Music News

Casey James Prestwood brings classic country back to life

For the past two years, the Burning Angels have been stoked if we get fifty people in the room," says Casey James Prestwood. "We're even more stoked if twenty of those people are paying attention or even dancing. So playing with Drive-By Truckers at the Ogden recently, that was a taste of the old medicine, and it's really lit the fire under all of us to go back out on the road."

By "old medicine," Prestwood is referring to his stint with Hot Rod Circuit, one of his previous bands, which was hugely popular from the mid-'90s though the middle part of the last decade. Though born in Virginia, Prestwood spent a great deal of his formative years in southern Alabama, where, as a teenager, he played in a number of rock bands, including the outfit that would become Hot Rod Circuit. It was during the last five or six years of that band's existence that Prestwood became interested in playing pedal steel guitar — which is funny, because he didn't immediately take to country music, or the instrument. In high school, in fact, he thought of people into country music as a bit uncouth.

"I remember the first time I heard the Flying Burrito Brothers doing 'Wild Horses,' and I asked my friend, 'Who is this band ruining this awesome Rolling Stones song?'" Prestwood recalls. "Little did I know they recorded it before the Rolling Stones did. And now we play that version live, and I've kind of come full circle. It's all I listen to now. My wife married a rock-and-roller, but now I won't listen to it if it doesn't have steel guitar and fiddle."

The turning point for Prestwood came with his growing appreciation of Gram Parsons, a gateway artist for so many into the world of country music. "I heard him, probably for the first time, when I was nineteen, and I wasn't impressed," Prestwood admits. "But as time went on, he became my favorite singer, and all the steel players that played in his bands became some of my favorite musicians. And guitarists, too — James Burton, who played with Elvis, and Clarence White, who was in the Byrds. He turned me on to a whole different way of thinking about music."

On the new Burning Angels album, The Jukebox Is Busted Vol. 1, Prestwood recruited two of Parsons's pedal steel players as session musicians, including Lloyd Green. "He played on more number-one hits than the Beatles," notes lead guitarist Jeff Rady. Indeed, Green is known to have played on well over a hundred number-one singles in the '60s and '70s, including performances with the likes of Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette, and although he's in his seventies, he's still sought out as a session player.

The other steel player with connections to Parsons is the equally legendary Neil Flanz, with whom Parsons and Emmylou Harris recorded and toured. Over the course of the three albums Prestwood's band has recorded, there have been ten pedal steel players, reflecting Prestwood's ongoing affection for the instrument.

"I was in the Rocky Mountain Steel Guitar Club for years," he points out. "That's how I met a lot of the guys who played steel in our band. Some of those guys are, for lack of a better term, over-the-top purists. If it isn't like Jimmy Day or Buddy Emmons, then you're shit. And those are two of the greatest pedal steel players of all time.

"The culture with steel guitar," he goes on, "was that you didn't really tell people how you pulled off your tricks and stuff like that. Giving lessons wasn't cool unless you were in the group. It was really hard for a tattooed guy like me to get in, let's just say that. They made me play the first time I ever went to a meeting, and I remember hearing whispers from the audience. I remember one person saying, 'Tom Brumley just turned over in his grave!'"

Another pedal steel player on Prestwood's albums is John Macy, of Macy Studios fame, whom he met through one of his Drag the River bandmates. When Prestwood first moved to Colorado, he joined Drag the River as that band's pedal steel player. Despite being more of an old-school purist than his mates, he learned to fit in with the group's overall sonic picture. He met Macy through Dave Barker, who played with Macy one night in a band called Whiskey Trip.

"Dave was like, 'Man, you've got to meet this guy Macy. He's really fast, and I know you're a pedal steel nerd,'" says Prestwood. "So I called him out of the blue and said, 'Hey, man, I'm cutting a record up in the mountains, at Hideaway Studio in Sedalia.' This was 2006. He showed up, played three songs, never really having hung out with me before, and we've been friends ever since. Any time you drag somebody into one of those mountain-studio situations, you're kind of friends with them for life. Hideaway Studio is where the American Graffiti stuff and the Apocalypse Now soundtrack were cut."

Prestwood recorded his album, The Jukebox Is Busted Vol. 1, a little closer to home, at Macy's Denver studio. Vol. 1 is made up of covers, whereas volume two, which will follow later in the year, will be all originals. "I think part of being a country purist is taking what came before us and introducing people who might not listen to country to some of those great gems," notes Prestwood. "Some of them are lost songs, and that songwriting style is a dying art. Something about that attitude that country music has, I want to bring alive. I know Colorado is a weird jumping ground for that, considering some of the residences I've held, but we also see it as an opportunity for this band.

"That's kind of what our mission has been," he adds, "to take all the gloss off of it that is going on in Nashville right now. Not to condemn what they're doing, but I would like some of these rock-and-roll fans to listen to this stuff the way they did twenty or thirty years ago, when country was a little bit more acceptable and a little bit less political.

"I feel like even if you're in a modern rock band, at some point you're really going to get into classic rock, and getting into classic rock is what turned me on to the Gram Parsons-Flying Burrito Brothers thing. I haven't looked back. I sometimes feel like I'm fighting a losing battle trying to sell people on country, because the name has been so dragged through the mud and corrupted over the years, with, you know, 'She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy' and 'Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.'

"I don't judge the folks who think that stuff is cool, because once you're in the country realm, you can recognize the positive in the most negative of songs," Prestwood concludes. "I think that some work has to be done to get it where it really should be, and I think there's a lot of good guys out there, and I hope that the Burning Angels are in that group, too."

Even though Casey James Prestwood and the Burning Angels are traditionalists down to their custom Manuel Cuevas suits, the presentation of the music and the songwriting sound very much like a thing of the present, continuing a tradition rather than being defined by it.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.