He was a stone-faced fireplug the day I met him, too shy to look me in the eye, too shy to crack even the slightest of smiles.
Soon it became obvious, however. There was something special about 8-year-old Aaron Castilla.
Bluegrass/country music booster Frank Wagner had hauled the young fiddler and some other pickers and players to the sidewalks of downtown Spokane. They had come to participate in the annual Street Music Week fundraiser (the 15th running takes place June 12-16) for the 2nd Harvest food bank.
But it was Aaron who Wagner wanted to bend my ear about. I listened as the boy performed a short fiddle piece, revealing ability far beyond the scant six months he’d been playing.
No doubt about it, I remember thinking. This kid could be really good someday.
Flash forward a dozen or so years.
Aaron, 21, left Sunday in his red Mazda pickup heading for Burbank, California. He’s been given a rare chance that every musician dreams about at one time or another.
“I’m hoping to make a living playing music,” Aaron said the other day, exploding into laughter.
Aaron has been hired to fiddle, sing and maybe pick some mandolin as a member of a longtime touring band, the Doo-Wah Riders.
“High energy country with a Cajun twist,” states the band’s website, doowahriders.com.
Check them out. Watch the promotional video. You’ll see what they’re talking about and why this is such a major opportunity.
Established 40 years ago, the Riders feature five red-hot players. They’re sponsored by a boot company. They’ve got a big-ass touring bus, too.
Needing to replace their retiring fiddler, the Riders flew Aaron to Burbank last March. They put him through an all-day audition. Satisfied with his abilities, they hired Aaron, gave him 100 songs to learn and a date to come on down.
“Aaron is on the cusp of becoming a world-class player,” said Jim Shamp, a local bluegrass aficionado who originally encouraged Aaron to pick up the fiddle. “We expect no less.”
Aaron Castilla is the real deal.
Guitar in the back seat, I drove to Spokane Valley the other day and sat down in the kitchen of the home where he was staying.
I played a few songs, progressing in difficulty, and marveled at the way Aaron could solo effortlessly through even jazz chord changes.
Flawless. Sweet tone. And very musical, which is even better.
Aaron has a swinging, lyrical sense that makes whatever tune he’s playing even better.
“I don’t have a lot of hobbies,” said Aaron, the youngest of eight children, during a break.
“That’s why I have music. It gives me a purpose. I don’t know what I’d be doing without music.”
So how does one go from local playing to gigging with a national act?
Same way one gets to Carnegie Hall:
Practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Stale joke notwithstanding, Aaron’s journey began with having amazing natural talent. That’s a good starter. Then he sharpened his skills by playing an untold million notes.
He was a regular at Wagner’s workshops and jams.
“Frank was great,” said Aaron. “He encouraged everyone to play. He’d pick me up and take me to his workshops. I’d probably not be where I am without him.”
Aaron took lessons from the best around, like two-time national fiddle champ JayDean Ludiker.
“Aaron’s the kind of kid that it doesn’t matter who he’s playing with. It. Does. Not. Matter,” she said, emphasizing each word.
“He’s just happy to play.”
More teachers. More practice. One instructor taught him how to improvise and swing. Another teacher worked on his technique.
Aaron formed a band, Rye River. He played with Brown’s Mountain Boys, another local bluegrass group.
He played at cowboy supper shows at the Rockin’ B Ranch, 3912 Spokane Bridge Road, in Liberty Lake.
And that’s where the luck came in.
See, the area’s bluegrass community is a small, good-natured and passionate bunch. Everybody knows each other. Everybody shares the same musical interests.
Enter Pamela and Scott Brownlee, two musicians who started the Rockin’ B when they moved here in 1994.
Years earlier – 1979 to be exact – the Brownlees were living in Los Angeles and attending music school when they put together a swinging country showcase with some others in the program.
It was so well received that it sparked a not-so-crazy idea.
Why waste all the fun in school when we could have it for real?
The Doo-Wah Riders were born.
“Just a great bunch of guys. Fabulous guys,” said Pamela, of the current lineup. “Bringing swing to country. It’s so fun to do and it pleases people.”
With their Spokane connection, the Riders know where to turn when the need for talent presents itself.
The late Tony Ludiker, a five-time national fiddle champ and JayDean’s ex-husband, logged some playing time with the Riders, for example.
So with the latest Doo-Wah fiddler deciding to spend more time with his family, another call was made to the 509.
“I really felt that Aaron was the one,” said Pamela, who had been watching him develop his skills.
“He was old enough and doing music in such a way. His performance style is to take care of everybody on stage. He makes everyone on stage look as good as they’re going to be.”
As fine as he is, Aaron doesn’t have much of an ego.
“I still say I’m not great,” he told me. “I know many other better players than me.”
Pamela believes that gracious attitude will “travel well” with an on-the-road band.
He’ll be “that kind of person” who can blend with the other guys,” she said, adding: “The kid is golden. He’s just this sweet soul who brings music to your party.”