You could say that Chris Castino is a writer of dance music. Not the kind you hear at any club. It’s the kind you hear at a Dead show, or festivals, when the crowd moves together spinning and bouncing like an ocean of blissful and emancipated souls. Chris is the primary songwriter for his longtime popular Minnesota-based rock’n’roll jamband The Big Wu. The Big Wu started in the mid 90’s and quickly ascended from the comforts of the local club scene to playing H.O.R.D.E Fest, Bonnaroo, Gathering of the Vibes, High Sierra, and the list goes on.
Castino joined forces with the incredibly talented band Chicken Wire Empire from Milwaukee, WI, and took the opportunity, while sitting through COVID-19 lock-downs in 2020 and 2021, to arrange some of his catalog into impeccably fitting bluegrass tunes. With the addition of many of Chris’s lifelong musical heroes, including several GRAMMY winning artists in the bluegrass and Americana: Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Andy Hall, Vince Herman, Nick Forster, and Keller Williams, this feels like a classic bluegrass album and sounds instantly familiar. Fresh Pickles aims to satisfy your cravings—it is a light-hearted, down-home concept that plays with the idea that although some of the songs were written many years before, they now feel brand new. Fresh. Fresh Pickles will be independently released on February 4 and is now available for pre-order.
Chris says, “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.”
Fresh Pickles features 11 original songs penned by Castino. All of which, but one, were first released on four of The Big Wu’s five studio albums spanning from 1997-2019. Formed in 1992, the Big Wu’s momentum was driven by Castino’s catchy songwriting and the band’s hefty tour schedule in the late 90’s early 00’s, which launched the band into becoming a mainstay in the national roots and jamband scene as a full-time touring commodity for years. Fresh Pickles can be seen as a retrospective and reexamination of Castino’s music through a bluegrass lens.
“It brings me joy to hear how these songs in particular have been given new life,” Castino continues, ”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. 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.” Fresh Pickles follows Castino’s introspective 2020 debut solo album Brazil.
The Fresh Pickles album opener, “Kangaroo,” demonstrates how well the songs lend themselves to bluegrass and introduces the core band of Castino on lead vocals and guitar along with Chicken Wire Empire’s Ryan Ogburn on mandolin, Jordan Kroeger on bass, Ernest Brusbardis IV on fiddle, and Jon Peik on banjo. Castino says, “‘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.”
An ambitious “Red Sky” recounts a drive home from the Dead shows in 95; the lyrics being sets of images with Sam Bush’s fiddle work here knitting several different movements within the theme together. Hear it now at Relix.
“The Ballad Of Dan Toe” is a south-of-the-border inspired tune that The Big Wu has kept in their repertoire since the 90s. Castino says, “It’s a tale of a mythical mystic who is bigger than life. 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. These two are my bigger-than-life heroes.”
The travelogue “Bound For the South” features Tim O’Brien on harmony fiddle and Nick Forster on vocals (both of Hot Rize). Other tracks include a buoyant “Shantytown” (feat. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon), country-song-turned-funky, “Minnesota Moon” (w/ Adam Greuel), the jolly “Texas Fireball” (feat. Keller Williams and Andy Hall (The Infamous Stringdusters), a nostalgic “Young Pioneer,” the high speed “Rhode Island Red,” atmospheric song from the road “Jackson County” (feat. Jerry Douglas and Adam Greuel), and a more Thile-inspired closing track, “Irregular Heartbeat.”
Adam Greuel (Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, The High Hawks) worked with Castino to produce the album, along with adding vocals on a couple of tracks. Greuel says, “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.”
Castino’s early passion for bluegrass music was cultivated by his father, a professional singer of standards, who was captivated by that plaintive, lonesome vocal style. He says, “I learned all he could 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: to this day.” Captivated, he began to steer his composing down this road.
Fresh Pickles is just the beginning of Castino’s heartfelt and fulfilling voyage into bluegrass— highlighting some of his most beloved tunes with a classic 70’s and 80’s alt-bluegrass sound, it features stomping rippers and sweet, harmonic ballads, as well as a taste of genre-shifting psychedelic rides. Always true to the tradition and authentic in presentation, Fresh Pickles is packed with great music.
Fresh Pickles Track Listing:
1.) Kangaroo 2:38
2.) Red Sky 4:25 (feat. Sam Bush)
3.) Bound For the South 5:26 (w/ Tim O’Brien and Nick Forster)
4.) Shanty Town 3:24 (feat. Vince Herman)
5.) Minnesota Moon 3:41 (w/ Adam Greuel)
6.) Texas Fireball 2:38 (feat. Keller Williams and Andy Hall)
7.) Young Pioneer 3:57
8.) Rhode Island Red 3:18
9.) Jackson County 5:33 (feat. Jerry Douglas and Adam Greuel)
10.) The Ballad of Dan Toe 6:32 (feat. Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas)
11.) Irregular Heartbeat 4:59