Interview with Grammy Winning Songwriter Robert Lee Castleman
Robert Lee Castleman is a Grammy winning songwriter living in Nashville , TN. He has had (7) cuts with Alison Krauss, including “The Lucky One” which won a Grammy for “Best Country Song”, Four songs on Alison’s new CD, (Lonely Runs Both Ways) a title track on a Chet Atkins album and a cut on an Alan Jackson CD.
Doak – Tell me about writing your great song, “The Lucky One” that was recorded by Alison Krauss.
RL- I was at the National Guitar Workshop in 1984, David Smolover’s guitar camp in Connecticut , They study all styles of guitar playing. That number is
1-800-234-NGSW. I wrote that song at that particular workshop. A friend of mine, Buck Brown did a guitar/vocal demo of the song. We even did a live version of the song at a club that he recorded. When I was touring with Alison Krauss years later, the summer of 2000, Buck had moved to Washington , DC . I called him and told him we were going to be playing Wolf Trap in Vienna , Virginia . He stopped by and handed me a cassette of what he considered great old RL songs. We were listening to the cassette on the tour bus. When it came to the song “The Lucky One” Alison asked, “What is that”? She recorded it on her album “New Favorite” and changed it to 2nd person. It was written in first person.
Doak – Did Alison take writing credit on the song, since she changed it?
RL – No, she doesn’t do that.
Doak – You had the song, “Forget About It” a couple years earlier that she had recorded. Tell me about that song.
RL – It was the title track to a previous album with Alison. I wrote “Forget About It” around 1985, maybe even earlier.
Doak – How did she hear that great song (Forget About It)?
RL- Alison’s husband had a surprise birthday party for her around 1999. That was the first time I had ever met her. Of course at the party, they stuck a guitar in my hand and that was one of the songs that I sang that night. Alison said she had to record that song! She also recorded ‘Let Me Touch you for a While”.
Doak – What is the story behind “Let Me Touch You For A While”?
RL – That song was also written in the 80’s. Someone even had a live recording of it when I recorded it at the famed “The Bitter End” in New York City back in the 80’s. That song was also on the cassette I mentioned previously that Buck brought to me in Virginia .
Doak – Your connection with Alison was with her husband – right?
RL – Yes- I met Pat Bergeson in Connecticut at the Guitar Workshop back in 1984-85 and we became good friends. He said that we should put together a band and play The Bitter End and other clubs in New York City . We did that as “The Checkered Past Band. Chet Atkins had come to the Guitar workshop with his friend John Knowles, who used to transcribe for Chet. John works for the Country Music Hall of Fame and is probably one of my all time favorite guitar players. I had a previous connection with Chet through and album that he had produced for Homer and Jethro on RCA years prior called “Songs My Mother Never Sang”. Listening to Chet records was the inspiration for me to fingerpick a guitar. I brought that album up, and since Jethro was Chet’s brother-in-law we hit it off right away. I gave him a copy of a demo tape that I had made and Chet passed it on to his manager. His manager and I got hooked up and moved to Nashville in 1989. After I was here for a while, Chet recorded an instrumental song of mine called “Sneakin’ Around” that was the title track of the album, the first cut I ever had. Chet and Jerry Reed did the song on the album. Pat and I made the original demo of “Sneakin’ Around” and after Chet heard it he wanted to meet Pat. He loved Pat’s playing so much he asked him to play on the record. Pat ended up moving to town a little later. To make a long story short. He knew Alison’s brother, Victor, who hooked him up with, not only Lyle Lovett but Alison as well.. Pat married Alison, then came the birthday party and the rest is history.
Doak – You had those songs that were 20 years old and Alison cut them. Now she has a new CD (Lonely Runs Both Ways) and what has happened for you on her new CD?
RL – She recorded “Restless” the first single off the new CD. Another song called “Gravity” that I wrote is on the CD. I wrote that song in 90 or 91. A cut off my record called “Crazy as Me” which was my title track, and then a funny thing happened on another song. She called me from LA and says, RL, I got this idea for a song that I want you to write. I said I do not normally do things that way, but I’ll take a whack at it. She said the title is “It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” It is about two people that do not have a relationship that are breaking up. Of course I asked what happened and how does that work? I was sitting at the house one morning about six, picked up a guitar and came up with the song. I wrote it in about maybe twenty minutes. Made a guitar /vocal demo and called to play it for her on the phone. She said she loved the song. She recorded that song on the album for a total of four cuts on the latest Alison Krauss CD! (Lonely Runs Both Ways) I went from one cut on the Allison CD (Forget About It) to two cuts on the next (New Favorite) to now four songs on the current album. The next thing is for her to do a complete record of Robert Lee Castleman songs (Laughter)! That CD would be great!
Doak – You have written these songs, you played them. How did you end up pitching these songs to her?
RL - “Restless” was on a CD that I gave her along with a bunch of other songs to see if there was anything that she liked. She called me up and said she had to have “Restless” and Gravity”.
Doak – Did she help you get your record deal with Rounder a couple years ago?
RL – Absolutely – that goes back to the night at her birthday party mentioned previously. I played for the crowd for about 45 minutes to an hour with her husband Pat. She called Ken Irwin the next day at Rounder Records and told him that he had to make a CD with me. That happened real quickly.
Doak – So you had a record and she took you on a tour.
RL – We did about thirty dates that I opened for her. Alison and I and a driver and a nanny to watch her little boy were on one bus. Another bus had the band and a truck for the crew. It’s the only Bluegrass band I know of with two busses. It was a barrel of laughs.
