After co-writing some of country music’s most iconic hits, including Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On” and Kenny Chesney’s “When the Sun Goes Down,” James is singing his own songs for the first time in over two decades.
“For most of my life I thought, ‘Well I’ve tried that and it didn’t work out and for whatever reason and that’s fine. It wasn’t in God’s plan,’” James says of finding success as a recording artist. “Looking back, I’m more mature and I have confidence in just being me. I’ve had such a great career as a songwriter and songwriting is a great job. I got to be in town for my kids growing up and didn’t have to be out on the road while they were in school, and that was a beautiful thing. I just really never even thought about making a record all those years. I was just happy to be a songwriter.”
However when he hit a milestone birthday, he started thinking about making a record. “Something happened on my 50th birthday,” he says. “I was like, ‘You know what? My kids are older now and I don’t think they’ve ever heard me really sing. They heard me do my versions of songs that other people have recorded, but they’ve never heard my voice.’ I wanted to teach my kids a little lesson about being yourself and being comfortable in your skin. That’s why I’m making this music and having a blast doing it.”
The Oklahoma native moved to Nashville 28 years ago with a few possessions in his 1982 Datsun. “I started writing songs seriously when I was in medical school in Oklahoma,” James says. “I went to a Steve Wariner concert one night in Oklahoma City. I just sat and watched Steve play guitar and I knew I could never play guitar like that, but as far as writing and singing I said, ‘I think I can do that.’ So I got the bug to write some songs. I did my first little demo tape. I came to Nashville in my sophomore year of medical school and Tim Dubois [former head of Arista Records Nashville] offered me a record deal the third day I was in town. I couldn’t believe it. I ended up finishing that second year of medical school, took my boards and the next day I drove to town in my little Datsun.”
Even though DuBois had offered to give him a deal if he’d move to Nashville, James said he didn’t call him for nine months after he arrived. “I knew that I wasn’t ready, so I waited tables at Midtown Café and got a publishing deal,” he recalls. “Nine months later, I had some demos I was proud of so I took them back into Tim and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but about a year ago you said if I moved here,’ and he said, ‘I remember you.’ The next thing you know I’m showcasing and I opened the Wild Horse Saloon. I played the first week it opened and at the end of the week Arista Records came out and saw me play, and Tim gave me a record deal. That was 1993, I think, forever ago.”
The next chapter in his career definitely didn’t proceed as James had hoped. “I proceeded to fail miserably as a recording artist for seven years,” he says. “We had a couple singles out. They went to about 28. I was on Arista for five years. I was in my 20’s and had young babies… Everybody thought I was going to be Garth when I moved to town. I was making good money and had good publishing deals and that good stuff, but it was all based on that I was supposed to turn into a star, and then I didn’t.”
After being in town for seven years, James lost his record deal with Arista and says his publishing deal got cut by two-thirds. His two children were one and two-years-old at the time, and he was worried about providing for them. “When 1999 rolled around, I had a come to Jesus moment, almost a panic attack one day,” he shares. “I looked at a pair of shoes on the shelf at Target for my kid. They were cute, but I couldn’t afford them. I was like, ‘I’m not going to live like this,’ and I snail mailed the Dean of the med school a letter and asked if she’d let me back in. You’re only supposed to take one year off from med school and I’d been off for seven, but she said, “Well you had good grades, so we’ll let you back in, but you’ve got to repeat your sophomore year.’ I was 30 years old. I’d been in Nashville for seven years. I packed up and moved back to Oklahoma City to go back to med school.”
Just before he returned to Oklahoma, James had signed a new publishing deal with producer/publishers Mark Bright and Marty Williams. “They were excited about my songs, but after I signed the deal, I had to take them to breakfast and said, ‘I know I just signed a deal, but I’m going back to medical school,’” James recalls. “Mark Bright was incredibly kind and said, ‘We just signed a contract. You’ve got a year and we’ll see what happens.’ And that was the year that I ended up having 33 of my songs recorded and had five top 10 singles while I was going to med school in Oklahoma every day. I ended up finishing that year in med school, repeating the sophomore year, and I had to go tell that same dean that I was quitting for the second time.”
