Photo courtesy Evolution PR
Songwriting Session is a column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Brett James shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
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.”
For more of my interview with Brett James, visit Sounds Like Nashville.