When Shakespeare wrote of the boundless imagination of lunatics, lovers and poets in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he probably had no intention of serving as inspiration for a honky tonk album.
But for Stephen Castillo, the lead singer of the Austin based band, The Western Express, the phrase resonated with him so deeply that he kept it in his back pocket knowing one day it would come to good use.
“The lunatic, the lover and the poet all have these feverish imaginations where they make something up that doesn't exist,” says Castillo who started the now six-piece band along with Phil Brush in 2018 after Brush answered a Craigslist ad Castillo put out in search of a country musician to make music with.
Making something up that doesn’t exist seems to be the right philosophy for the band when writing music as they expand on classic honky tonk sounds adding a Tex-Mex and border-centric backbone.
“That's an important part for me,” says Castillo of their Tex-Mex flair. “That part is critical for my taste and what I wanted to do.” Growing up both Castillo and Brush were greatly influenced by country music. Castillo describes singing along to basically every country radio hit from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“We pretty much started playing music together right away. About a year later we started The Western Express with clear intention. From the beginning my goal was to outgrow Austin as quickly as possible. It's a great place to live and I love being here and I’ll play as many shows here as I can, but we had the idea that we were going to write original music and get a good band together that would propel us up to the next level.”
For Castillo, who spent part of his childhood living in the Houston area, music was always a part of his life but initially centering on playing music in the church. After marrying and starting a family at a young age, he hung up his guitar and focused on his family.
In 2017, Castillo got a divorce leading him to pick up his trusty guitar and set out to have the “normal” experiences he felt he had missed out on in his youth, including a road trip through the Texas desert and frequenting Austin’s bustling two step dance halls where he was looking for a social network he hadn't had.
“I was just really inspired by the desert. I found a small piece of myself in the desert that I was not expecting to find,” says Castillo. “I found solitude, quiet and an ability to look inward in some ways that I had not been able to before.”
Castillo blended his love for the classic country songs and his newly discovered interest in Mexican border music to create something different. “A lot of the country music that I heard coming out sounded derivative to me and I knew that if I was going to write, I wanted to have something more original to say and be able to say it in some ways that didn’t just sound exactly like something that had come before it.”
“Flower Of The Rio Grande” tells of the romantic longing for an unattainable woman and the great lengths that the narrator would go just to see her again. The song captures the blend of influences that Castillo and his bandmates were striving for.
The Western Express nailed it with Lovers, Lunatics and Poets, an album that shockingly for the short time since their formation, comes across as more of an evolved sound versus a new band's first shot at an album, something Castillo credits producer and Houstonian John Evans with helping the band achieve.
Castillo grew up knowing the larger than life Evans and watching his career as a musician, songwriter and producer take shape. He presented Evans with his songs and suggested making an EP to get his feet wet while Evans encouraged him to go ahead and put out a full album.
“He’s so good and not just at the music production, he is so good at that and world class in my opinion, but even on top of that he believes in his musicians and the people he works with. He is so encouraging, kind and generous with his time and words. If we had tried to produce our own record it would not be what it is and we would not have moved as quickly as we leapfrogged a couple of small early phases.”
About the time The Western Express was taking off and Castillo was going through his divorce, he was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Now he feels like he is getting the rare chance to reinvent himself in a way while finally being a in a place where he can get the support he needs.
“Apparently everybody in my life knew that something had been wrong for a long time. I had gone through some really rough times and I finally had a name for the demon that had been following me around,” he says, identifying with the imaginative ‘lunatic” from the Shakespeare monologue.
“Getting divorced feels like death but I think the way I've grown through the experience of mental health is that I was so isolated for so long because of mental illness. I couldn't hold onto friends because of mental illness. Now five years later and I have a stronger support system and network than I've ever had in my entire life. I feel so thankful for the people in my life and for how much they love on me and I get to love on them. We’re making art together and I'm getting to experience this for the first time and it rules.”
Castillo tapped into his mixed feelings on his religious upbringing to write “Honky Tonk Saints” where he reflected on a heartfelt conversation he had with a fellow two stepper one night realizing how he had a real human connection with a stranger while simultaneously knowing that the whole experience would have been frowned upon by the church he had grown up in.
“It’s funny because I see the same people every week. You see the same crowd. You've got the old people who come to dance and they're cute old people and you've got the young people who are kind of learning how and it's really like a church community in that way,” describes Castillo.
He began to delve into this idea of partying and celebrating classic country under the watchful eyes and blessings of the honky tonk saints pulling from religious references and adapting them to the only tonk bars. In 2020, when James "Slim" Hand died and shortly after James White owner and operator of The Broken Spoke passed away, Castillo knew why he had written that song.
The video for the single, shot at The Broken Spoke, as well as the album are dedicated to both men who not only helped form the genre dearest to Castillo and his band but also helped to keep it alive for so many years.
“In 2018 Phil and I could not get ourselves arrested in this town and Mr. White booked us at the restaurant in The Broken Spoke. I’ve been playing for tips and supper since 2018. James Hand Slim, I was not close with him but to me he might as well have been Hank Williams.”
The Western Express will perform with South Texas Tweek on Friday, September 9 at Shoeshine Charley's Big Top Lounge, 3714 Main, 9 p.m., $10.
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.