"America has voted and ... you will be moving on to the next round."
Week after week in early 2008, young blue-eyed, dreadlocked Texan Jason Castro waited to hear these words from American Idol host Ryan Seacrest. And until there were only three contestants left, he did. The first AI contestant to play a guitar and/or a ukulele on the show, Castro made it as far as third place before being bumped by the Davids (Cook, the winner, and Archuleta, the runner up). But considering how the musical careers of some past winners (ahem, Fantasia) and first runners-up (ahem, Justin Guarini) fall quickly into obscurity, coming in third on AI might be a blessing.
Castro, 22, has recently had time to think about his blessings--and his upcoming debut album--riding in a van, supporting Atlantic Records label-mate Matt Hires on the State Lines Tour 2010 that will take them to more than 30 smallish venues (including Reef here in Boise on Thursday, Feb. 11) across the United States by the end of this month.
During his time with American Idol, Castro toured the country with his cast mates, running from flight to flight, performing for screaming 'tweens. The down-home, aw-shucks demeanor that made Castro a popular contestant shouldn't be mistaken for gullibility, and he isn't resting his reputation on fleeting reality-TV fame. And though Castro is now out on his own in some respects, not sharing the stage with 11 other AI hopefuls, his appearances certainly gave him a leg up as well as a core audience: teens.
"In most of the cities, we play a high school in the morning and through the lunch hour ... sometimes we play three or four lunch hours ... I play two or three songs and then hang out and take pictures and sign autographs," Castro said. "It's like, 'Here's Jason Castro. Check him out.'"
Giddy teens aside, there's little doubt people go to his shows to lay eyes on a TV star, but Castro, who is working on his debut CD, is sure the novelty soon turns to a genuine appreciation of his music.
"That's definitely the case with anyone who comes off of American Idol," Castro said. "[The show] is an amazing experience and a cool way to throw your name out there, but ... I see it as a beginning. The career building is now.
"Now it's about my music. Before it was just about my voice. If you remember me, you come check out the music and hopefully get turned on to the music not just because, as you said, of the novelty, but because it's music you like and can take with you for life."
Taking Castro and his music on the road has no doubt been a beneficial experience for tour headliner Matt Hires. People may come to see Castro, but they hopefully stay to see Hires. However, the 24-year-old from Tampa, Fla., has been doing well on his own. Via his Myspace page, Hires came to the attention of Gregg Nadel, an A&R executive from Atlantic Records and, subsequently, Hires was the first act to be signed to Nadel's F-Stop Music, an imprint of Atlantic (on which Castro is signed). When he received an e-mail from Nadel expressing an interest in his music, Hires said he thought it was a joke.
"There's so many sketchy things on Myspace, I thought it was fake," Hires said. "So I called the number Gregg left, and it was Atlantic Records ... I forget who I called first [with the good news], but I'm sure it was either my parents or my girlfriend."
Even before he had an inked contract in hand, Hires had some experience on the road. But touring with Castro, singer/songwriter Caitlin Crosby (who was dating Chuck star Zachary Levi until early last month) and a full band backing him up, this is the first time as a solo artist that Hires has been on the road with this much support.
"Pretty much all of the touring I've done before was just me and the guitar ... now I have another guitarist, a bassist and a drummer on stage with me," Hires said. "That's new about this tour. And it's the longest I've been out ... I'm used to opening spots and playing for half an hour, now I play for an hour ... I'm still trying to find my place in that [dynamic]."
Hires' set list consists mainly of tunes from his successful debut release Take Us To The Start with the sweet, hooky single "Honey, Let Me Sing You A Song." But with other musicians to bounce things off of and someone else to drive the van, this tour has also afforded Hires a chance to try out new music, and he has been including a song that he wrote just a few weeks ago.
Regardless of what covers, reimagined versions of his own songs or even brand-new tunes he performs, Hires is beginning to see his fans follow right along.
"It's always awesome to see that. [Feb. 4] we played in Chicago and there were a lot of people singing along, which is cool," Hires said. "I think that was like the fifth time I've played in Chicago and it was good to see that I'm connecting with people."
Born and raised in Florida, Hires spent his formative years watching bands who played in St. Petersburg. As he and his tour mates wheel back and forth across the country performing small to mid-sized clubs, it's one stage he wouldn't mind being on someday.
"One place I haven't played at home isn't that big of a place," Hires said. "It's in St. Petersburg, and it's called the State Theatre. Growing up, all the bands I liked played there. I've seen so many good shows there. It's where a lot of my musical inspiration and early influences came from. I'm still very much looking forward to playing there some day," he added with a laugh.