Tommy Castro keeps on hustling, writes ‘blues opera’

Tommy Castro is in constant motion and coming to a place near you.
Photo by Victoria Smith / Alligator Records

Tommy Castro does not waste his time.

An indefatigable touring musician who constantly works to improve his craft, Castro used the most time off the road that he’s ever had to figure out new ways to make a record, “A Bluesman Came to Town.” It just might be the best album of a recording career that began in 1994.

In a series of firsts, Castro collaborated with renowned producer Tom Hambridge in Nashville, meticulously overdubbed his guitar parts and wrote a “blues opera” album.

“A lot of things were done different on this record and that’s my whole M.O,” Castro said. “I want every record to be a different, fresh new project.”

The album was released on Sept. 17 and in typical Castro fashion the bluesman hit the road the next day to start a three-month run of shows, including a weeklong Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.

It was on one of those Blues Cruises before the Covid-19 live music lockdown that Castro introduced his novel idea over coffee with Hambridge, Music City’s most prolific blues producer.

“I gave him an outline for a blues opera; not just a bunch of songs with a common theme but an actual story that runs from first song to last,” Castro told Tahoe Onstage. “I thought, ‘What an idea. There’s been rock operas. What about a blues opera?’ ”

The first and best-known rock opera was by The Who, coincidentally entitled “Tommy.” The newer Tommy sure plays a mean guitar, and with a wide variety of blues-based styles. Hambridge encouraged dual slide guitars on one track and even talked Castro into opening a song with a riff with the famed and sometimes overused Jimi Hendrix chord.

“I’ve never been a guitar player who went into Hendrix and that’s only because everybody else did all the way to the point of I found it annoying,” Castro said.

“What you call blues nowadays, for quite a while now, blues has a big, giant umbrella with a lot of things under it. I consider myself a blues artist but obviously there’s some soul and funk and rock ‘n’ roll in our music with the blues. For the most part, that’s what the blues scene is now. It gives you a lot of leeway to bring in a lot of different sounds.”

Tommy Castro is back with a familiar look.
Veronica Smith photo

Hambridge specializes in brainstorming songs with artists. He’s done just that with Buddy Guy on five albums. And in in 2021 he produced three gems for Alligator Records, the others being “662” by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and “Living in a Burning House” by Selwyn Birchwood.

On “A Bluesman Came to Town,” myriad hues of blues take the listener on what Castro calls “a hero’s journey.” The subject is not named, nor are the places he goes, leaving such details for interpretation. The compelling story and outstanding songs and musicianship led to Castro’s greatest record. And he’s made a lot of them.

“It’s the story of a thousand bluesmen,” Castro said. “Things we’ve all gone through. Some of it’s me, some I’ve heard from people that I know and some are stories I’ve heard about people I didn’t even know but who I’ve read about.”

“The main person gets mentored then it becomes clear to him that he has to go out and claim his treasure, find his fame and fortune. So, he goes out on his own to do that and people at home are saying don’t go. But he goes anyway, and he goes through all kinds of difficulty, and he slays dragons and whatnot to get to where he’s going. And at the end when he gets what he’s looking for he finds the real treasure is what he had all along. The journey made him realize that. So, it’s a success story at the end. He figures out what’s really important.”

Castro said the Blues Cruises offer invaluable learning experiences, a chance to see about 30 different bands. For the first 15 years of his recording career, Castro used the same guitar and amplifier. Blues Cruise Revue regular Ronnie Baker Brooks inspired him to makeover his sound.

In recent years, Castro has co-headlined a couple of tours with Atlanta blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis, a prolific songwriter who records in Nashville with keyboardist Kevin McKendree. Afterward, Ellis gets to work in his studio to refine his guitar tracks. In contrast, Castro had usually set aside a two-week window to make his records, playing hometown weekend gigs during the process. With no shows to play, Castro was able to work this time with no deadline.

“I really had fun doing the guitarwork on this album,” he said. “I was able to take my time. We cut all the songs and I went home to the Bay Area and we had all this free time due to Covid. I took my time with all my personal guitar work after the fact, overdubbing. That was the first time I’ve done it that way.

