Chris Castino: Fresh Pickles, Chicken Wire Empire, and the soul of Jackson County

May 26, 2022
Tim Newby

Chris Castino / photo: Tyler Hellbeck

Chris Castino first came to prominence with the Big Wu, a band he helped found in 1992. The band established itself as a mainstay of the roots and jamband scene, releasing five studio and five live albums and earning a reputation as one of the hardest touring bands on the scene. As the Big Wu slowed their heavy touring schedule, Castino stayed busy and when the COVID pandemic shut the world down, he dove head-first into a new project highlighting his lifelong passion for bluegrass.

In 2020 Castino released his first solo album “Brazil.” He set out with Wisconsin based-bluegrass outfit Chicken Wire Empire to re-imagine tunes from his deep Big Wu catalog with a brand new bluegrass identity. The result is the stunning “Fresh Pickles,” which is both comfortable and eye-opening at the same time.

“Fresh Pickles” represents a complete reinvention of classic Castino classic tunes – there’s new life and soul breathed into each song, allowing the listener to hear each again for the first time. Castino checked in with Slide & Banjo’s Tim Newby to discuss it all.

Slide & Banjo: How did the idea for the album come about?

Chris Castino: It has always been a dream of mine to play bluegrass. I was 19 or 20 when I was first exposed to bluegrass through a radio program, called “Bluegrass Saturday Mornings” in Minneapolis. That was my conduit for the music. I was in college at the time. I was listening to a lot of the Dead and it all came together. I was like this is an important style of music for me. My first taste of it was an album Jeff Austin and I made in 2003, “Songs From the Tin Shed,” that is a semi-cult classic. We did a mini tour with Burle (Benny Galloway) when it was released. 

As far as bluegrass bands up north, I always say they have to get out and find the music. You don’t have your uncle breaking out the fiddle at home. But there is a benefit to it in that you are not dialed into the orthodoxy in the same way. Tradition is important, but we don’t have that up here. When the first bluegrass you’re exposed to is Bela Fleck and Tony Rice and Jerry Garcia, it just seems like a wider open path to go down. Then I started meeting the guys in Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident and I really understand the beauty of it. 

These fellas in Chicken Wire Empire, I have known them longer than since that band existed. When they were teenagers they were big Big Wu fans, but they started down the road of playing bluegrass long ago and have evolved into very good musicians. Chicken Wire Empire were doing a lot of traditional things, so I started listening to them.

When COVID came I reached out and asked if they wanted to record a couple tunes, maybe my old tunes in an old style. They immediately said, “Yes, let’s do your old tunes.” They then arranged them with the cool bluegrass kickoffs and turnarounds, things I would have never thought of. It was really great. I’m glad some of my songs are very simple, very poppy, because you can take a song like that and do many different things with it. I thought a lot of the tunes were better. For some it felt like this is the way they are supposed to be.

SB: It seemed like a really natural fit for them. I have listened to these Big Wu tunes a lot, and hearing them this way doesn’t sound foreign. In some cases it is almost like finding the heart of the song. They felt so right to be in that setting. Hearing this was both eye-opening, but comfortable at the same time. 

CC: The real beauty of the record is I will be able to sell copies of this record to Wu fans, and I am doing that, but there are people who have never heard of the Big Wu, never will go to a Big Wu concert, but they will be exposed to these songs and listen to these songs for the first time and think this is a great bluegrass group and likely never understand if they don’t really read the liner notes that these are songs from another band.

Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire / photo: Tyler Hellbeck
Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire / photo: Tyler Hellbeck

SB: There is such a good jamgrass scene right now, and this album has such a good home in it. For some people it will be a second life of the songs, while for others it will be a first life. It is a great place for these songs to go live. Any plans to tour with this group?

CC: Yeah, we just played in Ohio and Michigan the last few days. We have been playing out a little. We are doing a thing at Nelson Ledges in August. We played a small show with Del McCoury. We are doing Rumble Fest in Illinois. We are playing a lot of regional shows. It would be a dream to play Telluride. 

SB: What was Adam Gruel’s (Horseshoes & Hand Grenades/High Hawks) role with this project?

CC: He and I co-produced it. He did an awesome job and I learned from watching him that being a producer of a record is so much more than people think. Sometimes it’s calling a restaurant and getting food. It’s encouraging, kind of being a therapist and keeping positive vibes, and keeping things moving in a certain direction.

He also had conceptual ideas as well. He knows what good music sounds like and he could tell if a take sounds good or not. He was just really good at keeping the flow going. A lot of times you get stuck and he was really good at keeping us moving in the right direction.

