Spotlight: Casey Donahew Band
Casey Donahew knows getting ahead is all about standing out.
“People have so many choices on where to spend their money,” the Fort Worth native says. “You’ve got to separate yourself in this economy. Some people are in the singer-songwriter business, but we’re in the entertainment business.” Evidence: The Casey Donahew Band’s Moving On. The dynamic outfit’s self-released fourth album, a vibrant collection matching eternally restless anthems against engaging narratives, rattles and rolls and rumbles like a youthful Robert Earl Keen fronting Reckless Kelly. Lone Star idealism links kindred spirits.
Key difference: Donahew’s swift ascent could shade a fringe hero green. Nine weeks after its Labor Day debut, Moving On had sold nearly 13,000 copies. “Man, it’s overwhelming,” Donahew says. “We debuted at No. 28 on Billboard and something like No. 9 on iTunes. We set out with the goal to hit Billboard, but we didn’t know how realistic it was. We’re just a small band doing it out of Fort Worth, Texas. Maybe it’s a matter of timing.”
The 32-year-old crafts songs full of a broad swatch of unrepentant individualists on Moving On. They demand attention across the board. Donahew’s steely protagonists at once open hearts (“Next Time”) and slam doors (“Nowhere Fast”). They spit defiance in a storm (“Burn This House Down”). Each wistful outsider (“Strong Enough”) eventually sinks into dreams (“California”). At peaks, hope fuels characters who swap shades like mood rings (“Angel”). Ultimately, lonesome highways fan wayward desires (“Broken”), but they ribbon homeward nonetheless (“Let Me Love You”). Recall early Jack Ingram. Like the Woodlands native, Donahew’s blistering coming-of-age vignettes resonate deeply with an everyman’s grace. “It’s been amazing watching Casey’s fan base grow over the last few years,” Amarillo-born singer-songwriter Kevin Fowler says. “It’s the young up-and-comers like him that keep Texas music alive and thriving.”
Not to mention striving. Donahew clearly repurposes Scott Copeland’s “Ramblin’ Kind” as his band’s unifying directive. “I’m on a Greyhound bus, rolling hard and fast/Looking at the world through the bottom of a glass,” he sings over ornery rock guitars strumming against spiky fiddles. “It’s a good thing I’ve got this photographic mind/Because I’m just your ramblin’ kind.”
Five years ago, the subtle hybrid began taking shape. It developed swiftly: The Casey Donahew Band poured its foundation (2006’s Lost Days), fortified its structure (2006’s self-titled collection) and enlivened façades (2008’s Live-Raw-Real in the Ville) with serious velocity. Along the way, Donahew graduated from sparse solo gigs at Fort Worth’s dingy Thirsty Armadillo to overflowing full-band slots — featuring John Zaskoda (guitar), Josh Moore (fiddle), Steve Stone (bass) and Donte Gates (drums) — at its neighboring honky-tonk Taj Mahal, Billy Bob’s Texas.
“It wasn’t until he played here a few times that we found out [Casey’s] dad went to high school with Billy,” says Billy Bob’s Texas co- owner Pam Minick. “We fell in love with his performance.” Now, the band’s live shows — electrifying hootenannies that combust already enthusiastic beer hall crowds — are burgeoning legend at the venerable venue. “We really feed off the crowd,” Donahew says. “More than anything, the live show has made our fan base.”
“Casey is a man on a mission,” says Kevin McCoy, program director at Fort Worth’s taste-making radio station KFWR-FM (The Ranch). “One Friday night, I escorted a few of the suits to Billy Bob’s to see for themselves. There was a sight to behold: a packed house singing every word to every song and a line to buy his merchandise that stretched around the building. Seeing my guests hold up their cell phones so their superiors back in Nashville and Los Angeles could hear for themselves was a moment I won’t soon forget.”
The savvy songwriter recently parlayed that industry interest into a signing with Thirty Tigers, a Nashville-based distribution, marketing and management firm. (“We used to hand-deliver to Hastings,” Donahew says, “or whatever mom-and-pop record store would sell our records.”) Enter Billboard success. “I haven’t seen someone grow quite as fast,” says Thirty Tigers president David Macias. “I think [charting] is quite an accomplishment, but I’m more proud that we’re helping Casey and [his wife and man- ager] Melinda run a very successful business that they own.”
Donahew and his wife know Music Row regularly eats its young. Stars shoot and fade. Accordingly, the couple’s Almost Country Entertainment label remains both an anchor and a life preserver for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve got friends who are very unhappy with their record deals,” he says. “They get stifled. I chose to do it the way I’ve done it because the days of selling 10 million records are over. No sales records will be broken. It’s just not gonna happen.”
Conversely, there’s probably never been a better time for building a modest but still very enviable audience by taking the DIY route. Donahew seems to have no intentions of swaying from the road that’s carried him this far. “I had some people tell me when we got going to do everything yourself until it’s absolutely impossible to not do it yourself anymore,” Donahew says. “And we’ve stuck with that philosophy.”