Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire are prepping for the upcoming release of their new album. It’s titled Fresh Pickles. But first, for those not yet familiar with the act in question, a bit o’ background.
Chris Castino is an American singer-songwriter and musician and frontman for the Minnesota-based rock jam band known as The Big Wu. His rockin’ resume also includes extensive touring, several previous platters with The Big WU, and his 2020 debut solo outing named Brazil.
Castino’s signature sound is a musical mix of multiple music genres including Americana, blues, folk, rock, and (especially) now bluegrass. According to a recent e-missive, his interest in bluegrass was actually “cultivated by his father, a professional singer of standards, who was captivated by that plaintive, lonesome vocal style.” Castino confirms he learned about the genre “from the weekly dose of bluegrass served, like some foreign cuisine to the northern city folk of Minneapolis who knew not the traditions of the southern hill folk, by host Phil Nussbaum and his 35+ years long-running radio show ‘Bluegrass Saturday Morning’ on local community radio.”
His inspirations come from a number of sources including The Grateful Dead and Phish. According to his official website he had numerous “musical teachers” including the likes of Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, Muddy Waters, George Harrison, Paul Simon, Duke Ellington, Jim Croce, Irving Berlin, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, John Hartford, Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, Lorenz Hart, Yip Harburg, the Everly Brothers, Eric Clapton, Robert Johnson, Paul Williams, Bob Marley, Buck Owens, Jimi Hendrix, Justin Vernon, Tribe, Cat Stevens, Leadbelly, Sam Bush, Gregory Porter, JJ Cale, Mark Knopfler, Harry Nilsson, Freddy King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lonnie Johnson, Peter Rowan, Dan Penn, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Dixon, Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Willie Nelson, Rakim, Donny Hathaway, Laura Nero, Bob Dylan, Rodney Crowell, Peter Gabriel, Carol King, Neil Young, Prince, Dom Castino, Dean Magraw, The Feelin, JT Bates, Ben Kaufmann, Jeff Austin, Benny Galloway, Dave Simonett, Adam Greuel, Brian Gallagher, Casey O’Brien, Greazy Meal, The Gear Daddies, Mango Jam, Detroit, The Honeydogs, and Mikey Larsen.
Fresh Pickles is an 11-track album. Dropping on February 4, 2022, this new release essentially reimagines tracks Castino (guitar and vocals) wrote years ago as bluegrass songs. Thus, to his fans, they will sound both familiar and fresh.
To accomplish this tuneful task, he teamed up with the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based bluegrass band Chicken Wire Empire. Chicken Wire Empire includes Ryan Ogburn (mandolin), Jordan Kroeger (bass), Ernest Brusbardis IV (fiddle), and Jon Peik (banjo). He is also occasionally assisted by an assortment of other artists on specific cuts.
Castino spoke on the origins of the album. He said: “What turned out to be just something to occupy our time while we weren’t touring, became something outstanding. I am driven to make music that is lasting and accessible, but my personal style is a combination of sincerity and imagery. There is, to be fair, much more depth in my writing now, having gone through the reckoning of addiction that laid me low, and required nothing short of a rebirth.”
Castino co-produced the album with Adam Gruel (Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, The High Hawks). Gruel noted: “I’ve always heard and felt the influence of bluegrass music on Caz’s songwriting. Lyrically, his content and themes seem to occasionally draw from that tradition, while the music has hints of that bluegrass drive or perhaps the sweetness of a traditional waltz. When Castino gave me a ring and explained that he was interested in breathing some new life into some of his more loved Big Wu classics by way of bluegrass, my initial reaction was raw excitement.”
Track by Track
The album opens on the appropriately bouncy “Kangaroo.” It’s a fine lean-in as it immediately and effectively makes the purpose of this project clear. Castino recalls: “‘Kangaroo’ is one of the very first songs I wrote as a professional. It’s upbeat and irreverent but also reveals the bluegrass influence which was so strong in my writing in those early days.”
The second selection is the lead single “Red Sky.” This one was originally inspired by such acts as The Grateful Dead and Phish. Indeed, the song tells the tale of the drive home from a Grateful Dead show in 1995. Sam Bush guests here on the fiddle which serves as both a defining and unifying element.
It is followed by the quieter road trip tune “Bound For the South” which comes complete with a subtle reference to a Chuck Berry tune. Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster of Hot Rize guest on fiddle and vocals respectively. Things pick up again with the next number, “Shanty Town.” It is unexpectedly light and somehow harkens back to another time in recent history. Complete with a touch of sh*t-kickin’, it’s highlighted by Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon on vocals and spoken word.
“Minnesota Moon” follows. Gruel adds his vocals to this country-like cut with an underlying almost-funky edge. “Texas Fireball” is another upbeat offering. It includes vocalist Keller Williams and Andy Hall of The Infamous Stringdusters on dobro. They continue to make everything sound like nothing but fun.
The seventh serving “Goodbye, Fond Du Lac (Young Pioneer)” takes things in a slightly different direction but the signature sound remains strong. This one is nigh nostalgic but in a good way. It’s also a good example of what Castino and CWE can do without guest stars.
“Rhode Island Red” is yet another example. . . and it moves too! Honestly, those not familiar with Castino’s previous work may not know the material here was ever meant to sound any different. “Jackson County” is an atmospheric audio offering about another jaunty journey that would also work well on a road trip and includes a nice albeit unexpected shift to it. The cut features Jerry Douglas on dobro and Gruel returns on vocals.
Also included here is the CD’s longest track, “The Ballad of Dan Toe.” This has a slight south-of-the-border sound to it and runs for over six-and-a-half minutes. Castino told the press: “It’s a tale of a mythical mystic who is bigger than life.”
He adds: “Because it is inspired by the writing of Peter Rowan there’s no understating the bliss of having him sing with me on this tune. Jerry Douglas also appears here [on dobro]. These two are my bigger-than-life heroes.”
The closing cut is “Irregular Heartbeat.” It offers listeners yet one more example of what Castino can do as a songwriter and what he can do when working with CWE as well.
Overall, this down-home style platter is a light-hearted, effective bluegrass reworking of Castino’s songs from his work with The Big Wu complete with memorable ballads, retrospective rippers, and more. It represents an unexpected offering to long-time fans of Castino’s more folksy material and an interesting initial offering to new listeners as well. Castino recently discussed the album.
He stated: “It brings me joy to hear how these songs in particular have been given new life. For music lovers who are unfamiliar with my songs I truly believe that this record will be a fresh experience for them. It’s not essential to understand the history of these songs to appreciate them.”
Castino concludes: “My hope is to bring a new audience to my music so that the next record can reach more people. This is my only desire. And my best tunes are yet to come.” So check out Fresh Pickles by Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire and experience what it’s like to be a “Young Pioneer” in “Jackson County.”