“Music has been a big part of my life, my entire life,” says Texas musician J. R. Castillo. While a lot of artists can say the same, the influence of music on Castillo’s life began years before he was born.
When Castillo’s father was a boy, he idolized his brother who was nine years older and in the Navy. Castillo’s uncle would come home on leave from the Navy and play guitar on the front porch, and Castillo’s father aspired to play just like his older brother. Tragically, his uncle lost his life serving in the Navy and his father—now the oldest son and responsible for his family—never learned to play like he wanted.
“As he got older [my father] said, ‘If I ever have a son, I want to put a guitar in his hands and make sure he learns to play,’” Castillo says, and to honor the brother he lost, Castillo’s father put a guitar into his son’s hands at a very early age.
His mother also loved music. She encouraged him to sing and find harmonies as she introduced him to all kinds of music, and both his father and mother—a “closet poet” and “grammar queen,” respectively—encouraged their son to write. It was no surprise then when their son was fronting bands and performing his own music by the time he was 13.
With the bands he was in during middle and high school, Castillo would work his own original music into sets of well-known covers at parties and festivals, and the reaction was always very positive. “It always seemed that every time I’d announce, ‘Here’s a song that I wrote,’ it immediately drew people in, which caught my attention,” Castillo recalls. “I saw that people all the sudden weren’t just out there dancing and having a good time, their attention was on the song that I’d written. The reaction of those first few folks—they don’t realize it, the influence they had—as they were out there listening and giving me those words of encouragement after they heard the songs, it really encouraged me to continue with the song writing. It really set me on the path that I’m on today.”
Despite his early success, he didn’t immediately run off to Nashville to pursue a record deal; his family assumed that first he would get a college education, though they encouraged him to continue with his music while doing so. However, avoiding the temptation to quit college wasn’t easy when record labels started showing interest during his sophomore year.
“It kind of scared my folks a little bit, because they thought that I was just going to stop everything and pack my bags and move to Nashville. It just seemed like the right thing at that point in time.”
It was the advice of friend Casey Monahan at the Texas Music Office that persuaded him he could do both, a decision he’s happy with in retrospect: “I often look back at that moment and I know that it didn’t have as huge an impact. If I had moved over there, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I was still able to do everything they wanted us to do, but at the same time we were still able to take care of things at home and I was able to continue my education.”
Over the last 15 years—through his formative years, his time at the University of Texas, and up to the present day—Castillo has written over a thousand songs for himself and other artists, 25 percent of which are in Spanish. His songwriting strays from that of many other artists, as his music is often more specific and personal than other artists’ music.
“A lot of the stuff is based on life experiences and stuff that I’ve gone through, personal stories,” Castillo says of his songwriting. “I try to take actual stories and actual experiences and lay them out in that three and a half minute length of a song.”
For Castillo, the joy of songwriting isn’t in mass appeal, but connecting on a deeper, more-personal level with his listeners. “I want to write about real things,” he says. “It’s not so much about writing the basic love songs where everybody can relate. I want to write about stuff that people out there listening can actually hold on to and say, “That’s my song. That guy wrote that song about my life and what I’m going through.”
His latest single, “The Flip Side of Sober,” was released on July 4, and is apart of a full CD release entitled The Hombre that Castillo expects to be released in late September. Other songs on the 16-track album include the classic Leo Sayer hit, “More Than I Can Say” (one of his mother’s favorites), and unofficial Texas High School football anthem, “Any Given Friday.”
“Some of my fellow artists and writers are like, ‘Man you’re nuts. You’re the only one who would serve up that many songs in one project,’” Castillo remarks. “But hey, it’s music. I’m cranking it out. I feel blessed to be able to write as much as I do. It gives me an opportunity to share some of myself with the fans.”