SB: You need that outside voice sometimes to help guide the ship.

CC: Yeah, you can get really lost and be like “I don’t know if that is good anymore.”

SB: The album could stand on its own, but having all these guests (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Andy Hall, Vince Herman, Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, and more) really helps validate what you are doing. Did you know who you wanted? How did the guests come about?

Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire / photo: David Jackson
Chris Castino and Chicken Wire Empire / photo: David Jackson

CC: There was a moment I thought, I have sung these songs so many times, what if I recruit some of my favorite people to sing them instead. As we started to work on that idea, it’s a tricky thing and a big ask to learn a song, how it feels, the phrasing, and then beyond just the phrasing to be able to put your own spin on it. That’s a lot of work. So we then pivoted to where we would leave some gaps for solos and I just started calling people and sending out emails.

I got really lucky because everyone was at home and no one was doing much. I must have hit up Jerry Douglas at the exact right moment. I don’t know if there is a busier musician in the world. He is always recording something or doing something but he was available. Sam Bush as well.

I had different experiences working with each guest. I learned the jam guys you don’t have to give a lot of direction to, they are just willing to go and be playful and then just dump a bunch of stuff on you and be like take what you want. The Nashville guys want you to tell them exactly what you want. 

SB: It’s the nature of those two worlds.

CC: Totally. And then there was Peter Rowan, who is the floating troubadour mystical medicine man, who you can never quite nail down. It was exactly what you expect and want Peter Rowan to be.

SB: Did you get to record with the guests or did they just send you their parts?

CC: We couldn’t get together. It was perfect though. Everyone has the technology now to set up a mic and record. That just made it better. If I would have asked everyone to come to Minnesota it probably would have never happened. It’s the new way. I think it is going to be very common moving forward. We had no issues. It was just seamless. It was really great.

The experience I had with the guys in Chicken Wire Empire was great as well. There was no vaccine yet, so we were all super-careful and got tested before we got together. We were in the room and recorded our parts live.

SB: So everything else was live?

CC: Most of it. Not all. We did some harmonies after. It’s a little scary doing it live, but it’s better. It was a great experience to do it live.

SB: Doing it live you can share that energy and react to each other.

CC: We are getting farther away from the sense of making music together, and that being the version with all of its imperfections. As fun as it is to listen to music that is polished and sounds great with synthesizers and the ethereal-ness, as much fun as that is, people are always going to be drawn to what happens when people are in a room looking at each other. It’s powerful. It will come back around again. That is not going away.

Chris Castino / photo: Tyler Hellbeck
Chris Castino / photo: Tyler Hellbeck

SB: It’s why we go to live shows. You want that spontaneity. I’m sure you had moments when things changed because you were doing it together.

CC: Definitely. And there were some tough moments where we became exasperated and couldn’t figure out why something didn’t work, but you have to work through all of that. You have to take your lumps, and realize I might be fucking it up.

SB: Your name is at the front of the band – you can’t be fucking it up.

C: [Laughs] That’s true.

SB: After all of that, what track stands out for you as a highlight, and then what was the surprise, for better or worse?

CC: There are a couple tunes that are a better version this way than what they were as Wu tunes. One of them is “Jackson County.” I wrote it recently, it was on the 2018 Wu record. It was ok…it had a cool feel. When I showed this to the guys with a waltz edge to it, they loved it. The song has new life. It belongs this way. It has taken a while to figure out where it belongs, but it has found its home. It has been great to see that.

Even a song like “Kangaroo,” which is a standard Wu tune, is just basic and hooky enough with the right tempo and we just flipped a switch and it really fit in. 

The one that surprised me was “Red Sky.” It’s a jammer, and it has these parts that were inspired by Phish in the mid 90s. It was a song the band wanted to do. We found a way to do it and it sounded pretty cool and then it turns out Sam Bush is available.

I was talking with Sam and he said, “Why don’t I put fiddle on it? That will work pretty good.” We wanted mando on it. What am I going to say?

SB: You don’t tell Sam no.

CC: [laughs] He layered these fiddles on and it was a dream. It was so cool. The fiddle work he did. That one was so special. It was an honor to have him do it. I felt like he wanted a crack at it with the fiddle, because he wanted to express that. It’s a jam tune and the fiddle spoke to some of those sections in a way that he heard.

SB: It really works. It feels like this is the right home for some of these songs. Not that they were ever wrong before, but it feels like you found a different soul – or like you said for “Jackson County,” the right soul.

CC: Man, thank you so much. I appreciate it. Thank you for the chat.

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