Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Brett James sheds some light into his life as a songwriter and publisher as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel.”
Brett James’ career is one of perseverance. It includes two stints in med school, two tries at an artist career and a long legacy of 22 No. 1 songs over the span of 16 years. In an interview with Sounds Like Nashville, the songwriter shares how a Steve Wariner concert shifted his life plan and sparked his decision to move to Nashville.
During his first year in med school at the University of Oklahoma, James attended Wariner’s concert and instantly thought, “I think I can do some of that.” As he recalls, he knew he could sing and he thought he could write songs, too.
“He inspired me to show that part of me for the first time,” James explained to Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “And so, I went home and wrote ‘Sweet, Slow Oklahoma’ and I wrote about ten other songs and took some summer money I made in between my freshman and sophomore year in med school and did a little cassette tape.”
It was 1991 and James had one friend in the music business who was an intern at a college radio station in Michigan. She shared his music with her boss who was well connected and soon called James and said he’d like to be his manager, asking how soon he could get to Nashville. Spring break was coming up so during his sophomore year of med school, James traveled to Nashville for the first time and found himself at the famed Bluebird Café and took several label meetings. His third day in Nashville he met with the president of Arista Records, Tim DuBois, who promised James a record deal if he moved to Nashville.
Knowing a record deal doesn’t happen so easily, James went back to med school and thought about his impending decision. Once he realized Nashville was the answer, he then finished up the school year and told the dean that he’d take a year off. That one year turned into seven. James then waited a year before he reached back out to Arista Records because he says he wasn’t ready.
“I waited tables at Midtown Café in Nashville and hit the streets and got my own publishing deal and finally, when I thought I had something that he’d want to hear, I came back in and said, ‘Remember me? It’s been a long time, but you said if I moved here, you’d give me a record deal,'” he explains.
James had another meeting with Arista and they liked what they heard and he eventually garnered a record deal and spent 1993-1997 on Arista Records and released three singles. James admits that he “failed miserably” as all three songs went to around No. 28 on the country charts. By the time 1999 rolled around he was dropped by both his label and publishing deal and with two young children at home he had to figure out a Plan B.
“I just wanted to make sure I could feed my family. At some point, that’s what it comes down to when you’re a dad,” he says. “And I really didn’t care how. I didn’t care if it was in music. I figured I’ve given music my shot, and it hasn’t worked out, so let me figure out a way to feed the family. All I’d ever done was gone to med school, so I wrote the dean of the school a letter and said, ‘I’ve been out one year, I know it’s been seven, but is there any chance I could come back?'”
The dean allowed him to return, but said he had to repeat his sophomore year. So, in the fall of 1999 he went back to Oklahoma since he knew as a doctor he could feed his kids and put them through college. But that’s far from the end of James’ Nashville story.
“It was kind of bizarre to be back at school, seven years later, same classes and all that kind of stuff,” he admits. “I started on Sept. 1, and on Sept. 4 Faith Hill cut one of my songs. And up until that I only had two of my songs recorded by other artists. By the third day back to med school, Faith Hill cut one and the floodgates opened, and I got 33 more of my songs recorded in the next five months and ended up having five Top 10 singles that year while I was going to med school every day.”
While finishing up his sophomore year for the second time, he decided to give Nashville one more shot. Although, James admits had it only been 10 songs cut, he probably would have stayed in med school.
“It was so overwhelming that there were so many of my songs getting recorded and people liking them all of a sudden that I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a job now,'” he recalls. “After a lot of failure in Nashville I came back in 2000, and that was 16 years ago.”
James was offered another record deal with Arista Records and put out one more single. The song didn’t work at radio and this marked the end of his artist career. It was far from the end of his songwriting career though, as James has come to amass 22 No. 1 songs by artists like Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Kenny Chesney and Chris Young, among others.
While his official artist career may be over, it hasn’t slowed James’ performances in Nashville. A frequent feature at the Bluebird Cafe, James is set to play the third-annual Music City Hit-Makers’ Songwriters Under the Stars showcase on Aug. 26 and 27 in Nashville where he will be backed by a symphony at Cheekwood’s Swan Lawn. He will also be joined by friends and fellow songwriters Rivers Rutherford and Chris DeStefano who will each play several of their chart-topping hits with the Music City Symphony. James says he will be playing one of the most honest songs he has ever written — “The Truth” recorded by Jason Aldean — and says it’s a song that has stood the test of time for him.
James adds that his cousin, Charles Dixon, originally had the idea to combine Nashville’s hit songwriters with a symphony, merging the two worlds of music together.
“It ends up being a really fun night because it’s just the hits, but in a different setting,” he says of the evening of music which will include 16 string players and several studio musicians backing the songwriters outside of the Cheekwood mansion in Belle Meade. “It’ll be lots of laughs, lots of silliness. The setting is incredible.”
While songs like Chesney’s “Out Last Night” may be hard to imagine backed by strings, others like Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” seem more fitting. As James explains, he wrote the Grammy Award-winning song years ago with Gordie Sampson and Hillary Lindsey before Underwood won American Idol. Sampson threw out the line “Jesus Take the Wheel” and neither of his co-writers knew what it meant. After moving down their idea list for the day, they went back 20 minutes later and started talking about what the song could look like.
“Next thing you know, we’re writing a story song about a girl driving to Cincinnati. That was just one of the magic things that happens occasionally,” he reflects. “We all write lots of songs, and we knew that was a good song. But to have it turn into something like it did, it takes the right artist at the right time with the right song. That was just the combination of all three of those coming together. And it was a really cool thing.”
James says he often looks at songwriting as if he’s a fiction writer. Every day he gets to play a different character and puts himself in that character’s shoes. Having written about 2,500 songs with 500 recorded by other artists, he says most days he finds himself playing the role of a new character rather than writing about his personal life. He also recalls the best advice he has received on songwriting, which came from his father.
“My dad actually told me one day when I came to Nashville, ‘Just remember every day you don’t write a song, all the other songwriters are,'” he says with a laugh. “That’s always stuck in my head. There’s a work ethic involved… people don’t think that songwriters are hard workers, typically. But every successful one that I’ve ever known is an incredibly hard worker. Nobody makes any songwriter get up and go to work and write a song. We’re self employed, so we have to be self motivated to do it.”
Having seen success himself as a songwriter, James decided to start his own publishing company, Cornman Music, to help mentor younger artists. He calls it “one of the great joys of my life.”
“That’s a responsibility for guys like me who’ve been doing it for a long time, just to help younger writers along,” he concedes. “We have eight writers right now all of which, I think, are more talented than I am. And I really admire and look up to them as songwriters.”