do it is a death wish.

I’ve heard that from more than one person. My take is americana is a marketing term for good music that can include some country without mentioning it. How important is your own Appalachian background to your music?
Man, like I said, musically and writing-wise I think it is so ingrained in my DNA from growing up around it my entire life, I can make the biggest effort to not be rootsy and sometimes I can sort of accomplish it. On my 2018 record, ‘Brave New Hello’, I tried to steer away from it quite a bit but my vernacular, my accent, it always ends up coming out in some way, shape or form. I think just the upbringing of just being around gospel and country in the earliest part of my life makes it my natural go-to. I have to make so much effort to get it out and I am at such a place in my life that I don’t want to do that anymore, I don’t want to be anything other than what I am. I mean, why bother?

That was going to be my next question. You have been around a bit in your career, but would it be fair to say you are the happiest you have ever been with where you currently are, at least artistically?
I think I am a late bloomer. I have really had the notion during COVID that goes back to some advice I had from some older musicians back when I was first kicking off my career, I remember them telling me when Nashville tells you you are too this or not enough of that just do what you do, stop chasing, because if you are always chasing you will always be behind. That shit would not settle in and I could not process it but now I really grasp it. When I sit down to write it is almost zero time that I consider how would so and so do this, I don’t want to do a song that sounds like whoever, it just is what it is and if it sounds good to me and I have been more prolific as far as writing songs over the last 14 months. I just had this conversation yesterday with the guy who plays drums in the studio with me, I have written more songs in the last 14 months than in my whole life and I think it is just that I have stopped trying to steer the ship creatively. Nobody knows where creativity comes from, I have heard the most creative and the most successful people are the same in that it is always this untouchable thing, the magic. Tom Petty, who is one of my favourites, when he was asked he was like I don’t know and I haven’t thought about it in case it goes away. I definitely feel more comfortable now than ever before.

I have to ask you about the phrase Appalachian Soul that you have used to describe your music. What does it mean?
My latest record, ‘Midnight Testaments’, the way we did that record was I would book studio days during the week, and I would during the course of the week when I came up with a song idea  either hum it into my phone or if it was lyrical I would write it down a bit, but I wouldn’t pick up an instrument. There would be 7 or 8 ideas coming up but I wouldn’t try and write or navigate those, and then 2 or 3 days before it was time to go into the studio I would lock myself into my home studio and I wouldn’t leave the room until I had finished at least 2 songs in a day. The first time I did it I gave myself a panic attack, but after that, I really got into a rhythm of doing it and I would go right let’s book another one and write some more songs. I would take 4 or 5 songs into the studio for that recording day, sometimes we only got 3, but I would go in and I would play on acoustic guitar for the guys in the band as they had never heard the songs before, and then we would chat about what are you doing here, why not go in this direction or whatever. This track ‘With The Band’, which has Bobby Keys on it, I played it on acoustic guitar and the keyboard player, who plays with Margo Price,  says it is a soul song. I then heard it come up in relation to one of the more country songs from someone who wasn’t in music at all, and in describing the music I like the Appalachian reference and when you mix it with soul it makes neither of them limited from a conceptual viewpoint. That is kind of where it came from.

You have led very nicely into the next question. You mentioned the name, so I am going to have to ask how you managed to get Bobby Keys on your record, and did he bring any of his bandmates?
I wish, haha. We did make a bit of an effort, not a huge effort, but I definitely tried to connect the dots with Keith after that but I have been unsuccessful I’m sorry to say, haha. It was during the time I was like going through my second Stones phase. I was a big fan in my teenage years and it sort of re-emerged in 2014 and I was listening to the ‘Exile On Main Street’ record nearly everyday and watching the ‘Stones In Exile’ documentary every single day. I was also reading the Keith Richards’ ‘Life’ book and so I was hearing a whole lot about Bobby Keys and the character Bobby Keys was and how fondly Keith thought of him. He was a central character in all of that stuff and I was on Facebook one day, and Dan Baird from the Georgia Satellites, with who I used to play in a muso poker game, had a post about looking forward to playing with Bobby Keys and the Suffering Bastards tonight at the Murphy Lounge, which is a place I played, and I was like shit I didn’t even know Bobby Keys lived in the Nashville area. I automatically sent him a message saying  “Hey Dan, I see you’re playing with Bobby, is there any way you could connect him with me. I would like to have him come to the studio and record on a song that is perfect for him?”, even though I didn’t have a song. I was going to swing the lead, right. He said “Let me check with him to see if it is OK” and he sends me back his number and says give him a call and don’t give the number to anyone else. I called him, he didn’t answer, then he called me back and he was exactly like the documentary and the book, it was like I had removed those things and just plugged them into real life. He was like “This is Bobby Keys, I hear you want me to come and play on one of your songs?” and I said “Yeah, yeah I’d love for you to, I’ve got one I’d like you to play on, in fact, if you’re good we could do it now” and Bobby goes “First things first, you are gonna have to pay me in cash”. I was like “Yeah, no problem”. I gave him the date and he shows up at the studio and I have obviously got to write a song in not a lot of time, and I wasn’t in a groove writing then like I kind of feel I am now. So he shows up and the next thing he says “Well I reckon if I am gonna play on this you need to play me the song so I can hear it and work out what I’m gonna do”. I play him the song, and he sits back and messes about a bit and then he goes “Alight, I think I’m ready”. The next thing that was most memorable about that session is the studio is set up so you had to go out the door into the corridor to get to the overdub room which was above the console. I was so fanboyed out with Bobby, and I’ve been around a bunch of people before that I have never been affected by, but for whatever reason, I was just so fazed that whenever he went out of the studio door I would follow right behind him. He did it 3 times and I followed him 3 damn times. He did that song and did one more that I guess I will put out next year if I ever finish it. He finished the song and goes “Alright, I think that is as good as it is going to get, but I’m gonna give you another one and that way you’ve got another one” and that was his parting shot. He took a cellphone shot with me before he walked out the door and I think he had a Stones rehearsal for an overseas tour. I think it was sometime during that tour that he started not feeling so well.

