Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Story, Stripped Down

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This is a blog entry that I've been working on for a couple of months now. Instead of just posting photos without much explanation, I have been wanting to put down in words my perspective about working with Casey James and describe more in depth about my time spent in Nashville. I also wanted to share some new photos that have never been published on line.     
So here's the story, stripped down...See what I did there? Ha! 

In the early months of 2010, we were surprised to turn on the TV and see a familiar face.  North Texas native Casey James had auditioned for the hit singing competition show, American Idol.  Not only did he try out, but eventually sang his way into the top 3 position.  This small town blues musician had shown the world that he could not only sing, but that he also had mad skills as a guitar player.  Whether you liked the show or not, most everyone in our area was aware of the local Idol hopeful & eager to tune in every week to see if Casey would advance.

It wasn't long after the show ended that major record labels were interested in signing Casey.  In 2012, he released his self titled debut record on the Sony/Nashville brand to critical acclaim.  

The following 4 years would find Casey touring all over the U.S., the world and opening for headlining acts such as Taylor Swift, Sugarland & Alan Jackson. 

In 2015 it was announced that Casey and Sony would part ways despite him achieving a few charting singles with the label.  This would soon prove to be a blessing in disguise which would then allow him to take total control of his music/sound.  Being an independent artist would allow Casey to create the album he had always wanted with a diverse sound that fits him the most.  In order to record an album that truly represented his vision in every aspect, he would first have to come up with the funds.  He decided to swallow his pride and ask his fans to help him fund the record using Kickstarter.  His amazing fans pulled through in a big way by backing his project with a generous amount totaling $63,255.00.   Casey enlisted Grammy winning producer Tom Hambridge and some of the best studio musicians in the business to help him bring to life his collection of blues infused tunes.   

I'd like to back up & explain what led to mine and Casey's various collaborations.  During all the American Idol hype in 2010, I thought it would be fun not only support our local Idol hopeful, but also put my profession to use by photographing all of the watch parties and especially the top 3 hometown Idol tour. (See Video Here)  It was an interesting diversion from my normal daily portrait work.  I had a blast photographing everything and would then post the photos on social media to share with excited local supporters from our hometown.  Even though Casey and I are from the same small town and had many mutual acquaintances, at this point we had never formally met.   His older brother B.C. and I are about the same age and we knew one another from school.  I recalled B.C. having a kid brother but didn't know him.   In a twist, my cousin Pattie and B.C. would reconnect and marry a few years later in 2013. 

Photo By James Wolfgang
Photo By James Wolfgang

While I was shooting their wedding, Casey approached me and asked if I'd be interested photographing a few of his live shows for merchandise and marketing purposes.  My reply to him in that moment was "Hmm, I'll think about it".  It only took me a few seconds to let him know I was obviously kidding and that "I would love to do that!" It was very difficult for me to not show my excitement knowing that inside I was jumping up and down about such a cool gig.  A few months later I found myself on one of those fancy country music tour buses I'd seen on TV.   We'd make 3 consecutive shows that week in Indiana, Illinois & Michigan.  It was my first time to visit any of those states, not to mention traveling alone.  

I was very honored to have been asked by Casey and his team to document his live shows & glad to know they were pleased with how everything turned out.  It was a very cool to see my photos being used on T-shirts and various other media.
Pretty much the highlight of my professional career to that point.  This was a bit different than a mutual friend asking me to shoot his local gig, but a business arrangement that involved contract agreements, management, booking flights, etc.   It was such an awesome opportunity and to see the behind the scenes workings of this guy and everything that went into a tour!  It was nice of Casey to give this small town photographer the opportunity to step outside my normal portrait work to do the job.  I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I would always be able look back on. 

This was one of my favorite shots I took of his cases at
The Blue Bird in Bloomington, Indiana.
His team ended up using this photo on a few
 different marketing things. 

This was during his show at
 a country music
festival in downtown Detroit. 
Casey's set list from his shows
on that run.  I asked him to sign it
 and joked that I would be
selling it on Ebay.   
With Casey's band in 2013.
What a great group of super talented guys! 

 3 years later in the Fall of 2016, I received a call from Casey about a video project.  He asked for my help to document the in-studio recording of his up-coming new independent album.  Casey knew he had something special with this new material and wanted to share the experience with his fans by taking the audience behind the scenes in the studio.  I was definitely up for the challenge of doing that.  What a great opportunity this would be for me to build my videography portfolio not to mention how cool it would be to see first hand the process of recording an album, which is something that has always fascinated me.   

This would be my second time visiting beautiful Nashville, Tennessee.  For my high school graduation in 1995, my parents surprised me with a trip to what was then called Fan Fair.  This was an annual week long fan appreciation event which most country music artists participated in.  I have always been fascinated in music and the musicians who create it. I couldn't believe I would actually get to see so many of these great artists perform, much less get to potentially meet them and get an autograph.  

This was the year both Shania and Faith 
became household names.

You can tell this was the 90's by the size of that enormous 
video camera and Billy Ray's mullet.  
P.S. I was wearing a fanny pack too #NotKidding

Mom and I spent the week crammed in huge rooms with hundreds/thousands of other anxious fans waiting to catch a glimpse, a photo or meet country music stars.  It was hot, it was loud, it was exhausting, exciting and I loved every minute of Fan Fair '95.  It made me even more fascinated about the industry in general. 

