Big-rig trucker Robert Lee Castleman has been down this road before, trying to make a career out of music. He’s finally getting his wish.
The 48-year-old West Virginia native, now based in Nashville, had all but given up on his dream when fate stepped in while he was attending the birthday party for Alison Krauss, the wife of his friend, guitarist Pat Bergeson. Most of the guests had left, and there was a lonely guitar in view. Castleman picked it up, and Krauss asked him to play.
Krauss, the Grammy-winning country singer-bluegrass fiddler, was so taken with Castleman’s soulful voice and heartfelt delivery, she called her record company, Rounder, the next day and urged them to sign him.
His debut album, “Crazy As Me,” was released Aug. 8 to immediate rave reviews, garnering a three-and-a-half rating from The Tennessean in Nashville. Critics and fans like what they hear – honest songs sung from the voice of experience.
“We took our time on it,” Castleman said recently. “After you do this stuff a lot of different ways, I mean, I’ve done production deals before, gone down to Muscle Shoals and had big-name producers, but they would do things their way. I would go along with it, but none of it ever worked, so you get to the point where you say, ‘Well, let’s see what happens if we do it a different way or the way I think it should be done.’
“Pat (Bergeson, who co-produced the album) knows this business inside and out; I’ve known him going on 20 years. He’s a great musician and a great producer, knows how to make a record. He knew the exact, correct musicians to play on the record. He got them. That record is my life, for real.”
The son of a career military man, Castleman moved from his hometown of Martinsburg, W.Va., to Los Angeles in the 1970s to seek his niche.
“I always wanted to be in music,” he said, “but it was a question of how to get in it, because you can take a lot of different paths and most of them lead nowhere, but you have to take them anyway.
“When I first came to Nashville in 1979, they told me I was 10 years ahead of my time, so I moved back down here after living in New England. We lived in Connecticut so we could be close to New York City; I had a band back then and we used to play in the Village at the Bitter End all the time. I moved back to Nashville in ’89, and they told me I was 10 years ahead of time. I had all kinds of labels turning me down left and right.”
Unwilling to compromise his sound for Music Row’s catered whims, he followed a piece of wisdom offered by Waylon Jennings in a TV interview.
“He said, ‘Be tenacious and do what you do. Don’t ever change what you do for the sake of pleasing somebody else,’ ” Castleman said. “I said to hell with it, if I can’t do it my way, then I guess I’ll just go drive a truck.
“I enjoy truckin’, and that’s the reason I got into it. It’s a long, lonely road, and it leads to a lot of inspiration. You get out there in the desert someplace, and there you are, just the sky and nobody else around. It gives you time to ponder things and miss people and reflect on the times.”
Then came Krauss’ birthday party. Now people are wondering what it takes to get the likes of “Nobody Said That (It Would Be Easy),” “Like Red On a Rose” or “Crazy As Me” some airplay.
“Fortunately, there are people out there who love the way I do it and I’m getting some great reviews. I’m trying to figure out how to get it nominated for a Grammy,” Castleman said, with a laugh. “It’s just a question of getting it heard, and it’s going to have to be word of mouth.”
Castleman, whose songs have been recorded by Krauss, Suzy Bogguss, Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins, is in store for more exposure. His “Crazy As Me” track, “Stay Here,” is being cut by Alan Jackson for his next Arista album.
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I don’t know if I ever bought one. I was never a fan of groups, per se. The first record I remember listening to was records Mom and Dad had. She would listen to Eddy Arnold, and he liked Tex Ritter and Tennessee Ernie Ford. I went through the ’60s stuff and loved it. I’m just a fan of great songs.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “It was probably back in 1993, a Paul McCartney concert in Memphis that I got free tickets to. I’m not an avid concertgoer. I just didn’t like the crowds. There were artists I would’ve liked to have seen, but when you’re raised in a small town, there’s nowhere to go for a concert when you’re a kid. Not only that, you don’t have the spending money. You bought your eight-track tapes and played them.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “(Calling to his wife) Melanie, what’s the last CD I bought? Answer it honestly. She’s never seen me buy one. I bought a box of mine the other day; I purchased them from the record company so I can sell them at the concerts. Does that count? (laughing).”