The Producer’s Chair: Brett James

Brett James released his album Sugarcane last year and is currently developing artist Caitlyn Smith. He lives in Brentwood with his wife Sandy, and their four children.

By James Rea

Don’t miss Brett James on The Producer’s Chair Thurs., May 31, 6 p.m. at Douglas Corner. Details at theproducerschair.com.

Over the past decade, Brett James has had more than 300 songs recorded by some of the biggest artists on the planet including Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Bon Jovi, Backstreet Boys, Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis. His songs have appeared on albums with combined sales of over 100 million units. He has had 13 No. 1s, won a 2006 Grammy for “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” and was named ASCAP Songwriter of the Year in 2006 and 2010.

James wrote current Kelly Clarkson single, “Mr. Know It All” and a recent Chesney hit, “Reality.” His producer credits include Kip Moore, Mark Wills, Billy Ray Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Buddy Jewel, Jessica Simpson and Josh Gracin. He is also active in the industry, serving on the CMA and NSAI boards of directors.

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Brett James is an Oklahoma native who grew up singing in church, got his first guitar at 18, taught himself to play and by the time he reached college was the lead singer in a rock band. “As soon as I learned three chords, I started writing songs,” he recalls. “Then I went to a Steve Wariner concert and that night I got serious about writing songs.” Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Brett eventually went on to medical school.

In the meantime, he sent his five best songs to his friend Deb Markland in Nashville, whose husband Steve Markland now runs Warner Chappell. Deb’s boss, Reen Nalli, wanted to manage Brett, so they met in Nashville and she introduced him to Cliff Audretch, who in turn took the young songwriter to meet new Arista head Tim DuBois. On Brett’s third day in Nashville, DuBois said “If you move to Nashville, I’ll give you a record deal.”

Brett made arrangements for a one-year leave of absence from med school, loaded up his 1980 Maxima with a garbage bag full of clothes and a guitar, and moved to Nashville.

“When I arrived, something in my gut told me I wasn’t ready for a record deal, so I didn’t call Tim for about nine months. I started waiting tables at Midtown Café, played open mics and started meeting with publishers. Three or four months later, Pat Higdon offered me a pub deal and within the year, I had some decent demos and decided to give Tim a call.”

Brett’s showcase was the first one at the Wildhorse Saloon when they opened in ‘93 and Tim signed Brett that night to Artista/Career Records. They spent a year making the first record, which was produced by Steve Bogard (NSAI) and Mike Clute. As Brett puts it, “The singles stiffed, so they re-grouped and we made another record, but it never got released and I was dropped from label in ‘97.”

Eventually Brett left his deal with Higdon and signed with EMI, but by 1999 he was looking for a new publisher. Mark Bright was just starting Teracel, a co-venture with Sony, and Brett was the first writer he signed, earning about 1/3 of the draw he had at EMI.

“Too many guys hold on to the dream too long. I’d been here going on seven years and I had a family to feed. One night I was at Target on White Bridge Road and I panicked because I couldn’t buy my kid a pair of shoes. Without telling my wife, I wrote a letter to the dean of the med school to see if I could get back in. I had to repeat my second year. I was 30 years old, but I knew that at 36, I’d be working as a doctor. I told Mark Bright I’d been accepted and he told me to keep writing while I was in school. At that point I had cuts on Dean Miller and Kenny Chesney, but Kenny released ‘She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy’ instead of my song as the single.”

Three days after returning to med school, Brett and co-writer Troy Verges got a cut on Faith Hill’s Breathe album, which sold 7 million copies. He continued to write seven or eight songs per week. Songplugger Kelly King helped him get 33 cuts in nine months, including “Blessed” by Martina McBride, and “Who I Am” by Jessica Andrews. His writing advance increased, he quit med school for the second time and came back to Nashville in 2000. According to Brett, “God had other plans.”

“Through the initial period of pub deals, Pat Higdon and EMI lost a lot of money on me, but they afforded me the opportunity to write about 600 bad songs and demo about 400-500 of them. I’ve now produced close to 2,000 demos in the studio. One day Dann Huff called me when I was still in medical school and said, ‘I love your demos, let’s make a record.’ I got re-signed to Arista by Joe Galante in 2000. I co-produced the album with Dann, put out a single called “Chasing Amy” which went to about No. 29 on the charts. When that single stiffed, Joe Galante called me and said, ‘Brett, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is we’re going to drop you from the label. The good news is I want ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ for Kenny Chesney and ‘The Answer’ for Brad Paisley. Chesney took that song to No. 1 for 6 weeks.”

