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Tommy Castro was looking for a challenge. So he created a Blues Opera

Tommy Castro (2nd from left) and the Painkillers
Tommy Castro
Tommy Castro, second from left, and the Painkillers. They play in Bloomington on Friday.

Avoiding repetition nearly 20 albums into a recording career was the challenge for Bluesman Tommy Castro when he wrote and produced what he calls a blues opera.

"Tommy Castro Presents A Bluesman Came to Town" is the fictional story of young man in a small town mesmerized by a traveling bluesman.

Ahead of his show in Bloomington Friday night, the Alligator Records recording artist told WGLT the idea came from a conversation with a friend.

“And I thought, you know, that's an idea,” explained Castro. “I don't think anybody's ever tried. And that would be a good challenge for me as a songwriter. Because every song is really a little story. And I have been meaning to work with Tom Hambridge for a long time. I thought it'd be a good time to bring out a really great record producer like Tom.”

Castro grew up in San Jose, a relatively big city, but made the young man in his story from a smaller town. He said he could relate because he had family in California’s Central Valley.

“My uncle was a dairy farmer, and my mother's family came from the rural, agricultural part of the state. So, I have some knowledge of that, and just some of the stories of the great blues men that I know. They all worked on a farm you know. B.B. King was behind a mule when he was 10 years old, working in fields and stuff like that. Part of his motivation to play was to get out of there, and find another way to make a living. So there's a lot of different stories that I draw from,” said Castro.

Castro says the rock opera is not autobiographical, but it’s obvious he drew from some of his own experiences, including the title track.

Must be a better way to use these hands and arms

Once he heard that guitar
It shook him to the ground
A bluesman came to town
He felt the tug
A bluesman came to town
He caught the bug

- From the song “A Bluesman Came to Town” by Tommy Castro

“My story is not exactly like that. But the same thing happened. I was exposed to the music, and it just changed me somehow. It gave me some purpose in life I didn't really have before. I really sucked at sports. And I wasn't a very good student, I couldn't concentrate. I felt like I had A.D.D. back then and they just didn't know what to call it. I didn't have anything that I felt good about myself, really, but I had a natural feel for the guitar. When I had a guitar in my hands, and I learned a few things. My peers and my friends around me thought I was really good at it. And so, I remember that was the thing that saved me,” said Castro.

Fair to say it changed your life?

“I just can't imagine what I would do and there was a point where I was so happy when I was on a gig playing music even when I was a part time, weekend warrior-type musician. I literally lived for those weekends, and band practice was even fun … just to get together with the guys after work on a weeknight and rehearse in somebody's garage. Just playing felt so good and the idea of putting everything I had into that and making it my life … you know … it worked out,” said Castro.

The blues opera is currently in album form only. Though he’s open to the idea of touring as an opera or musical or even movie if someone who knew how to pull it off, he said that’s not in his skill set.

“And I am not going to try and take on a project like that, because I've got my hands full with the full-time touring band. But I let it be known that if anybody comes along, that does do that sort of thing and knows how to do that sort of thing and most importantly has the funding to put something like that together. I'd be all over it,” said Castro.

Tommy Castro and the Painkillers play The Stable Music Hall & Lounge in Bloomington Friday night.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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