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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