He played with Buddy Holly right at the start of rock music all the way to today playing with everybody who was somebody.
The Beatles, John Lennon. The entire spectrum of rock’n’roll, just crazy, Elvis even.

And he was on your record.
Yeah, and so he played on the song and the recording was kind of half-arsed. Now I hate to say that because it wasn’t a person’s fault, but when a song isn’t right it is hard to make it right with other things. It is like the butterfly effect, everything goes wrong then. So I think the song wasn’t right, the recording wasn’t right and when I came to listen to it I thought I ain’t putting this shit out. It always bothered me that I had Bobby Keys play on my song and you fucked it up, son. I pulled the song back out and at first, I was trying to make that incarnation of that song work, so I would maybe pull out the electric guitar or maybe I will just take the vocal out and eventually all I had left was Bobby’s part and the click track, then it was maybe I could write a brand new song around Bobby’s sax. It was then how do you write a new song that is worth anything around an existing saxophone. After the fact, it was like holy cow, I did it. I think it is good but you never know when you are writing because judging your own stuff is futile.

Apart from the fandom of having him in the studio, did you learn anything from working with him?
I think the biggest thing was the level of confidence that Bobby definitely had and the astute mentality as well, he didn’t come in and listen to my song and go “Son, this is a half-arsed song” he came in and listened and you could tell he was a little unsure of some things at one point. Be confident but be astute as well because there are other things to always learn. You are never too good for another musician, or another person for that matter.

Who else is on ‘With The Band’?
The only other notable person is guitar player Audley Freed, he was the lead guitar player with the Black Crows, he did all the Black Crows with Jimmy Page ‘Live At The Greek’, he is Sheryl Crow’s guitar player and has been for a long time now, he has played with Peter Frampton and a number of other people. Audley just did a fantastic job, with Bobby’s part I didn’t want to edit anything out of the original take and to do that is a tricky thing because there were some holes that needed to be plugged. In a normal situation, you would probably have done away with the sax part and replaced it with a guitar part or do a completely different sax overdub, but Audley did a great job of shucking and jiving and leaving room for Bobby and doing his thing without going hey look at me and my guitar solo. It did create some kind of push-pull thing the Stones did.

You have released several tracks from the ‘Midnight Testaments’ album, and now a new stand-alone track  ‘With The Band’. The increase in the number of individual track releases seems to be a trend in the industry at the moment. Is the album dead, are we at a tracks and playlist situation?
I have done all of the above. The record was done at the beginning of the year, so the plan was to put it out in April. The virus hit and I’m like shit I’m not putting that record out as I can’t tour and that is the only way you can make money now. So I was like I will put out another single and I think in the end I put out 5 or 6 singles from the record, it is usually 2 or 3. I put out the whole record in October and again because of lockdown and the fact I have been writing so much, it is my creative outlet at the moment,  I will now put out singles, this one is out on the 18th and there will be another one on New Year’s, there is another in January then again in  February. I’m back in the studio on January 15th and I have enough songs written for a record. At the moment I don’t know whether I will go record or bide my time, I think it will all depend on what happens with the lockdown, herd immunity and all that stuff that I have no control over. The sooner that thing resolves itself the sooner I will put out another record. The singles thing, I don’t know, the press in the US has always tended to favour full records that separates the real artists from the also rans.

