From the Who’s “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” to Green Day’s “American Idiot” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” the pop music world has produced more than its fair share of rock operas and concept albums.
But unless you count Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud” — a psychedelic blues project that producer Marshall Chess described as “a concept album like David Bowie being Ziggy Stardust” — blues artists have steered clear of all of that.
When Tommy Castro first hit upon the idea of writing and recording a blues opera — or, as he puts it, “sort of a blues opera” — he was surprised that no one had thought to do it before. Soon, the six-time Blues Music Award winner was in the studio with Nashville producer Tom Hambridge, co-writing and recording tracks like “Child Don’t Go,” “Women, Drugs and Alcohol” and “I Want to Go Back Home” for a concept album about an aspiring guitarist who leaves the family farm in search of success, gives in to the temptations of life on the road, and realizes that there is, in fact, no place like home.
“Tommy Castro Presents a Bluesman Came to Town” — which came out in September 2021 on Alligator Records and debuted at No. 2 on the “Billboard” magazine Blues Chart — may not have the most original plotline, but that wasn’t really the point.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be as epic as, you know, the Who’s ‘Tommy’ or ‘The Wall’ (by Pink Floyd) or ‘American Idiot,’ where people had giant recording budgets and all kinds of amazing creativity,” said the soulful singer and guitarist in a recent phone interview.
“But the idea of telling a story from the beginning to the end, that appealed to me. I kicked the idea around with the record label, and then I talked to my producer, who got really excited about the concept. So that’s how it came about, and then it was just a matter of doing it and hoping it was good.”
“A Bluesman Came to Town” is also a departure for Castro because his band The Painkillers doesn’t play on it. “I usually prefer to use my own band — I’ve done that on 18 out of 19 records — because they’re out on the road with me doing all the hard work,” said Castro. “But Tom Hambridge wanted to use his studio guys, and he’s kind of a big deal. He’s got a few Grammys under his belt, and he’s worked on the last few Buddy Guy albums, as well as with ZZ Top, George Thorogood, Johnny Winter and Joe Bonamassa, you know, a lot of people. So, I kind of followed his lead on this album.”
Now that music venues have reopened, Castro and the Painkillers have returned to the more than 150 shows per year schedule that the San Jose native has maintained for most of the past four decades. Along the way, he’s earned a loyal fan base as well as the respect of artists like John Lee Hooker, who did his final session on Castro’s “Guilty of Love” album. All of which still amazes him.
“Where I grew up was a notch or two below a working-class neighborhood, and nobody there was going to college or getting music lessons or any of that stuff,” said the self-taught guitarist, who spent his early years playing along to records by his favorite blues artists.
“I tend to like the slower guys — like Michael Bloomfield, B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters and Elmore James — because I could figure out what they were doing,” he said.
As time went on, Castro realized he was going to be making his living playing music. He tried taking guitar lessons and studied music theory. “But it was too late,” he said. “I’d already learned to play the way I did, and I couldn’t really switch over to the proper way of doing it.
“I still work on my guitar technique every day, trying to learn something new, even if it’s just some new licks,” said Castro. “But I’m no virtuoso, I’m no Bonamassa, I’m not that kind of guitarist. I’m more of a cross between John Lee Hooker and, I don’t know, Michael Bloomfield, maybe. Somewhere in there. I kind of just play the way I play, and it works for me, you know?”
Tommy Castro and the Painkillers
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18
WHERE: Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
COST: Tickets start at $44.50
INFO: 480-478-6000, mim.org