Casey Prestwood Keeps It Real
by Adam Perry for Denver Westword 3/1/2017
Casey James Prestwood, veteran of Colorado country-rock band Drag the River and acclaimed Alabama emo group Hot Rod Circuit, is a country-music encyclopedia. Get him talking about legendary session musicians and he’ll spin a yarn the size of Texas. Discussing the earnest, emotional and sometimes downright depressing lyrics he sings over his backing band, the Burning Angels, however, doesn’t come so easily.
“I think I’ve kind of found a groove with when I should write and how I should write,” the Littleton resident says about his new album, Born Too Late, which drops in early March. “I lead a pretty happy life now. I’ve got a great wife and kids, and my band is awesome, so I kind of write when I’m down, because it feels like stuff’s more real. I pretty much keep it real in the songs story-wise, too. It’s almost always told from something that happened to me, so most of it is taken from earlier times, before I was settled down.”
For instance, “Jailbird,” from the new album, is about a family member who was incarcerated long-term and other references to Prestwood’s past, including somebody knocking his teeth out in Houston and spending time in jail himself.
“Sometimes you write a song because you’ve gotta get it out,” he explains.
On Prestwood’s first solo album, 2007’s The Hurtin’ Kind, he sang about being “passed out and kicked around” and “sleeping under the stars” — similar to the “blue, lonely and wasted” life he describes on Born Too Late, a crisp, lyrically deep and musically entrancing twelve-song trip through heartache and heavy drinking.
Prestwood’s most interesting recent travels include a month-long tour of Belgium, where, in true Johnny Cash style, the Burning Angels’ gigs included maximum-security prisons.
“About eighteen inmates came to see us, and they were, for lack of a better term, violent — serial killers and that sort of thing,” Prestwood says. “It was real clinical. They’re in the room with you, not shackled up or anything, and the guards didn’t have any weapons. They were real strange characters, but fascinating. We just did songs about prison and murder ballads.”
The bandmates — decked out as they almost always are in rhinestone suits made by the legendary Manuel Cuevas — played country gems about incarceration, such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Mama Tried.”
“The guy they call the Belgian Butcher, a big guy who was a schoolteacher and serial killer, he stood up while we were playing, and it kind of freaked me out,” Prestwood recalls. “He came up to me after and said, ‘Hey, man, great set. I really loved the tunes. Nobody really comes through here and does country music. But you guys don’t need to do “Folsom Prison” if you come back. Everybody who comes here plays that tune, no matter what kind of band they’re in. We’re sick of it.’
“I don’t think we’ve played it since,” Prestwood says of the song. “Maybe that’s the last time I’ll play it.”
Around the time the Burning Angels got together, in 2009, Prestwood — who has kept a side gig at Whole Foods for many years — thought maybe it was the last time he’d pursue a musical career. He says that bandmate Kevin Finn inspired him to keep going.
“Kevin was bugging me to get a band together, and I was kind of nestling in on my Whole Foods career, working up the ladder a little bit in that,” Prestwood says. “I’d cut my hair and was just, like, ‘Oh, man, I’m not gonna do band stuff like I used to when I was a kid.’ Really, if it weren’t for Kevin, I probably would’ve hung it up.”
Prestwood says it’s “wild” how many bandmembers have come and gone since the Burning Angels’ salad days, which are highlighted on a recent compilation disc called The Best of the Early Years. He calls Born Too Late “the most cohesive material I’ve written,” and bassist Jeffrey Martin seems equally pumped about the new record.
“Even though it was recorded in five cities, it all jells and sounds cohesive, like we did it as one session,” Martin says. “It features some of Casey’s best writing, and he’s really growing as a songwriter. The best is yet to come.”