Residents of Cool are proud of their connection to 'Idol' finalist

COOL -- When Chrys Turner isn't flipping burgers at the grill, she's playing dominoes with customers at the Cool Cafe.

And they're all talking about American Idol finalist Casey James.

Turner owns the cafe, the last surviving diner in this Parker County town of 260 people that is getting more attention than usual because of James, its most famous one-time resident.

James, who now lives in Fort Worth, is one of three contestants left on the popular TV show that airs at 7 tonight on KDFW/Channel 4.

Cafe regular David Parker said -- with a note of pride in his voice -- that his mom, Barbara, taught James in fourth grade.

"My daughter, Mollie, graduated a year ahead of him," said Parker, who has lived in Cool for about 50 years.

Parker said Cool has changed a lot in those years.

"A lot of buildings are gone," he said. "There was another gas station and a motel."

Debra James settled in Cool about 21 years ago, when Casey was 6. Her parents, Bill and Marcella James, and her sister, Sherry Norman, moved with her from Oak Cliff and bought properties on either side of hers at the crest of a hill.

The James clan was attracted by the peaceful atmosphere of the town on U.S. 180. At the foot of their hill is the Cool Community Center and City Office, where Mayor Dorothy Hall runs things with the help of two city commissioners and a city secretary.

On Saturday, Hall presented James with the key to the city during a short ceremony.

"This community is behind you," Hall told James. "No matter how far you go, this key will be the entrance back to your home."

She was reluctant to say that James put Cool on the map, pointing out that it's home to former world champion bull rider Joe Wimberly and his son, McKennon, who's also a professional bull rider.

But Hall allowed that James marked Cool on the maps of a whole other world of people when he started his rise on American Idol.

She said his answer when judges asked him "Where's Cool?" was typical of a North Texan.

"I laughed so hard when I heard him say it's between Weatherford and Mineral Wells," Hall said. "He forgot that, for the rest of the country, you have to explain where Weatherford and Mineral Wells are. He should have said it's 45 minutes west of Fort Worth."

'It really brings it home'

Hall said her house is about a quarter-mile from the James place. She heard Casey steadily improve on guitar over the years and later enjoyed listening as he rehearsed with other musicians.

Wayne and Dianne Putnam, who bought Bill James' place in 2002, also heard those rehearsals.

"He was just through the trees from us, and we could hear him picking and singing," Wayne Putnam said. "He played for our daughter's wedding. It was a wedding present from him and his mom."

Renee Putnam Pettit said she and her husband, James, pulled out their wedding video the other night just to see that concert again.

"It's exciting," Renee Pettit said. "We've watched American Idol for a lot of years, but when someone you know is on it really brings it home."

James attended school in nearby Millsap and graduated from Millsap High School, where in the last several weeks students have raised money for Debra James to help pay for her flights to and from California for the American Idol shows.

High school classmate Misty Hart-Linville said James has long been committed to playing the guitar.

"In high school, all he did was music. When other people were going to parties, he'd be home playing," she said.

'Casey Country'

After Saturday's ceremony at the community center, James hopped into a black limo and headed to Millsap for a concert at the football stadium. The route along Farm Road 113 was festooned with signs welcoming him home: "You are entering Casey Country" and "Casey James rocks our world."

When he strolled into the stadium -- flanked by Millsap Bulldogs cheerleaders and escorted by a half-dozen or so riders from the Parker County Sheriff's Posse -- the crowd of about 3,000 unleashed a deafening cheer.

"It's good to be home," James said. "I feel like I'm back in high school."

When his strumming sounded pitch perfect, James looked at the crowd and asked, "Y'all want to hear some music?"

Again, the answer boomed across the field.

But when the opening licks of Ian Moore's Blue Sky reached them, the crowd became as quiet as downtown Cool on a Sunday morning.

TERRY EVANS, 817-390-7620