Acton, Massachusetts. It’s a suburb of Boston. According to country music artist, Ben Cesare (pronounced “Caesar”, just like the salad or the Roman leader), who hails from Acton, there isn’t much to say about the town, except that the schools are good and actor/comedian, Steve Carell is from there as well. Well, I have to disagree. I did a little digging and Acton is a little more colorful than that.
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Over the years, many people have made their mark on society and they too, have called Acton home. One of the most beloved, even though we might not have seen his face on a regular basis, is Caroll Spinney. Spinney played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street” for years. Acton was a hot bed when it came to producing future NHL players, trust me, there’s a list of them. Drew Houston, a guy I can thank as I work on this interview, the founder of Dropbox, grew up there. So, as far as talent and creativity go, there might be something in the water in that little suburb north of Beantown. As far as the history? For a self-professed history geek like myself, that’s a whole different article and part of the reason it took me an extra hour to start typing this. I was enthralled. Acton was the “Little Engine that Could” of the American Revolution. If you’re into that sort of thing, look it up. I’ll try and stay on task here.
Ben Cesare is the frontman of The Ben Cesare Band. He sings lead and plays guitar. We met on a chilly morning in Nashville and I’m pleased to say, he was about the easiest person I’ve ever interviewed. He spoke freely and contributed details without me having to draw things out of him. His early life seemed rather typical of a kid from the suburbs. His parents have been together for over 35 years and he has a younger sister who “is the total opposite of myself. She’s more of the jock. I’m more of the creative, musical one.”
Cesare first latched on to country music at about the age of 12, but that wasn’t the only thing he listened to when he was young. Slightly ashamed to admit it, he mentioned he was an avid fan of the boy band, *NSYNC. He even confessed that he attended a show. “I was probably one of the few boys there.” Although now, he can also say he’s grown up alongside Justin Timberlake and greatly admires his work. Timberlake, has, after all, attained superstar status, so anyone that was listening to *NSYNC during their heyday may have had their radar up early on. I told Cesare to think of it that way.
Photo courtesy of L. Busacca/WireImage
“The first person to get me into country music was Tracy Byrd, and in particular, his song, ‘Watermelon Crawl’, which I really liked. I heard it on a country music compilation album at my Dad’s family reunion in Upstate New York.” From “Watermelon Crawl” he graduated to Toby Keith. He purchased Keith’s Honky Tonk University album, which he still listens to regularly today, and that was it. He was hooked on country.
While Cesare graduated from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire with a degree in Musical Theater, he decided against the bright lights of Broadway. “New York was too expensive, for one, and as much as I love and respect classical music, I was a classically trained baritone since the age of 16, I just thought country music was more my speed.”
During the summers, Cesare began to cut his teeth playing live country music with The John Penny Band in Massachusetts. John “Penny” Piantedosi (1933-2013) was the son of Italian immigrants and was born in Watertown, Massachusetts. He was a well-known country musician in the Greater Boston area for decades, having worked with numerous national acts. Massachusetts native, Jo Dee Messina, now a household name in country music, got her start with The John Penny Band.
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Playing with John Penny proved to be a very worthwhile experience for Cesare, as it led to him becoming a member of the Massachusetts Country Music Awards Association and after playing at a VFW Post and singing a few cover songs, the President of the Association introduced him to Lance Dary. Dary, at least at that time, was about the only connection the Massachusetts Country Music Awards Association had to Nashville. Dary, another guy originally from Massachusetts, was a guitarist who had played with artists such as Randy Travis, Patty Loveless and Mark Collie, just to name a few. Cesare was only 17-years old when he and Dary struck up a friendship and they are still friends today. Back then, however, that was really Cesare’s only “Nashville connection”. He had to do all the legwork himself.
In January of 2015, the time came for the big move from New England to Music City. As anyone from the North who moves South knows, it’s an adjustment. Generally, it’s fairly easy, but it is a different world. I asked Cesare what he liked about Nashville and if there was anything he wasn’t so fond of. “People in Nashville are more outwardly friendly. Although, once you befriend a Northerner, it’s one of the most loyal friendships you can possibly have, but then, I won’t randomly say, ‘Hi’ to someone on the streets of New York or Boston. They’ll think you want something from them. My Mom trained me to be very polite, so I had some southern tendencies already. Treat people the way you want to be treated and hopefully they’ll treat you that way in return.”
Food. Cesare also likes the food in Nashville. “There’s a vegan restaurant down the street that I love. I’m not a vegan, I’m an omnivore, I eat everything, but it’s nice to have choices. It’s just a cornucopia of different restaurants.”