In an interesting twist of events, James got offered another deal with Arista Records by legendary Nashville executive Joe Galante, who had assumed the reins at the label. Arista put out one single that stalled in the 20s on the chart and James was dropped again. However, Galante wanted some of his songs for other artists, which led to Chesney and Uncle Kracker recording “When the Sun Goes Down,” and taking it to the top of the charts for seven weeks.
In the two decades since his last attempt at being a recording artist, James has become one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters. He’s had cuts by Luke Bryan, Kelly Clarkson, Florida Georgia Line, Meghan Trainor, Nick Jonas, Taylor Swift, Keith Urban and many others. He’s had 25 No. 1 hits and even wrote the opening theme for Super Bowl LII. He’s earned a Grammy, three CMA Triple Play Awards, and has been named ASCAP’s Songwriter of the Year twice.
So was writing for his own project a different process than writing for other artists? “It’s a totally different process for me,” he admits. “Usually when I’m writing for Carrie or Martina [McBride] or somebody like that, it’s almost always a co-write and we’re focused on what they want to say. What do they want to say to the world? What have they not said? How do they sing? I’m trying to write a song in terms of their voice, their thoughts.
“My process when I write by myself is I just start strumming on my guitar and start singing,” he continues. “I can’t even have anybody in the same house when I do it because I feel so ridiculous because I just sing whatever comes out. When I’m by myself, I might go through seven or eight different kind of grooves and ideas. I’ll get into one and think it’s great and five minutes later I think, ‘That sucks! Let’s find something different.’ So it’s a very different process.”
When he started writing for the new project, James says he didn’t have any pre-conceived notions or agenda. “I really just kind of let it flow. I’ve done this long enough to know what my natural voice is and I’m pretty much a soul singer. I grew up singing in church. That’s what I grew up singing my whole life, emulating some of my favorite gospel singers like Russ Taff,” notes James, who says the only time in his life that he’s ever been star struck is when he first met Taff.
James’ goal for his project was to just be true to himself. “I knew I just had to sing from the gut and sing in my most natural voice, so that’s where it started and that’s what it turned out to be,” he says. “Nashville soul music is what I’m calling it.”
Recorded at Nashville’s SmoakStack Studios, James produced I Am Now and wrote each of the five songs himself, with the exception of the title track, which he co-wrote with J.T. Harding and Chris Stevens. “I’m a 50-something-year-old guy and I’m not going to write country songs about girls and trucks,” he says. “The subject matter for me became all about love. It’s pretty much a record about love and I’m very much in love. I’m engaged. I had a lot to work with from that. That’s where I am in life.”
“True Believer” is a song he penned for his daughter. “She absolutely loves it. The thing about writing songs for other people, you really don’t write personal songs for other people as a songwriter, so this album was a chance for me to write some stuff that’s personal. ‘True Believer’ just popped out, I didn’t have a plan to write a song about my daughter or didn’t even have a title. I remember just sitting on the couch, just strumming that little groove and that’s what came out. . . It’s also about my boys, but they would never admit it,” says James, who has one daughter and three sons. “It’s not like I only love my daughter, but my boys would never admit that their dad wrote this love song about them.”
There are already plans for more new music by James to be released in the coming year, including a tender song titled “Tell the People.” “The hook of that song is ‘Tell the people that you love that you love them,’” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with telling somebody you love them, more than once. I think telling people everyday is not a bad idea, so that’s where that idea came from, and I think even in the last couple of weeks it becomes even more poignant because we all know how fragile we are as humans.”
After so many years of giving words and melodies to other artists, James is enjoying sharing his own stories. “There’s so much noise in the world right now. Everybody can make a video in a second and put it online and have 10 million views tomorrow, “ he says, “but what do you want to say? What do you want your legacy to be? I want to sing about love and sing about positive things, and to hopefully write some songs that people fall in love with and make the world a little bit of a better place. To me, that’s what it’s about. It’s about throwing my hat in the ring and throwing my voice in the ring and saying, ‘Hey, let’s all love each other more than we are.’”