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Old Friends

The summer before my freshman year in high school our family moved...  to the greatest neighborhood of all time.  I was surrounded by friends for the first time in my life.  David, Joel, Larry, Kevin, Barry, Roddy, Todd, and Jeff were just a few houses away.  And Bill was only a short bike ride across Powers Ferry.  My best friend Mike lived a few miles away, but close enough to be part of the tribe.  We played pickup basketball at Kevin’s house although we had dunk contests at Joel’s house because he had a rim we could lower.  We had BB Gun battles at David’s house (two pump max).  I played drums with Roddy at his house and surprisingly his parents never got mad.  My first band started on Bill’s front porch.  Bill on trumpet, David on trumpet, and I played snare drum.  We played the music of KISS and sounded awesome...  NOT.  We lived about a mile from my high school, so on football Friday nights, friends would come to my house and we’d walk to the game together.  I have a stockpile of favorite memories from that neighborhood and group of friends to last my lifetime.  

Ben Rector is a singer songwriter, originally from Oklahoma and now living in Nashville.  I recently found one of his songs called “Old Friends.”  Actually, it was a video of the song. It was filmed in the garage of the house he grew up in and performed in the video by his high school band mates.    The chorus sings


Can you take me back when we were just kids
Who weren't scared of getting older
'Cause no one knows you like they know you, and no one probably ever will
You can grow up, make new ones, but truth is there's nothing like old friends 
'Cause you can't make old friends


While listening, I was immediately transported to my old neighborhood and a thousand plus nights of flashlight tag, talking about girls, and dreaming big with the boys.  I could see the faces and hear the voices of my old friends.  As I watched the video and let the song soak in my heart, I was smiling and crying at the same time.  I was sad that those days are over, but grateful to have experienced them. It’s a powerful thing when 4 minutes of words and music from a complete stranger can resonate so deeply in your soul that you are compelled to tell as many people as possible.    

At the end of the video, Ben encourages the viewer to go and call old friends… so, I did.  I reached out and got caught up on children, careers, health, and parents.  Good memories are intoxicating.  Talking with old friends that share your history is like that worn out t-shirt that feels better than anything else in the closet.

For a brief moment that night I was 14 years old again.  Listening to music, talking to my buds, laughing and dreaming of tomorrow.  Thanks, Ben Rector.  A song can change your life.  “Old Friends” changed mine.  james

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Good Good Father

I’ve been to a lot of funerals. Friends, family, associates, some expected, many unexpected. I rarely remember words that are spoken at these events, but I often remember the music. Songs that will forever connect me to the emotion, the space, the faces. About a year ago, a young girl in our neighborhood died in a car wreck. When young people die, it seems the heartache is deeper than normal and the reach of that heartache goes farther. I remember the memorial service vividly. The church was full, overflowing. People were sitting on the floor, on window sills, outside the doors, anywhere within proximity. They just wanted to be included.  To hurt together. To be together.  We sang the Chris Tomlin song “Good, Good Father” written by Pat Barrett and Tony Brown.  It was as if a tidal wave engulfed us, washing over us in a heaven meets earth collision.  We sang our hearts out. We sang our heartache out. Everyone.  The believer and the unbeliever.  We didn’t care if we were off key. We didn’t care if we didn’t look cool. We didn’t care if the person next to us heard us or thought we were weird. We just sang. And we cried as we sang. At one point, I stopped to listen. Several thousand, hurting people singing out their pain, hope, doubt, sorrow, and joy.  There is no other sound like that.  It’s intoxicating and overwhelming.

This morning, over a year later, I heard “Good, Good Father” and was immediately transported to the moment we said goodbye to a young lady with a big life in front of her.  And another tidal wave engulfed me. 


GOOD, GOOD FATHER by Pat Barrett & Tony Brown

I've heard a thousand stories of what they think you're like
But I've heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
And you tell me that you're pleased
And that I'm never alone

You're a good good father
It's who you are, it's who you are, it's who you are
And I'm loved by you
It's who I am, it's who I am, it's who I am

I've seen many searching for answers far and wide
But I know we're all searching
For answers only you provide
'Cause you know just what we need
Before we say a word

You're a good good father
It's who you are, it's who you are, it's who you are
And I'm loved by you
It's who I am, it's who I am, it's who I am

Because you are perfect in all of your ways
You are perfect in all of your ways
You are perfect in all of your ways to us

You are…




Have you ever been scared?  I mean REALLY scared?  I think everyone has.  I remember making a decision to leave my home, my job, my friends, everything familiar to me to follow a dream.  The day I drove out of Atlanta, my hands were shaking and I started to wonder if I should turn back. Then, a song came on the radio by Steven Curtis Chapman called “Burn the Ships.”  A nod to the idea that if we are truly committed to our plan A, then Plan B is useless, so we might as well burn the ships.

As I drove up the highway, the lyrics took root in my heart.  Soon, my fear was replaced by excitement.  It was the right song for me at the right time.  As if heaven itself had sent me a message to keep moving forward, don’t look back, and trust the vision.  Music can be such a powerful force for good, for hope, for encouragement, and even for defending our hearts against fear. 

I will forever believe a song can change your life.


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The Story Isn't Over

My first trip to Nashville was in the fall of 2001. I had an audition at the Bluebird Cafe for an opportunity to perform at their Sunday Night Showcase.  It was a :60 audition and was limited to the first 90 people who called in on a single phone line. A land line at that. The odds of me getting through when thousands of aspiring songwriters were calling in all over America were, well, kind of hopeless. I had a real job at the time and remember speed dialing with a phone in each hand. Busy signal. Busy signal. Busy signal. Busy signal.  It really was hopeless. And just before I gave up, suddenly I got through! And just like that, the course of my life changed forever.

I drove into Music City on a Sunday morning. I was a little early and happened to have a bit of a scratchy throat. With very little live singing experience, I relied on my memory of what “real” singers do to help their voices. They drink hot tea and lemon. About ¼ mile from the Bluebird was a Starbuck’s. I had never been to a Starbuck’s before. I knew they sold coffee but I was guessing they had tea as well. I walked in, stepped to the counter and asked for hot tea. The attendant pulled out a briefcase with dozens of tea bags and asked “what kind of hot tea, sir?” Like a deer in headlights I froze. I had no idea there were choices when it came to hot tea. I told her to give me the most normal tea available. She looked highly disappointed in my answer and began the tea process.

A few minutes later, I was handed a travel cup and space age lid with a convenient hole on the edge, I assumed, for sipping while driving. This would be perfect as I headed to my audition. My first big songwriter audition and my first ever hot tea while driving. I was so ridiculously cool. 

I had never sipped hot tea while driving before and after my first large gulp, I wondered why there wasn’t a label on the side of the cup that read “WARNING: YOU ARE DRINKING LAVA FROM THE SUN!”  I burned my tongue! Sizzled! Fried! OUCH!!! It began to swell and I had no idea what to do. It was chilly outside so I rolled down my window and stuck my head out with my tongue extended to cool the fire. I was no longer cool, literally or figuratively, especially when I realized that enunciating words was going to be the challenge of the day.

I pulled up to the Bluebird and there was already a line of 70 or so songwriters, each with normal tongues. They wore cool jeans with rips and holes in them. They had tattoos and backpack guitar cases. I had a 75-lb. piano and a pleated Dockers.  People would try to talk to me but when they couldn’t understand a word I was saying with the virtual sock in my mouth, they quickly smiled and turned to the next guy.

As I got to the door, the host told me I was the first and possibly only piano player so go ahead, set up and place my piano against the back of the stage. When my name was called, I could simply slide it forward and begin. After all, they had 90 musicians to get through quickly. I setup and then hid in the corner with my tongue in a cup of ice. Surprisingly, no on sat near me.

Soon, I heard “James Casto, please begin.” Nervously, I jumped on stage and began to slide my piano forward. Sometime during my tongue ice bath, another piano player had set up his gear. The first time I saw it was when it was falling to the floor as I slid mine forward. Yep, I knocked it over. A roomful of 90 songwriters became totally silent… except for one lone voice from the back of the room. “My piano! Nooooo!!” He came running forward and then crawled around the stage on all fours trying to put pieces of his piano back together. I attempted to apologize but let’s face it, he couldn’t understand me either. And then a voice came over the PA, “James, please begin.” So, there I was. Swollen tongue and an adult crying at my feel. This couldn’t get worse. In my haste to begin, I failed to move the mic stand close enough for people to hear me, so I had to lean over my piano to get my mouth close enough to the mic. As I leaned, my chest kept kitting the keyboard. Did you know that it’s difficult to play piano with your chest? Ladies and gentlemen, this audition was as ugly as it sounds. Swollen tongue. Crying adult at my feel. And my chest hitting the piano. Each morning I wake up thanking God that YouTube wasn’t around in 2001.

On my drive from Nashville back to Atlanta, I called my wife and told her I was done with music. I gave it a try and failed. I mentally inventoried all my music gear and figured if I sold it all, I’d have enough to start a hobby. Maybe stamp collecting or bird watching or creating instructional videos for new hot tea drinkers. 

Around Chattanooga I saw a rabbit near the highway and I remembered words from my second-grade teacher during my disastrous acting debut as Peter Cottontail in front of the whole elementary school. You see, my bunny feet came out from underneath me and my basket of candy eggs and jelly beans flew everywhere. I caused a near riot as 200 elementary school children charged the stage for free candy disrupting the play and destroying the cardboard bunny trail. I was flat on my back staring at the ceiling while my second-grade life flashed before my eyes. So, this is how it was all going to end? And then my teacher walked over to me, looked down, peered through my whiskers and shouted “James, get up!!