“My only hang-up is the ocean. I grew up near the ocean and I just got married and my wife lived near the ocean too. Fresh seafood. They have a good system with Fed-X and all that, but it’s not the same. That’s the only downside. Not being by the ocean. Oh, and I love southern people, but I stopped buying cold cuts. I’ll wait a half-hour for cold cuts at the local Kroger. My blood pressure has gone down since moving here.”
We talked a little bit about living in Nashville. It was time to talk about working here. The new music. Released in the summer of 2018, The Ben Cesare Band’s EP is called, Cesare’s Palace, and the first single off the EP is entitled, “Damn Yankee”. Oddly enough, when I asked Cesare what his favorite track on the EP was, he said he really liked the single, so we talked a little bit about that in depth.
I listened to it quite a few times and I have to say, it has a great hook. The theme, which I love, takes a reverse spin on the usual southerner making fun of pretty much anything a northerner does. I won’t ruin the song for you, because of course, Cesare wants you to listen to it for yourself, but just know it’s upbeat and highly creative. I should also note, because he made sure to say so, it is NOT a true story. If you should know someone that fits the lyrics, however, do drop him a line. I’m sure he’d love to know about that.
“Damn Yankee” was co-written by Cesare, Will Rambeaux (“Wild One”, Faith Hill, “Can’t Get Enough”, Patty Loveless) and Sherrie Austin (“Streets of Heaven”). Interestingly, Austin also did some acting, appearing in shows like “The Facts of Life”, “Exile” and even one episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. Cesare isn’t shy about saying solo writing isn’t his strong suit. Co-writing is where he shines. “I’m an idea guy. I pitch ideas. I sometimes need other people to pull out my creativity.” Speaking for itself, with over 350K Spotify streams alone, “Damn Yankee” is a success. Available on all the usual digital music platforms, it’s one that I would encourage everyone, whether you identify as a Yankee, a Southern Belle or neither of the sort, to check out. It’s a cool twist on the same old, same old.
For our followers in the UK and beyond, Cesare says he would absolutely love to travel there to play. He’s never been to the UK and the idea fascinates him. Truly good news for our friends in Europe who we hope will give The Ben Cesare Band a listen and know his music by the time he actually gets the opportunity to get over there.
What would Cesare’s dream collaboration be? It didn’t take more than a second for him to say, “Chris Stapleton. I was a fan way before he became a big star, back when he was in the SteelDrivers. Lance Dary introduced me to The SteelDrivers back then.” I had to ask Cesare if he was a bluegrass fan, to which he answered, “I can appreciate Ricky Skaggs and I love Alison Krauss, her voice is like an angel’s.”
Photo courtesy of 90 East Photography and Think Country
Suppose the chance came up where Cesare had to switch genres for a day? He could sing lead for any band outside of the country music genre for one night. What band would it be and why? He threw a question back at me. “Can it be a solo artist?” I thought a minute and decided that it could be. I told him to imagine that the solo artist he had in mind had become very ill and he needed to “fill in” for the evening. It might be a pretty big job, but somebody had to do it.
“Bruce Springsteen, without a doubt. He has no opening acts, he plays almost all of his hits and his is one of the best bands around. I saw him at Foxboro Stadium for the first time and I was hooked. He does this thing with the mic stand where he stands on his toes and bends all the way backward. How does he DO that? I want to be him for a day.”
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I asked if he could only sing one Bruce Springsteen song, what would it be? That was too difficult, Cesare gave me two. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” or “Born to Run”. Fair enough. Sometimes choosing just one of anything is impossible.
As far as opening an artist bar in downtown Nashville, Cesare was a little hesitant on what to name his should that ever happen, but finally decided Broadway needs more healthy options, so he’d call it “Cesare’s Salad and Country Bar”. A very special TRADEMARKED “Cesare” salad with a little country music on the side. Stay skinny while you get your two-step on. We just never know what we’re going to get when we ask that question. It amazes me the new ideas that keep popping up.
Finally, when Ben Cesare of The Ben Cesare Band “Thinks Country”, what does he think? “I think it’s a very versatile genre. You can interpret it in so many different ways. You’ve got the rap and the mainstream and the pop and the country rock and the country blues and the country southern rock. I think it’s a very adaptable genre. Over the years, people from other genres wanted to be country. Steven Tyler from Aerosmith cut a country album. Justin Timberlake has songs like “I Can’t Drink You Away”, that has some Memphis, country-bluesy vibes to it. Good songs, relatable songs. For the most part, a good group of people in the industry. There are people that do want to help you succeed. You can’t be pompous or cocky and then people will want to help you. Kenny Chesney got where he did because everybody wanted to have a beer with him. That was his strength, being sociable. I’m a nice guy, I’m a little socially awkward at first, but once you get to know me, I hope people like me.”
We do like you Ben Cesare. You’re alright with us.
The Ben Cesare Band can be found: