R.L. CASTLEMAN: Perseverance Pays
RL Castleman is a Grammy-winning songwriter who lives in Nashville. He has had seven cuts with Allison Krauss, including “The Lucky One,” found on her album The New Favorite, which won a Grammy for “Best Country Song.” Caslteman also has four songs on Krauss’ latest release, a title track on Chet Atkins’s Sneakin’ Around album, and a cut on an Alan Jackson’s album When Somebody Loves You.
Tell me about writing your song, “The Lucky One.”
I was at a guitar workshop in 1984-David Smallridge’s guitar Camp in Connecticut. They study all styles of guitar playing. 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 where Allison recorded. When I was touring with Allison years later, around the year 2000, Buck had moved to Washington, DC. I called him and told him we were going to be playing at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia. He stopped by and handed me a cassette that had what he considered great old RL songs on it. I was listening to the cassette on the tour bus. When it came to the song “The Lucky One,” Alison asked, “What is that?” The rest is history. She changed it to 2nd person. I had originally sung it in the first person.
Did Allison take writing credit on the song since she changed it?
No, she doesn’t do that.
You wrote the song “Forget About It,” which Allison recorded a couple years earlier. Tell me about that song.
It was the title track for a previous album with Allison. I wrote “Forget About It” around 1985, maybe even earlier.
How did she hear that one?
Allison’s husband had a surprise birthday party for her around 1999. That was the first time I had ever met Allison. Of course, at the party, I stuck a guitar in my hand and that was one of the songs that I sang that night. She said she had to record that song! She also recorded “Let me Touch You for a While.”
What is the story behind “Let Me Touch You for a While”?
That song was also written in the ‘80s. Someone even had a live recording of that when I recorded it at the famed Bitter End in New York City back in the ‘80s. That song was also on that cassette I mentioned previously.
Your original connection with Allison was with her husband…right?
I met Pat Berguson (Allison’s future husband) in Connecticut at the Guitar Workshop, and we got to be friends. He said that we should put together a band and play the Bitter End. 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. I had a previous connection with Chet through an album that he had produced for Homer and Jethro called Songs My Mama Never Sang. Listening to Chet records was the inspiration for me to fingerpick a guitar. I brought that album up to Chet and Jethro, who was Chet’s brother-in-law. We hit it off. 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 I moved to Nashville in 1989. After I was here for a while, Chet recorded an instrumental song of mine called “Sneakin’ Around,” which was the title track of the album. It was the first cut I ever had. Chet and Jerry Reed did the song on the album. I had played a song for Pat Berguson. I took Pat to meet Chet. Pat ended up moving to town. He knew Allison’s brother, who hooked him up with Lyle Lovett. Pat ended up marrying Allison, which ended up with me getting my songs cut to begin with, which led to other success in the business.
You had those songs that were 20 years old and Allison cut them. Now she has a new CD. What has happened for you on her new CD?
She recorded “Restless,” which I wrote for her new CD called Lonely Runs Both Ways. Another song that I wrote called “Gravity” is also on the album. I wrote that song in ’90 or ’91. 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 like this, 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 6 a.m., picked up a guitar and came up with this thing. I wrote it in about maybe twenty minutes, made a guitar vocal and called her. She said she loved the song. She recorded that song on the album, making it a total of four cuts on the latest Allison Krauss CD! I went from one cut on an Allison CD, to two cuts on the next to now four songs on the current album. I guess that the next challenge for me with Allison is for her to do a complete record of Robert Lee Castleman songs [Laughter]! Her next CD will be great!
You have written these songs. You’ve played them. How did you end up pitching these songs to her?
“Restless” was on a CD that I gave her, and I told her to listen to a bunch of songs to see if there was anything that she liked. She called me up and said she had to have “Restless” and “Gravity.”
Did she help you get your record deal with Rounder a couple years ago?
Yea-that goes back to the night at her birthday party I mentioned. 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.
So then you had a record and she took you on a tour.
We had about thirty dates that I opened for her. It was her and I and a driver and a nanny to watch her little boy. Another bus had the road crew and the band. It was a barrel of laughs.
Can you tell me about writing a song or two, starting with “The Lucky One?”
It is just 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 have been told/free as the wind blowing down the road/loved by many, hated by none/You would say I am lucky if you know what I’d done.” He has a checkered past and has been lucky. One of the inspirations was from a movie. I like to watch movies and read books and get inspired to write. It did win a Grammy, so I am the lucky one.
What were you doing when you found out about the Grammy?
I was a OTR (Over The Road-Long Haul Trucker). I started driving in 1985 to put food on the table. It has taken me 50 some years to receive any accolades in the business.
When did you first hear the song on the radio?
I was sitting in my truck in Sevierville, Tennessee, with a load of scrap metal that I was getting ready to unload. The cell phone rang and it was Allison. 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 of Alabama to get to Sevierville. 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].
Did you ever have any other artists call you when you were on the road?
Alan Jackson called me one day to tell me he wanted to record a couple songs of mine. He recorded “Stay Here” and also “Kind of like a Rainbow,” from my record. He put “Stay Here” on his CD When Somebody Loves You.
What was your famous quote about your Grammy trophy?
Peter Cooper from the Tennessean asked me what I was going to do with the Grammy Award. I told him that will look good on the hood of my truck. You are not supposed to have a job after winning a Grammy, you know. If you have 18 Grammy’s like Allison, you really have to work hard at not working [Laughter].
Let’s talk about the new single, “Restless.”
I was in jail in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I had been arrested for public intoxication and drunk driving…spent the wonderful evening in jail. My first wife-to-be decided that she did not want to be my first wife after all. I became emotional…drowned my sorrows. 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. It was the first time that I had come up with a lyric without a guitar. I wrote the lyric for a simple music piece and added music later. I did a demo in Hagerstown, Maryland, and that is what she heard. That was written in around 1981.
How did you keep track of all these songs over the years?
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 from 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 I can whistle it, it’s good. I remember hanging with Chet Atkins one night in Nashville. We were at The Cockeyed Camel, a bar out on Highway 100 around Belle 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]
What advice would you give songwriters?
To always be tenacious…never give up chasing the dream. It is a great job if you can make a living at it. Reflect the times and places that you have been. That is hard to get away with at times. I never write a song about sailing on a battleship, because I do not have any experience with that particular thing. Einstein said to make things as simple as possible, but never simpler. Every line should be as strong as the one before and after. The DJ on the song cannot play the song back to explain the songs. If I write a song and it is not that great of a song, but there is one [good] line in the song, I will 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?” I hate direct things. If you notice, Allison very seldom cuts songs that talk about a specific times 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 ‘20s. She loves to be obscure, not current. She will not talk about computers, caller ID…she changed a line in one of my songs that mentioned caller ID.
When you are writing songs, do you ever write one and say “This is an Allison song?”
I know her voice so well, and I can put her voice to my song and hear her singing it. I know her phrasing, what she likes and does not like and I know how to channel it to her. She may not like [a particular] song, but she will listen to my songs, which is great.