I first met Chris Castle 10 years ago, on a hot June day in Ashland, Ohio. We sat outside of a coffee shop, sweating in the heat of the coffee and the sunshine. I was writing a profile of him for Cleveland Magazine, and we spent a great deal of time talking about writing.
At one point, Castle said that when he’s writing a song, it’s like he’s walking into a pitch-black warehouse, one where he can’t even see two inches in front of his face. He pulls out a flashlight and clicks on the beam, which shines deep into his brain. Whatever the beam lands on ends up being the idea, the hook of the song.
Then he examines whatever that beam has landed upon from every angle imaginable. He describes it as best as he can, and that becomes his chorus. And then he opens the beam up to see what is around his object and he looks for the relationship between his first object and the others. That’s the rest of the song, the verses.
Castle finally turned that flashlight back on. He’s just released his first new music in more than seven years, a six-song album titled Still Portrait of a Spinning Wheel.
The songs on this album are, in many ways, a return to the music Castle made on his first album, Hollow Bones and Monotone. They’re simple, at least in production. The music is just a guitar and harmonica, both played by Castle. The only voice you hear is Castle’s as well.
In so many ways, the production is raw, just like Hollow Bones, and that’s what makes it so good. Castle’s songs are always deep and emotional and thoughtful, and those traits are so much stronger when they are not drowned by heavy musical production.
What’s not simple about this album, though, are the songs themselves and the stories they tell. I think this might be why I’ve always loved Castle’s work — he is a gifted storyteller.
Still Portrait of a Spinning Wheel leads off with the song “Sam Falbo’s Blues.” Those who’ve listened to Castle before will know that he’s just shined his internal flashlight on something that has been stuck inside his brain since he was nine years old — the unexpected death of his father.
Whereas “Both Ends of a Gun,” which appears on Hollow Bones and Monotone, is Castle’s reflection of himself and the battles he faces because of his father’s death by suicide, “Sam Falbo’s Blues” is the story of a man in some ways like his father. Sam Falbo moves from Kentucky to Ohio as a young man. He’s a manual laborer, a man who meets a nice young woman, marries her and has kids. He’s worn down from a hard life, though, and ultimately gives up, his life ending in a car on the side of a road (this last thing is a similarity to the story in “Both Ends of a Gun”).
What makes this song so good (and not too heartbreakingly sad) is the fact it’s not about Sam Falbo’s death at all. It’s about the life he led. It’s about the good he did as much as anything. It ends sadly, but Castle makes sure that we aren’t so focused on a death that we forget about the life.
Every song on this album is fantastic. I won’t write about them all, but I do want to say something about the last song on the album — “Wooden Man/Six More Miles.” To me, this upbeat song is in many ways Castle’s claim that he’s finally back. He’s back to writing music, and not just any music, but the kind of music he loves, the kind that won’t always find a home with a mass audience, something he’s finally at home with.
“Six more miles,” he sings at the start of the song, “Run tell all my friends I’m home/ And I’ve been a long time gone.”
He has been gone a long time. But now Chris Castle is back, and anyone who likes solid roots, Americana music written and sung by an amazing storyteller should be excited.
(Note: I’ve written about Chris Castle quite a bit over the years, aside from the Cleveland Magazine piece in 2009. I wrote a piece on him for Inside Business Magazine when he opened Dirtsandwich, a combination store, recording studio and concert venue. That story is, unfortunately, no longer online. I wrote the forward to his book “A Street With a Very Short Name.” And I wrote a piece on him for a contest in 2017 that was never published that focuses on the way he has moved in and out of music over the years. It’s the end of that piece where I essentially predict that Castle will be back, although he came back much sooner than both he and I thought he would. I went ahead and self-published the piece after looking at it again. It’s not too bad.)