• • • • •

Producer’s Chair: What is the most important thing that you learned from Dann Huff about producing?
James: You can learn a lot from making a record with Dann Huff. He’s the master. I learned about the atmosphere that he creates, and the respect that he demands, because he’s a musical genius.

Do you plan to continue producing for a long time?
Yes and no. I love producing, but I also love writing. The money isn’t what it used to be for songwriters, by any stretch, because it’s based on record sales. Your advance money is about what you can expect to make, unless you’re writing with the artist. I’m pretty hands on as a producer. For instance, I sang all the background vocals on Kip Moore’s record and I engineered all of his vocals. There’s a huge benefit of being a singer. Whether it’s demos or records, I can sing it for them to convey my thoughts.

Producing is very labor intensive for me. The fun part is tracking and mixing. There is no greater joy than being in the studio with a bunch of musicians. I get to walk into a room with a bunch of my friends and have them spoil me rotten. And I get to drive the ship. The process is such a rewarding collaboration with the musicians.

How did you start working with Kip Moore?
Kip is a pro golfer, a surfer and an outstanding all-around athlete. He introduced himself to me at the Maryland Farms YMCA. He said, “I like what you do and I’d like to be a writer,” and he seemed like a cool guy. Six months went by, we never scheduled anything, and I felt so bad that I was afraid I might see him at the Y.

One day Joe Fisher in A&R at Universal called me and said, “Hey this guy came in my office and said he knows you from the Y, his name is Kip Moore.” So I said, send him over right now. Kip walked in, played two songs, and I said, “OK, you’ve got a publishing deal, now what else can we work on?”

Kip signed with Universal and had a gold record with first single “Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck,” which has sold 600,000 downloads. He sold 38,000 albums the first week out.

It’s very much a labor of love. He’s like my little brother. I don’t think there’s ever been a more talented songwriter in Nashville and I don’t say that lightly. I think Kip will be a 25 or 30-year heritage artist. The depth of his songwriting is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. He’s going to be selling out arenas and I hope I get to be there every step of the way.

When did you produce Taylor Swift?
When Taylor was 12, Renee Bell signed her to a developmental deal at RCA. They tried several producers and we did a demo with her on a song called “Perfectly Good Heart.” Long story short, RCA didn’t sign her to a full deal. Taylor went back to Pennsylvania for a while, came back seven years later and became the biggest artist in the world. She put one of the songs we cut on the record.

How do you feel about our industry today?
I think our business is going to do what it’s going to do and you have to roll with it. My one complaint is when Nashville loses sight of the-best-song-wins. We once had all these artists that didn’t write, like Reba, George Strait, Faith and Tim, who became stars on the backs of the writers in this town. Now it’s not like that. Staff writer positions went from 1200 at the peak in the ‘90s to about 200 today. Great records get made when the best song wins. It serves our community better and it serves the artists better.

Partial Discography
“Cowboy Casanova” Carrie Underwood #1
“Mr. Know It All” Kelly Clarkson 6 week #1 Hot AC
“The Man I Want To Be” Chris Young 3 week #1
“It’s America” Rodney Atkins 2 week #1
“Summer Nights” Rascal Flatts #1
“Out Last Night” Kenny Chesney 2 week #1
“The Truth” Jason Aldean 2 week #1
“Reality” Kenny Chesney # 1
“What Do You Got” Bon Jovi top 10 AC
“I Love You This Big” Scotty McCreery top 15
“It’s A Business Doing Pleasure With You” Tim McGraw top 15
“Get Off On The Pain” Gary Allan top 15
“Good To Be Me” Uncle Kracker current single
“Life After You” Daughtry top 20 Pop/#4 A/C
“When The Sun Goes Down” Kenny Chesney 6 week #1
“Jesus Take The Wheel” Carrie Underwood 6 week #1
“You Save Me” Kenny Chesney # 2
“Blessed” Martina McBride 2 week #1
“Who I Am” Jessica Andrews 4 week #1
“Keg In The Closet” Kenny Chesney top 10 single
“Love You Out Loud” Rascal Flatts top 5 single
“Drugs or Jesus” Tim McGraw top 10 single

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