Brett James came to Nashville 28 years ago in a 1982 Datsun, with his acoustic guitar, a four-track recorder, and a single garbage bag stuffed with clothes. He dreamed, like thousands before him and thousands more that would follow, of singing his songs for arenas full of people. And just like so many of those people, life didn’t work out for him quite the way he had envisioned.
For one thing, Faith Hill cut one of his songs. Then so did Carrie Underwood. And Kenny Chesney. And dozens of other artists, ranging from Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, and Florida Georgia Line to Kelly Clarkson, Meghan Trainor, and Nick Jonas. James had more than 500 of his songs recorded, for albums with combined sales of more than 110 million copies. Twenty-five of those songs became No. 1 hits. He co-wrote the opening theme for the television broadcast of Super Bowl LII.
So people did pack arenas — even stadiums — and heard Brett James’ songs. He just wasn’t the one singing them.
Dreams of youth don’t die easily. James has renewed his faith in that early dream, crafting a passionate, soulful collection of deeply personal songs from one of contemporary music’s most successful writers. After years of listening to James’ songs, people finally can hear his voice.
“I don’t think anybody has ever really heard my true voice,” says the Oklahoma native. It’s a sound steeped in the musical centers of the South — Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and, yes, Nashville. Like a true soul shouter, James plays vulnerability off a fervent swagger, intensifying his professions of romantic devotion and his reflections on love’s transformative power. James’ new music comes of a lifetime internalizing the gospel-soul of such singers as Al Green, William Bell, and Russ Taff, influences that don’t always come to the fore when James collaborates with other writers on material for other artists.
Locating that single, authentic voice was key, and James wrote a series of songs in an intense surge of creative activity following his 50th birthday. The outpouring began with “Right on Time,” which has an R&B groove that would have fit on a 1970s Willie Mitchell production for Hi Records.
“Over the next three weeks, I wrote a whole record by myself, at my house,” James says. “I set out to write it myself because I wanted the direction to come from me.” The sole exception was “I Am Now,” written with J.T. Harding and Chris Stevens almost a year later.
Freeing himself of the demands for writing for others allowed James to take a more timeless approach that spoke to his soul. “At my stage in life, I’m not going to write about driving around in pickup trucks, chasing girls,” he says. “It needed to feel more classic, lyrically. They all wound up being love songs, but hopefully love songs with a twist, that haven’t all been written before.”
James recorded the new songs at Nashville’s SmoakStack Studios, producing it himself. He may have had the biggest stars and the best voices at his disposal, but these songs needed to come from him — the confessional burst of pent-up emotion in “I Am Now”; the mid-tempo retro-soul of “Still on My Mind”; the patient passion of the Latin-infused “Wait”; the shared solace in “Lonely Ain’t So Lonely,” a different kind of country drinking song.
In “Petty Fool,” James addresses himself directly to love, singing, “Lord knows you can’t be trusted, you play me like this here guitar / I’m weary, worn, and rusted from the way you break my heart.” “True Believer” may be the emotional center of this new song cycle, but it stands distinct from the horn-fueled arrangements prominent elsewhere, a sworn declaration of shelter and encouragement written for James’ daughter (“Well, for all my kids,” he says, “but my boys don’t care as much”).
When Faith Hill included one of James’ songs on her 8x-platinum Breathe, James had one album as an artist under his belt. His songwriting career took off with a long string of No. 1 songs including Martina McBride’s “Blessed,” Jason Aldean’s “The Truth,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All,” Kenny Chesney’s “When the Sun Goes Down,” and Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On.” “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which he co-wrote for Carrie Underwood, won the 2006 GRAMMY for Best Country Song, and he’s been a go-to song source throughout Underwood’s career, co-writing multiple chart-toppers (“Cowboy Casanova,” “Something in the Water,” and “Somethin’ Bad” with Miranda Lambert), as well as “The Champion,” which NBC used as the theme for its televised coverage of Super Bowl LII. ASCAP named James its Country Songwriter of the Year twice.
James is now viewed as a leader in the songwriter community, not just because of his incredible success but also for his work with Nashville Songwriters Association International, where he formerly chaired the legislative committee engaged in pushing for copyright reform and now serves as music-business liaison.
After all these years in Nashville, the fire still burns inside James. It’s not the hunger for achievement; it’s the drive to create meaningful music. “As a songwriter, you don’t always get to make music you love,” he says. “You try to make music someone else loves. It’s wonderful when the two goals meet, but sometimes they don’t. You don’t really go into music to play a song for the one person in the room you’re writing with, then never play it again.”
As he takes the stage more and more to share True Believer with audiences, some of those other songs will work their way into his sets. For instance, he already has come up with an R&B arrangement of “Jesus, Take the Wheel” complete with horns. “There are certain ones that can work, and certain ones can’t,” he says. “I think they have to find their place.”
James still has stories to tell, some that he’ll write and some that he’ll live.
“I’ve been blessed beyond belief to have gotten to be a songwriter — and to continue to be a songwriter,” he says. “I’ve done my other day job for 20-something years, and it’s great. But I know what that looks like. You’re never too old to dream big, and you don’t give up on your dreams just because some of the other ones came true.”