“I learned the guitar process from Tinsley Ellis. He’s a good friend and we’ve toured together a few times. There’s something exciting that happens when you are in a studio and you just have to get it done. That can be good but there’s also something to be said about being able to give it a little more thought and take your time and make sure you like it once you get it.”

The blues opera allowed Castro to touch on the different styles of his career. Most of his early records featured a soulful horn section led by saxophonist Keith Crossan, who returned to the studio for the tune “I Want to Go Back Home.”

“It really is classic Keith Crossan and it makes me feel so great when I hear it,” Castro said. “He’s been retired a few years and doesn’t go outside of his town much but he does a few gigs locally where he lives. He’s not into traveling anymore. He’s done enough of that.”

Onstage, Castro has a penchant for leading danceable grooves with his rhythmic guitar licks and infectious grin. He aptly covered Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smiling” on a 2014’s “The Devil You Know.” The man behind that song, Jimmy Hall, appears on “A Bluesman Comes to Town.”

“Jimmy emailed and said, ‘I heard you’re in town cutting a record. Holler if you need me.’ I said, “Oh man, we’ll find something for him.’ He played harmonica on a song (“Somewhere”) and sang backup vocals (on the title track “A Blueman Came To Town.”) I was going to have him play saxophone on “The Hustle” but his saxophone was in the shop. So, I think it was meant to be that Deanna (Bogart) was going to play on that. She did a killer job and it has her personality.”

“Hustle” is the funkiest song on the record and Bogart is a regular member of Castro’s Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue. (And the Maryland native recently relocated to Palm Desert, California, along with a blues opera writer – it’s no secret.)

Instead of mountain bike riding Marin County foothills, Castro now cycles desert terrain and when he drives doesn’t have to worry about finding a parking spot. He’s back to wearing a tight black T-shirt and has short-cropped-hair. The long locks and tie-dye shirt-era is over. Concertgoers will see it for themselves when the bluesman comes to town.

-Tim Parsons

  • Tommy Castro
  • ‘A Bluesman Came to Town’
  • Label: Alligator Records
  • Release: Sept. 17, 2021
  • Producer: Tom Hambridge
  • Artists: Tommy Castro, guitar and vocals; Kevin McKendree, keyboards; Tom Hambridge, drums; Rob McNelley, guitar; Tommy MacDonald, bass. Special guests: Jimmy Hall, harmonica, backing vocals; Deanna Bogart, saxophone: Keith Crossan, saxophone: Terrie Odabi, vocals; and Painkillers Randy Mc Donald, bass; Bowen Brown, drums; Mike Emerson, keyboards.
  • ‘A Bluesman Came to Town’
  • 1. SOMEWHERE (3:30)
  • (Castro & Hambridge, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI/Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP)
  • 2. A BLUES MAN CAME TO TOWN (3:58)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 3. CHILD DON’T GO (2:50)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI/
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 4.  YOU TO HOLD ON TO (3:54)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 5. HUSTLE (3:37)
  • (Castro, Wilson & Hambridge, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI/Jesilu Music, BMI/Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP)
  • 6. I GOT BURNED (3:37)  
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 7. BLUES PRISONER (5:15)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 8. I CAUGHT A BREAK (2:39)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 9. WOMEN, DRUGS AND ALCOHOL (4:20)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP/Richard Fleming Music, BMI)
  • 10. DRAW THE LINE (4:15)
  • (Castro & Cohen, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI/Ron Alan Music, ASCAP)
  • 11. I WANT TO GO BACK HOME (3:42)
  • (Castro, Hambridge & Fleming, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI)
  • 12. BRING IT BACK (3:43)
  • (Castro & Cohen, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI/Ron Alan Music, ASCAP)
  • 13. SOMEWHERE (REPRISE) (2:41)
  • (Castro & Hambridge, Tommy Castro Music admin. by Eyeball Music, BMI/Tom Hambridge Tunes, ASCAP)
  • Tommy Castro and The Painkillers on Alligator Records
  • 2021:  ‘A Bluesman Came To Town’
  • 2019:  ‘Killin’ It — Live’
  • 2017:  ‘Stompin’ Ground’
  • 2015:  ‘Method To My Madness’
  • 2014:  ‘The Devil You Know’

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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