When the Casey Donahew Band filmed their boisterous music video for “Double Wide Dream,” there were no stunt doubles. In other words, that really is Donahew getting tackled by the cops, who are also his friends.
“The first take just took the air out of me,” he recalls, now smiling at the memory. “Then they did the handcuffing part where I was on the ground and they must have thought I had robbed Billy Bob’s or something. Just a knee to the middle of the back. The handcuffs were tight, and I couldn’t move. I’ve never been arrested, but I’m guessing that’s how it goes.”
Of course, like all aspiring Texas singer-songwriters, there was definitely a time when Donahew couldn’t get arrested on the music scene. Ten years following his first show in Fort Worth, however, Donahew is one of the state’s top draws. And rather than robbing Billy Bob’s Texas, the Fort Worth venue known as “the world’s largest honky-tonk,” the Casey Donahew Band manage to sell it out.
During a brief trip to Nashville, the Burleson, Texas, native took a few minutes to chat about his humble beginnings, the heroes that inspired him and the job he’d never want to go back to.
CMT: I can imagine “Double Wide Dream” goes over well in your live show.
Donahew: Yeah, it’s right in my wheelhouse of subject matter. You can only write a song about how broken your heart is so many times before you start overlapping. There’s entertainment value in what we do, and we’re not trying to change the world like the Beatles or anything. We’re trying to have a good time and make people happy. Even if you do have a lot of problems and you’re looking for something, then maybe you’re looking for 90 minutes where you can check out of those problems and think, “Wow, I had a good time.”
I read that you got your start at the Thirsty Armadillo in Fort Worth. For someone who’s never been there, how would you describe it to them?
You know, now there’s a new one. The original one is a tattoo shop, and it’s kind of catty-corner across the street from Billy Bob’s. It was a little, smoky, 80-person bar. One little bitty stage up in the front, one pool table, was all that would fit up in the corner. One bar, one bathroom. It was the place where I really started to get into the Texas music scene. It was one of the first places that was playing it. You’d see Jason Boland come through there, and Stoney LaRue was just starting to come in and Randy Rogers would play.
What was your set list like back then?
I started out doing original music. I think the first show I did was an acoustic show. I had to do like 45 minutes, and I think I had six or seven songs. So I did my six songs and then I mixed in some Pat Green tunes, I think a Robert Earl Keen song and a Jason Boland song, too.
At what point did you start to write songs?
I started writing in high school. We’ll go back to the heartbreaks. The first time you get your heart broken, I think that inspires some music. I thought of them as songs, but I couldn’t really play the guitar back then, so it was more of a melody and a passion and putting that together. And when I first got to college at Texas A&M, my roommate played guitar. I had dabbled trying to play guitar, and my grandpa played guitar, and it never stuck. But when my roommate played, I got the itch again. I went back to my grandpa, he gave me an old guitar and I started teaching myself the chords.
Why was it important for you to develop that talent, instead of just singing cover songs?
I’ve always been passionate about music and especially storytellers. One of my favorites was Mike McClure from the Great Divide. I think Oklahoma artists think that he’s like their Pat Green. Texas guys had Pat Green and Oklahoma had the Great Divide. Mike McClure’s one of those guys that could really tell a story, and Pat did a great job, too. Those guys that could tell a story — the Robert Earl Keens of the world. Even Garth Brooks, right out of Stillwater, Okla., is one of my favorite guys. I aspired to be someone who could tell a story with words like that.
At what point did you quit your day job and just pursue this full time?
My wife and I both quit our regular jobs in 2008, maybe at the end of 2007. After college, I taught school for a year. I was a math teacher for freshmen, which was the most horrifying job I’ve ever experienced. … I did that for a year. I was still doing rodeo a lot and thought it would be a great way to ride horses in the evening and have summers off. I did that for a year, and I could tell after two days that [teaching] was not a profession I was going to excel in. So I moved on and got into construction and sales for about a year. I got the opportunity to buy out this small company, so I bought it and ran it until 2008. My wife worked at a law firm as a receptionist that whole time. So, in 2008, it finally got to where our music income had exceeded [our day jobs], and there just wasn’t time for us to do both. So we made a choice to give it all in to music.
When someone sees your show, what do you hope they’ll take away from that experience?
I hope they leave and say, “I’ve got to come back and see that.” That’s my ultimate goal, and that’s how we started. We were never a band that had a big machine behind us. … When we started this band, it was always like, “Well, if the radio won’t support us, we have to support ourselves.” So when people come see us, we have to give them more. More than what they expected. More than what they’re used to. We always try to put on a show that has a lot of energy in it and a lot of crowd interaction. I think the songs are the variety where people want to sing along, so we try to encourage that interaction. We try to be so good onstage where they have to come back and they tell their friends. That’s how we made our name and that’s what we continue to do — just get onstage and give it all we’ve got.