"As long as you don’t feel that you know it all, there’s still plenty of room to grow."
By Eric Schelkopf
Photo: Tommy Castro and The Painkillers
Not many musicians can say they have received the coveted B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award three times in their career. Tommy Castro can. He took home the award last year for a third time following previous wins in 2010 and 2008. Along with receiving the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award during last year’s Blues Foundation ceremony, he also received album of the year for his album “Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came to Town” as well as band of the year with his band The Painkillers. Castro has been releasing albums on Chicago-based label Alligator Records since 2009. The San Francisco musician will perform March 26, 2023 at The Venue, 21 S. Broadway Ave. in downtown Aurora. Tickets are available at themusicvenue.org. On March 27, Castro will perform at Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston. Tickets are available at evanstonspace.com. I had the chance to talk to Castro about his career.
Q – Last year, you received – for the third time in your career no less – the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award. How does it feel receiving the award three times in your career? Well, I have to admit I was truly surprised that I won. I thought it was great that I was nominated, but I had already won it twice and there were a lot of very deserving people in this category. I really didn’t expect to win that. I was happy that the band received the band of the year award. And I thought that we had a good album on our hands. Now it’s another spring touring season and we’re just going to go out and have some fun. Q – And you also received the BMA for album of the year for your latest album, “Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came to Town.” What was your idea for the album and did it live up to you expectations?
Oh, it totally exceeded my expectations. I was excited to work with Tom Hambridge. This was the first time we worked together. He’s a pretty big deal in the blues world. He works with Buddy Guy and a lot of the bigger names in the blues genre. He’s made records with a lot of my heroes. So I just thought it was time for us to get together. I had expected it was going to be a good record and as time went on, everything started to fall together, the songs and the concept.
It’s really hard to be objective about my own work, but I could tell that it was basically what I had set to do and it all worked out. It kind of outdid my expectations, including the way it was received by the industry and the fans.
It sounded really good and all those songs worked. And the sequence of the songs worked out. That was the tricky part, because you’re telling a story, but you also need to have a flow to the material on a record. You want to start out strong and you want to take the listener for a ride. It’s been a while since that has been out and I’m thinking about what we’re going to do next. Q – I know the story is not about you, but is based on your past experiences. Yeah, listening to stories backstage from blues guys that I got to know over the years, young and old. Everybody’s got stories. When musicians hang out, that’s all they do. They tell stories from the road and different people they’ve played with. You get a lot of good stories. Q – Did it feel strange not having your band, The Painkillers, playing on the album? Yeah, a little bit. But I was following the lead of a producer who is very successful and I wanted him to do what he does. He makes records on a regular basis with a certain stable of musicians. And they know how to get things done in a certain way. They have a formula that works. I explained it to the band and they understood. And then we put a track at the end of the album with all of those guys. So at least they got some credit on the album.
Q – As far as your music, what have you tried to do to set yourself apart from other musicians? You still work on your guitar technique every day, as I understand it. Well, the world of guitar is so advanced now. When I started out playing blues guitar, I had a very simple approach to it. The less refined and the less slick the music is, the more I like it. The guys who are my heroes had a real simple approach to the blues. Over the years, blues guitarists keep raising the bar. And I keep practicing. I like to add to my skill set and I want to be able to play something different, just to keep myself interested. And that keeps me young. As long as you don’t feel that you know it all, there’s still plenty of room to grow. Q – Talking about age, you’re 67 years old. Buddy Guy is 86 years old and is performing on his last tour, so he says. Do you have another 19 years left in you? Oh, hell yeah. I take good care of myself. I lived a little harder lifestyle when I was young. At some point, I realized I wasn’t going to last much longer if I didn’t change my ways. I have a plan to still kind of work my career a little bit, to take it a little further. It seems strange to be doing that at 67, but it’s just how I’m wired.
Q – That’s refreshing that you’re still open to new challenges. So when you call it quits, who do you see helping keep the blues alive? Oh, there’s so many great young players out there. Christone "Kingfish" Ingram is doing a great job. Danielle Nicole has an incredible voice. Gabe Stillman is an amazing young player. David Julia is making a name for himself. There’s just no shortage of great young guitar players. Jontavious Willis, he’s a country blues player, and there’s just not enough of those guys around any more. I think he’s in his 20s and he’s an amazing talent. I’m not worried about the future of the blues at all.
About the author: Eric Schelkopf has covered the arts and entertainment scene in Chicago for over 30 years. Visit his informative blog at: http://www.thetotalscene.blogspot.com/