Minnesotans know singer/songwriter and Isanti County native Troy Castellano’s music even if they don’t know his name. Castellano has written several local jingles including the Minnesota Russco earworm. But now he hopes to catch on with the country music scene as well. On Feb. 10, Castellano released a new single, “Hell We Raised,” inspired by his childhood growing up in Isanti County.
STARTING AT AN EARLY AGE
Castellano got his first guitar when he was three, “A toy one. I remember probably around seven or eight, telling my mom I wanted a real guitar, and that Christmas, I got an electric guitar and amp from Sears.”
His mom was the first person he ever wrote a song for though he wasn’t able to play it for her. “I wrote a verse and I called mom to come downstairs ‘I wanna play something for you’. And then she sits down and looks me right in the eye and I was nervous. I’m like I can’t do it. I couldn’t play it for her.”
He learned to play guitar from one of his teachers at Isanti Primary. “Mr. Woodall. He looked like Wolfman Jack. I would stay after and he taught me the basic chords and I think one of the first songs I learned from him was ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver.”
Mr. Woodall wasn’t the only local teacher who encouraged Castellano in his music career. Local band teacher Mr. Anderson also helped guide him to his career, “he realized that I wanted to be in the band room, but I didn’t want to be in a band. I kept coming in there and looking when he’d bring his guitar. He wrote me a pass out of my study hall. He said, ‘you can come down here every day, I’m gonna bring my guitar, you can play it too.’”
Eventually, this interaction led to Castellano’s first recording of an original song. “I had written this song (and) he said, can you stay after school for a little bit? He got the other two music teachers, one played drums, one played keyboards, and (Anderson) played bass and I play guitar and they all learned my song and we recorded it.”
Over the years Castellano played in different cover bands around the Twin Cities. “I would go through these cycles ‘let’s just go play have fun’ and then, ‘oh man I really want to create (my own music).’ I wanted to create but those bands weren’t the outlet.” In his words, “I’d rather create than imitate.”
To that end, in 2014 Castellano moved to Nashville to pursue his career as a songwriter. “If you’ve got music in your heart and soul. This is a place to be. There’s just so many like-minded people.”
Since moving to Nashville, Castellano has written over 500 songs to varying degrees of success. His song “Grateful” was recorded by Chris Golden and reached number 1 on the country christian charts. Keith Urban had one of his songs on hold in 2017, but ultimately it didn’t make the cut for Urban’s album. Two of his songs were used in the series finale of the TNT television show “Claws.”
“You just never know where things are gonna go. I’m always pitching songs.”
Not one to just take
A few years back songwriter Victoria Banks approached Castellano to see if he knew of anyone who might be willing to donate a keyboard. Banks, whose husband is a teacher, needed one to use in his classroom to teach his students the phases of the moon. Castellano had an old Casio that his kids weren’t using anymore so he graciously donated the instrument.
As a thank you, he received a video. “The students all wrote the lyrics together in this video. They are all arm and arm, like a kumbaya moment. They’re all arm and arm and, and singing so loud that he had to calm them down. And I just looked at that and I said, you know, that’s the teacher, that’s getting through, and he’s doing it with music.”
Seeing this inspired Castellano to do more. He started asking his musician friends if they had instruments they weren’t using. He asked if he could get them into the hands of students would they be willing to donate the instruments?
In 2018 Castellano formed Instruments for Education, a 501C non-profit that connects instruments that are no longer used to students in need in and around Nashville. “Since 2018 we’ve donated over 560 instruments.”
“When I moved to Nashville, it was like, hey, can you introduce me to . . .? Can you play my song? Hey, can you do . . .? I felt like I was always asking more than I was giving. And that was another reason why I started Instruments for Education. I don’t want to be that guy who’s always taking. I want to give. I want to give back and give back to kids.”
The dream of giving back to kids is still in its fledgling stages, set back a little by the pandemic, but Castellano hopes to expand the organization. First to the whole of Tennessee and then possibly nationwide. “Right now, I’m a one-man show. We need to get some grants and we need to get some funding that actually grows this beyond where we’re at. That’s probably the most frustrating part is trying to grow with no budget.”
The organization has found some help from the music industry in Nashville. Instruments for Education has been able to host some auctions to help raise funds thanks to artists like Keith Urban who donated eight tour-used guitars from his 2011 Defying Gravity Tour. “He left a note which is on our Instruments for Education website that said, ‘share this with the kids.’ I sent him some videos of some of the kids receiving the guitars. He’s a big star. I’m very thankful that he donated those guitars.”
Most recently, the organization received a special donation at one of its instrument drop locations. An acoustic guitar was placed in the drop box with a note that read, “we found this guitar in the debris of the 2020 Nashville tornado and we put it all over social networks to find out if anyone would claim it. We did it for quite a while and nobody claimed it. So we’re donating it to you.”
The guitar which was surprisingly undamaged from the storm had signatures on it. “It was from the 2010 Play On, Carrie Underwood tour. It was signed by Carrie and signed by Billy Currington. There’s a couple of other faded signatures. Maybe the rain washed it out or something. Amazingly the guitar is in total, 100% shape, no cracks, not busted up, it’s actually playable.”
Instruments for Education, instrumentsforeducation.org, will be auctioning the Carrie Underwood guitar so they can purchase other instruments with the proceeds.
Hell We Raised
Though he’s in Nashville Castellano’s roots are still here in Isanti County, and his new single ‘Hell We Raised’ is about growing up here. The song has a strong contemporary country feel, and mentions local landmarks like camping by the Rum River and “laying rubber on Whiskey Road.”
The song relives memories that as a parent Castellano is grateful his kids aren’t participating in. “I look back now and it’s like, man, that’s why I say in the song ‘things we shouldn’t have done.’ The one line says 16 going on 21 because we were doing all those things that you’re supposed to be 21 before you’re allowed to do it.”
There is a definite nostalgic hook to the song that Castellano hopes to pair with vintage photos of Isanti in the 1970s and 80s in the upcoming music video for the song.
The song is gaining momentum online, “everybody seems to be receiving it really well up there,” but Castellano hopes for more. “It would be so cool If we could get K102 to spin it. That would be awesome.”
“Hell We Raised” can be streamed on Spotify, and Apple Music, and is available on iTunes. Links to where you can listen to the song are on his official website TroyCastellano.com.
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