The story isn’t over yet!!”

A few weeks after my Bluebird audition, I got a letter in the mail informing me I had passed and was accepted to perform at the Sunday Night Showcase. What?!! Surely this was a mistake. Had they simply felt sorry for me? Or did they think I was actually a comedian songwriter?  Whatever the reason, I jumped on the opportunity and my life has never been the same. 

You see, the story wasn’t over.  Despite my best efforts to declare it as such, my story simply wasn’t over. And neither is yours! As long as there is breath in our lungs, the story continues. And the great thing is that we have the ability to write the next chapter. We have the choice to include kindness, extreme generosity, courage, laughing at ourselves, lots of love, and relentless hope….even when things look hopeless.

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Sunshine and Rain


Sunshine and Rain

Many years ago, I was driving my Honda CRX near Emory University in Atlanta.  Approaching the stoplight near Everybody’s Pizza, a solo piano intro with synth pads flowed out of my car radio like mist coming off the street after a summer rainstorm. And then a machine-like drum groove kicked in. I stopped my car. I stared at the radio.  Yeah, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Bruce Hornsby’s “Every Little Kiss.” It was emotional. I felt the heartache of separation described in the song, but I also felt rising joy in his piano solos throughout the recording. I was trying to soak up every note, every word, looking for a rewind button on my dashboard. It was going by too fast. What was I listening to? Who was this guy!? 

To this day, I’m not sure where I was driving, but I know I never made it to my intended destination. Instead, I drove to the record store… yep, a store with records (for all of you under the age of 40), and bought my first Bruce Hornsby cassette (yes, music from a plastic container with tape inside).  I stayed up all night listening to every song on that album, over and over. I’d listen for a while, then go to my piano and try to mimic what I had just heard. THAT is how I wanted to play piano. THAT is how I wanted to write songs.

If you know Bruce Hornsby’s story about breaking into the music business, you know how so many well-meaning people tried to change his sound to adapt to the “marketplace.” In the end, it was a demo recorded HIS way that got him signed. Essentially a piano and a drum machine. Just like the beginning of “Every Little Kiss.” Bruce Hornsby listened to his gut, his instincts, and that’s what lifted his career.

A friend of mine once described Hornsby’s music as sunshine and rain. Yeah, that feels about right. Come to think of it, it was raining on the summer day I heard “Every Little Kiss” and with that first note, it felt like the sun broke through. Sure, it’s just a song, but a song can change your life. - james



Vince Gill

Years ago, I saw Vince Gill at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. Tennessee. I sat within five feet of him. Close enough to reach out and shake his hand, but I didn’t. He was a legend and I was an amateur songwriter that felt unworthy to be within such proximity of greatness. I felt like any second someone was going to come along and ask me to leave. “Excuse me sir, but that chair is reserved for celebrities or you know, important people. You’ll need to leave immediately.” My fears were slightly relieved when the lights went down and the show started. I was safe for now.

It was a songwriters round, as per usual at the Bluebird. Four songwriters sitting in a circle. Playing hit songs and telling well-crafted stories. Each song was perfect. I remember thinking I should give up songwriting because I could never write at the level I was hearing. Towards the end of the show, Vince Gill sang “Go Rest High On That Mountain” and my life changed. It was a song he had written for his brother’s funeral. I’m sure he had sung it a million times. But on this night, he became transparent, emotional and affected by his own words. He was reliving the pain from which that song came and I saw the tears form in his eyes and fall to his lap from my courtside seat. It was a powerful and vulnerable moment. I actually felt like I was intruding on a private conversation and that I should quietly excuse myself and leave. I remember a brief pause at the end of the performance. The moment was so sacred, we weren’t sure if we should interrupt it with applause. And then we did. With grown men pretending their allergies were acting up and women checking to see how much mascara had been wept away, we applauded. We hurt for Vince because he had shown us his broken heart. And we hurt for ourselves because if you’ve lived long enough, you have felt sorrow. And that song triggered our memories. The kind of sorrow that rings true in “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”

A song had changed my life. Driving home that evening, I was obsessed with the idea of duplicating the experience in some form or fashion for my friends in Atlanta and strangers around the country. I’m not talking about just inviting a few songwriters and sitting in a circle and swapping songs. No, I wanted to create a continuum of powerful moments that could change the lives of people everywhere. I wasn’t totally sure how to do it, but I knew I had to simply start... so I did.

In April of 2007, in Milton, Georgia at Scottsdale Farms Landscape Company and Nursery, Home By Dark, simply started.  -  james