 So now as an adult, 21 years later I was excited to once again be visiting Music City.     Packing for this trip was nerve wracking to say the least. What equipment would I absolutely need?  What could I do without?  How light can I possibly make this baggage? Do I have my boarding pass?  Don't lose my boarding pass or ID.  That is a constant worry of mine while on any kind of trip.  It was definitely interesting traveling without my wife who normally is the organizer & makes sure everything is in order.  (I'm typically just the baggage handler) I must say that I did pretty well.   Casey and his wife Kelli invited me to stay with them in their home & made me feel so comfortable with their hospitality. Kelli is an amazing cook and never let me miss a meal.  Just great, great people!   

On day one, we arrived at Soundstage Studios located in the
heart of Music Row.  Sound Stage is one of Music City’s most prestigious and historic recording facilities. It’s been the home to a who’s who of music since opening it’s doors over 45 years ago. 
Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., George Strait, Jimmy Buffett are just a few major artists who have recorded there and the hits are still rolling out today.

The first step in the recording process was for Casey to play an acoustic demo of his song to the studio musicians.  They would all review the charts drawn up by Casey and the producer Tom Hambridge.  After a very brief discussion about the sound of the song, everyone would then take their spot in their recording booth areas.  With instruments in hand they'd begin to lay down the tracks.
Some songs took longer than others to complete but eventually Tom and Casey would be satisfied and move on to the next track.  I was there like a fly on the wall, listening to the conversations and watching how everyone reacted to various arrangements.  I would hear each song many times and notice how they'd tweak parts until it was perfect.  Each time I heard the tunes I would become more and more excited about them. Not only was I blown away by how great this music was, but I could see how the musicians were moved as well. They knew that they were a part of something great.  It was amazing for me to be able to witness the birth of a song from a simple acoustic demo recorded on Casey's phone, to a multi instrument final product.
They would literally build the songs right in front of me! Not only would Casey play lead guitar along with the musicians, he would also sing the lyrics to help keep everyone in sync.  At this point the vocals didn't need to be spot on because he would later have separate tracking sessions after the music arrangements were finalized. However he sounded pretty spot on with everything he sang. 

Kevin Mckendree, Casey James, Tommy McDonald,
Pat Buchanan, Tom Hambridge & Rob McNelley

A few weeks later I traveled back to Nashville a second time to video Casey in the final process of recording the vocal tracks.  We didn't know it at the time, but the video we shot from this trip would be the most useful.
During the 2nd week of my stay was when Casey had decided to use Kickstarter as 
a platform to help raise funds for the project, which meant he needed a short 2 to 3 minute intro video.  I'll admit we both felt a lot of pressure in those few days to capture  a good intro Kickstarter video. We had to decide what location we could use, would it be too noisy, how much daylight would we have, is it too windy? Ugh, the wind was definitely a factor in some of our shoots. Not only for sound quality, but hair in the face doesn't look too great either.  Luckily Casey's mom Debra was visiting during this time and helped us out a great deal.  She'd assist me in bouncing light and add insight to the dialogue for his bio.  We were feeling anxious about completing the task in our narrow timeframe, but us three had some good laughs despite the obstacles we were having in doing so.  Fun times! 
 (See Here)  We managed to finally get usable takes for the Kickstarter video and that evening we all sat and reviewed the footage. We'd collectively decided what takes looked and sounded the best.  I then started editing together those best clips into what finally was used as the Kickstarter bio intro.

The final tracking recordings took place in a different studio outside of Nashville.  What I liked this time was that I was able to actually hear Casey's voice and the music while the recording was in process. In the previous recording session, I would only hear Casey's vocal and no music.
 Hearing both made the editing process much easier later in post production.  I used dual cameras for capturing the footage.  While one camera was recording stationary on a tripod, I would simultaneously record using a hand held camera.   Those two takes could then be synched together and faded in and out to give two different perspectives.  In the weeks and months following the trip I would release various videos we shot during the recordings.  The idea was to get the fans excited about the new music and give them a look into the studio side of things.  The fans have been so kind and loved getting a small taste of what the up-coming record would sound like.  That was exactly Casey's idea in the first place, to get the fans excited to hear the new music. 

I was in complete awe by watching Casey master his craft during my stay in Nashville.  I saw him meticulously work for hours in the studio to create the best record he possibly could.  I feel very lucky to have been able see the process first hand and I've been so anxious for the fans to hear how awesome all these songs are.   I have learned so much about the process of making a record and how much work goes into it.  People have no idea how many crucial elements go into it. My admiration for Casey and his talent is even greater now and I must say after listening to the collection of songs, I have a new found appreciation for the blues.   I am most definitely a fan! 

In 1995, just before I graduated from high school I wrote these words in my senior memory book regarding future plans... "I see myself working in another state (Nashville) where I am working with video and music".   Did I really believe I'd get to do that?  Meh, not really, but a guy can dream.  Well it took 21 years, but I finally found myself in a big studio on Music Row, capturing behind the scenes video of an artist recording an album.  There was a moment when I was alone in that fancy studio in Music Row, sitting on a huge soft leather couch in the back of the studio.  I was just looking around and thinking about the moment and how cool it was to be there, a surreal experience to say the least. 

I just want to say a big ole Thank You to Casey for the opportunities thus far & letting me take an inside look into your world for a minute.  Oh, and I'm still pissed you didn't let me play the cowbell in at least one song... Ha! 

 'Strip It Down' Available Now! 

Here are 3 of the videos I put together for the 
'On The Record series. 

I couldn't wait to finally see Casey perform these songs in a live concert in front of a crowd. In May he played some Texas dates and I made sure to make one show.  Below are a couple of videos from the set of new music.

Even though, my main job for this project was capturing video, of course I couldn't help but shoot some images as well. Here are some of my favorite images I shot. 

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