I have noticed some artists are releasing EPs, they will put out a couple of EPs and then issue them as a single album. It seems that people are really thinking about how best to sell their recorded music and then you have streaming which, with it not being physical, people can listen to it however they want.
What I have always disliked with records is that it is 2 or 3 singles and then the record comes out and nothing on the record gets that much attention after those singles. You have like 9 other songs that you have poured your heart and soul into that get ignored. The cool thing with the singles is that here’s a song and here’s another song. The other good thing is that when you are writing a record and you have written 2 or 3 songs you then have to start making sure you are moulding these songs into fitting within a picture that makes cohesive sense but with the singles, it is a case of anything goes. It is country, it’s roots, it’s rock, I can do techno if I want haha.

Who are your long term personal influences on your music?
Definitely Tom Petty, definitely Willie Nelson and then a kind of an outlier Eddie Vedder. I saw Pearl Jam a couple of times and was utterly blown away by the energy they have, you can’t put your finger on what that does, but his voice, in particular, he is so himself that it doesn’t matter that I don’t understand a damn thing he is saying. Those are the three that immediately come to mind. Anybody who is a good songwriter I will dig, I am an old schooler as far as music. The Ruston Kelly ‘Dying Star’ record, I thought that was fantastic. I rarely hear new artists that will completely give you that feeling of oh my God. For me, it is always when I hear that emotion that is uncontrollable like the early Jason Isbell records, not that his current stuff doesn’t do it but it is just that I am familiar with it now and you start expecting it. That earlier stuff, like the first time I heard ‘Cover Me Up’ you can’t say a word in case it brings you to tears, that is magic to me. I’m sure he set out to write the best song that he could, but there is no way he could have known how much that song was going to connect. I’m sure the internet has something to do with it, but you just don’t hear songs that connect as much, I mean you go back to old school country and your old school classic rock’n’roll and there is an endless slew of good songs that are just as influential today as they were then.

I have a suspicion that it is because writing a song is very difficult, or it is very easy if it is just grabbed out of the ether, but good songs don’t come along too often and 20, 30 or 40 years ago, it was a lot harder to get your music published and made available to potential listeners. Now, there is so much product that there could be some diamonds that nobody hears because of the volume. Everyone is pitching their stuff and competing and good stuff can get lost.
People are more talented and competent now than they used to be. You see it in East Nashville now, you have the Berkley School of Music kids who are all excellent players and sing in perfect pitch but there is something when you don’t have all of that talent to work with because you then have to pull more from the soul. It seems that that is increasingly missing now.

Listeners now expect too much perfection. Willie, Dylan they are hardly perfect from a purely technical perspective.
Yeah. Willie has always been about delivery. He can deliver in a way that is 100% sincere, you never doubt that he means it. Everything he says you are like tied to, yes I have felt like that as well haha.

Do you have any plans to come to the UK when the pandemic is over?
Yeah, if this will ever subside I would like to set up shop for a good while. I am trying to hang on as far as press and releases but the vision is certainly to come over and spend some time playing shows. Hopefully, that is sooner rather than later, summer is optimistic, fall I think is possible. I am raring and ready.

What do you hope to be doing in 2021? Are you going to record with Keith?
Yes if he has any damn sense. I’m going into the studio with the same guys I have been playing with on January 15th and we are probably going to whittle down to 4 songs. I have a song in particular that I think Audley Freed playing wah-wah would be awesome on, I’m sure I will reach out to him and his touring is still at a halt like everyone else so I’m guessing he will be available. That is one of the coolest things about Nashville, if you have a song and you hear a particular thing, like this is a such-and-such part then particularly in the part of Nashville where I live, you can find anything from horns to strings, chicken-pickin’ guitar, pedal-steel all these people are living 2 miles away. When I lived in Los Angeles it made me appreciate the musicianship here, it wasn’t even on the same map. I’m sure there were players who were fantastic in Los Angeles but they were untouchable there. You couldn’t get to them or afford them, where here they live in your neighbourhood and you see them at the coffee shop and if they don’t have anything going on they will come and play on your record for peanuts. That certainly was not the case in Los Angeles.

Well, I think we’re are about done, Jerry. It was good to talk about a little bit of music history.
Thanks for giving me the time. I was thinking about it the other day and wondering did the Gods of rock’n’roll shine on me or did I just get shithouse lucky.

It is the same thing, isn’t it?
Bobby is even beyond sax players, he is one of the greatest and most well-known sidemen of all time. I am thankful that it fell in my lap and I was together enough to do it. The other thing that was really cool was that he was who you thought he was.

He didn’t want to bath in champagne, did he?
Haha. I love that story. Come on we gotta go, no I’m not playing tonight. I think he said he ended up being in the hole after that tour and instead of getting paid for it he owed them money.

Jerry Castle (featuring Bobby Keys) ‘With The Band’ is out now on all streaming and download platforms

About Martin Johnson 387 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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