BEULAVILLE — From the photos of his son that line the top of his lovingly-worn Martin acoustic guitar, to his memories of growing up in a household filled with the sounds of ’70s folk rock, family has always been a driving force in Justin Castellano’s journey from hometown musician to seasoned road performer.
For Castellano, the journey began at his parents’ house in Beulaville during informal jam sessions with his father, Ronnie Castellano, an instructor at Duplin Music Academy in Rose Hill.
“I have good memories of me and him playing together. When my brother Matthew got old enough we would all sit around and work on James Taylor and Cat Stevens’ songs,” recalls Castellano, relaxing during a recent hometown stopover.
In his mid-teens, Castellano began pursuing music outside of his family circle. “I had little bands, mostly playing with a lot of older cats,” he remembers.
At 16 the budding musician was hired on for his first paying gig, playing for patrons of the Country Squire Restaurant, where he would perform regularly for the next two years. The opportunity would be the first in a series of coffee shop and bookstore appearances that set Castellano on the path he has traveled doggedly ever since—the sometimes sublime, often grueling life of a professional musician.
For Castellano there was never any other serious option. “Oh yeah, most definitely, it was always music,” he admits. “When the guidance counselor pulls you in and asks what you want to do, they all laugh.”
Even as a teenager, says Castellano, he was committed to honing his skills, often to the detriment of his personal life. “I remember passing up dates in high school to sit home and practice,” he says, laughing at the memory.
After graduating from East Duplin High School in 1999, Castellano attended East Carolina University (ECU) to study classical guitar, a move he says was influenced less by his love of classical music than by his desire to expand his knowledge of the guitar.
“I’m glad I did it,” he said, “but, as soon as I realized that I could actually become a classical guitarist, I decided it probably wasn’t for me. It can take months to really learn a single piece of music and I realized I just don’t have the patience for that.”
While at ECU, Castellano sent a tape to Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts and received a scholarship offer from the prestigious school, an opportunity he ultimately declined.
Though he admits to some regret over the lost learning opportunity, Castellano said, professionally, he has no doubt he made the right choice.
“Up there, everybody’s fighting for the same 10 gigs. I would never have been able to support myself,” he acknowledges.
Passing on a chance at joining the often rigidly disciplined classical music world, Castellano says he chose instead to pursue his own, less formal but no less demanding path.
Approximately a year and half ago, after working for a time as a music teacher at Crystal Coast School of the Arts in Morehead City, Castellano decided to hit the road. He credits Ronnie Swanson, owner of the Icehouse Waterfront Restaurant in Swansboro, for giving him a place where he could work out his live chops night after night.
“It really builds up your confidence,” says Castellano. “I was so used to being in the background or playing classical instrumental-type gigs, so that was huge for me when I first started venturing out.”
Following the Icehouse shows, Castellano says his bookings “exploded” and now include regular gigs in Morehead City, Charleston, South Carolina and his current home base, Charlotte, where he moved recently to be closer to his son, three-year-old Sebastian.
Striking out on his own, however, meant coming to terms with a hard truth of the small club performer’s life: In order to survive you have to leave your musical ego at the door and play what the paying customers want to hear.
Though he initially rebelled against playing the usual barroom repertoire, Castellano, whose influences range from Indian music to the Beatles, says he has come to appreciate the intrinsic musical value of popular music.
“I do them my way,” he said. “I’ve been working on my own style, so when you hear it you’re like ‘Oh, that’s Justin.’”
Castellano says he has cast aside his former propensity towards musical elitism.
“Some of my buddies are like ‘I wouldn’t play that tune,’ but I don’t care. I found myself when I was in school turning into a musical snob and I was like ‘You know what, I don’t think that’s where I want to go,’” he recalled.
The freedom of his current job, remarks Castellano, is far different than that of classical performers. “If I want to play a Motown tune and then play a Spanish piece, I’m not stuck in an idiomatic kind of thing. I like what I’m doing because I can do what I want; I can break whatever rules I want.”
Castellano says the need for popular acceptance was pressed on him by one of his musical idols, Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, during a chance meeting several years ago.
“He was really impressed with my fingers but he was like, ‘You’ve got to learn good tunes, kid. If you play good songs like “Stand by Me” or “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” you can put that hip guitar stuff in there when you can, because people don’t really care about how fancy you can play.’”
Playing for less musically knowledgeable but more overtly appreciative audiences has its benefits, says Castellano. “The one thing I’ve always liked about playing in restaurants or clubs is that it’s super honest. If you have a bad night someone’s going to tell you.”
Castellano says his goal for the immediate future is to put together a CD of fan favorites and some of his own instrumental compositions.
“I’m doing it mainly [because] the people who come see me are super supportive and a lot of them say they want a CD. All my friends have studios and they’re like ‘Just come in, we’ll record it for free.’”
Castellano says he also plans on doing duo performances with his brother, who is currently working as a back-up musician in Charleston.
Reaching for his ringing phone, Castellano says much of his time is spent scheduling shows. “I just booked 16 yesterday and I’ve got 200 for the rest of the year already set,” he offers.
Castellano says he would like to expand his performing area, with shows in Myrtle Beach a possibility for the coming year. Summer festivals are also in the works, with a repeat performance at the Emerald Isle Emerald Fest currently in the works.
However far he travels, says Castellano, he’ll always make time to return home.
“The cool thing about playing in eastern North Carolina is I can bring Sebastian and he can visit with my parents,” he said.
For others looking to follow in his footsteps, Castellano says he offers very simple advice. “I tell them, ‘Go up to the audience and tell them Thank you and mean it,’ because you wouldn’t be doing it if those people weren’t coming to support you.”
Though pleased with the progress he’s made in relatively short time, Castellano says he has no plans to trade his peace of mind for a shot at stardom.
“I just hope to keep playing, to keep working. I feel like the more ambitious I make myself, the more unhappy I make myself. As long as I get to play my guitar and make a living, I’m happy.”
With hundreds of tunes in his repertoire and months’ worth of shows lined up, Castellano says any hardships of the road are worth the price of living out his childhood dream.
“I always tell people that Bob Dylan quote, ‘If you wake up doing what you love. then you’re successful.’”