Doak – Can you tell me about writing a song or two, starting with “The Lucky One”
RL – The Lucky One—-It’s about a guy that has a positive outlook on life. He sees the glass half full rather than half empty. “I’m the lucky one so I’ve been told, free as the wind blowing down the road. Loved by many, hated by none you’d say I was lucky if you knew what I’d done”. If not me, he’s one who has a checkered past and has been very lucky to have survived it. It was an honor to be nominated but that sucker won the Grammy and I’m keeping it. Thank You…. I am—- the lucky one.
Doak – What were you doing when you found out about the Grammy?
RL- I was a OTR – Over The Road – Long Hall Trucker better known as a truck driver. I started driving in 1995 to put food on the table. It has taken me 50 some years to become an over night success as well as receive any accolades in this business and all songwriters need to have a job to keep them going until success hits. I was sitting in Severville , TN with a load of scrap metal that I was getting ready to unload. The cell phone rang and it was Alison. She was so excited, telling me that my song was nominated for a Grammy. Here I am in dirty, filthy clothes, been up all night driving from the coast in Alabama to get to Severville. I had been up about 20 hours when she told me I got nominated for a Grammy for “Best Country Song of the Year”. I near soiled myself (Laughter).
Doak – Did you ever have any other artists call you when you were on the road?
RL – Alan Jackson called me one day to tell me he wanted to record a couple of songs. He cut “Stay Here” and also “Kind of like a Rainbow” He only recorded the song, “Stay Here” on his “When Somebody Loves You” CD.
Doak – What was your famous quote about your Grammy trophy?
RL – I have a famous quote? That’s good to know–Peter Cooper from The Tennessean asked me what I was going to do with the Grammy Award. I told him that it would look good on the hood of my 18 Wheeler!
Doak – Let’s talk about the new single “Restless”
RL – Restless – It’s an honest song that came at a time of confusion in my life. I was in jail in Martinsburg , WV . I had been arrested for drunk driving after attempting (in vain I might add) to drown the many sorrows one is forced to deal with after ones heart lay broken. I had successfully consumed three times my weight in Wild Turkey (water back) and for this accomplishment spent a wonderfully somber evening in jail. My first wife to be decided that she did not want to be my first wife which set into motion a chain of events that later left me alone in a cell at “lights out”. The lyric, “Honey I know that you’ve been alone some, why don’t you phone some, ‘cause I love you” came from that night in jail as well as “I been put down, pushed around, apprehended and led down town and I can’t help it if I’m full of fight ’cause I’m Restless tonight…. It was the first time that I came up with a lyric without a guitar.
I wrote the lyric for a simple musical piece and added it later. I did a demo in Hagerstown , MD and that is what Alison heard on a CD. That song was written around 1981.
Doak – How did you keep track of all these songs over the years?
RL- There are a lot of songs that people have kept over the years. I have forgotten about many of them and maybe someday someone will bring an old tape to me of way back then. That is the way “The Lucky One” was heard! I do not have a system. If I write a song that is a hit at my house for however long it takes me to wear it out, I just keep the tape around the house. I give it the whistle test. If the melody sticks in your head that’s a good thing. I remember hanging with Chet Atkins one night in Nashville . We were at “The Cockeyed Camel” a bar out Highway 100 around Bell Meade. We were walking out halfway during a guy’s show that night and Chet asked what I thought of the guy’s songs. I said that the music was so complicated that I could not remember any of it. Chet said, “Well as long as he keeps doing that I won’t go out of business” (laughter).
Doak – What would you tell any songwriters?
RL – To always be tenacious, never give up chasing your dream. It is a great job if you can make a living at it. Reflect the times and places that you’ve been universally. That, in itself, is hard to get away with at times. I’ll never write a song about sailing on a battleship, because I do not have any experience with that particular thing. Einstein said “Make things as simple as possible, but never simpler.” These are great words to live by and can also be applied to songwriting. One must also remember that simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. Every line should be as strong as the one before and after. The DJ playing the song on the radio cannot play the song back to explain it to the listener. You’ve only got three minutes to get your point across. (And most of all.) Never be current. Timeless classics become timeless for that very reason. If I write a song that totally sucks air but has one great line I’ll keep that line for another song. Twenty bad songs may have the elements to write one great song. The trick is to write a song that doesn’t say anything, yet says everything. To have someone say “How did you know that I feel like that?” let’s you know that your song is universal.
I hate direct things in songs. If you notice, Alison very seldom cuts songs that talk about a specific time or events or items. She does not say the name of a town or a truck or specific things. It has to be timeless. Her songs could be written today or in the 20’s. She loves to be obscure, not current. She will not talk about computers, caller ID’s, trucks, or things that are modern, so to speak – And last but not least – Never think your songs are better than what they really are. This will help to make you very critical of your own work and therefore a better tunesmith. That’s my opinion – and it should be yours’……..
Doak – When you are writing songs, do you ever write and say it is an Alison song?
RL – Not at all – There are songs that I think she will like but when I have or develop an idea I do my best to write what “I” think is a great song. That’s it. All I ever set out to do is write a great song. If someone else thinks it’s a great song as well – that’s cool and thank you so much. But my only concern at conception is to please myself. As for Alison, I know her voice so well that I can put her voice to it and hear her singing it in my head. But this does not necessarily mean she will sing it on a record. That’s up to her of course. I know her phrasing, what she likes and does not like but that is not as important to me as what “I” like. She likes what I do so much that she will listen to whatever I send her. If she thinks it sux she’ll be kind and say “That interesting” but I can tell that she’s pointing and laughing when a complete stranger shows up at my door to throw a banana crème pie in my face along with a note that says “R.L. – You’ve completely lost it and you’ll never get it back again. But she will listen. Which is great.
Doak – RL thanks a lot for your time. I know you probably better get back to your home studio and get to work on Alison’s next CD, which will contain all songs written by YOU (laughter)!
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