In the past 25 years, Still Working Music songwriter Tommy Lee James’ songs have found success when paired with some of the industry’s most dazzling vocalists, among them Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Reba, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, and Ronnie Dunn.
James penned Reba’s 1995 hit, “And Still,” and the 1998 juggernaut duet from Reba and Brooks & Dunn, “If You See Him/If You See Her.”
“That’s one of those songs where total calculation paid off,” he says. “We heard that Ronnie and Reba were looking for a duet. I got together with [co-writers Terry McBride and Jennifer Kimball] and we wrote a song expressively for Brooks & Dunn, and Reba. We wrote it like, ‘If he said this, then she would say this,’ and we played it for them and that was it. It was really easy.”
McBride’s “Wrong Again,” Yearwood’s “Nothing ‘Bout Memphis” and “This Is Me You’re Talking To,” Aguilera’s “Beautiful People,” and Ronnie Dunn’s “Bleed Red,” are also in James’ musical arsenal, as are Tim McGraw’s “She’s My Kind Of Rain,” Blake Shelton’s “My Eyes,” Cyndi Thompson’s “What I Really Meant To Say” and Taylor Swift’s “Untouchable.”
“I do take range into consideration,” he says of crafting songs for vocalists with a substantial vocal span and power. “There is something about a song jumping from a verse to a chorus. It gives it that American Idol thing where it just hits.
“I usually target a bit when I write, just to keep me in the ballpark of what I’m writing for. I think when I have a specific artist in mind like a Celine or Trisha or Martina, I try to hear their voices singing it and it gives you inspiration and you follow that lead a little bit.”
James has crafted songs for an array of artists from country, pop and rock. He penned two songs, “They Don’t Know About Us,” and “Loved You First,” for British boy band One Direction’s 2012 Take Me Home project. “God Only Knows” found a home on rock guitarist Orianthi’s 2009 album Believe.
James grew up in Virginia, listening to his relatives play bluegrass music and poring over Buck Owens and Glen Campbell songbooks. Music of all genres emanated from his transistor radio, as it did from television programs including American Bandstand, Hee Haw and The Ed Sullivan Show.
James began writing songs at 13, not long after he had joined his first band.
“My dad made me promise that I wouldn’t play in any place that served alcohol, and that I wouldn’t grow my hair long,” James says. “By 17, I was playing in a band in a bar and my hair was down to my shoulders and I was getting home at 2 a.m.”
After studying piano and voice in college, and influenced by the music of the Eagles and J.D. Souther, James was intent on pursuing a recording career in Nashville. Before long, he switched his focus to songwriting.
“I totally had blinders on about being an artist. I was writing songs for my artist thing. You think you are on one road but you are really on another road. My artist thing didn’t work out for the country market, but it was cool to start writing songs and realize how important that was.”
Still Working Music’s Barbara Orbison served as a prominent mentor in James’ career before her death in 2011.
“For 21 years when I worked with her, she opened up so many doors for me. She took me to that next level and believed in me in the good years and not so good years. She was not afraid to spit out my name in any room to anybody.”
James’ creations have taken him from Virginia to Nashville to London, where he penned Dion’s “Didn’t Know Love” with fellow Nashville writer Jessi Alexander and Francis Anthony “Eg” White, a producer and writer for Adele.
“That was more of a pleasant surprise,” James says. “Eg did this amazing demo of it and was producing for Celine at the time, so that’s how it happened. I love that song and she’s amazing. You almost expect a Celine song to be like a chest-pumping, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ song, but this is a little more subdued, a little more Adele-ish.”
On April 14, he will release the album The Wontons, with the album title taken from the name of a fictitious band his daughter created. James played nearly all the instruments on the album (with the exception of drums), sang all vocals, and wrote all of the songs for the album, which he describes as “early ‘80s, jangly guitar, garage pop.”
He recorded the album over a six-month period at Roy Orbison Jr.’s home studio, and says the process “brought me back to the love of music.”
“In some ways I’ve always been a frustrated artist,” he says. “When you’ve been writing songs for 30 years, your creativity level is going to go up and down. We’re not machines. You have to be engaged to do your best work. If I’d have had a record deal in 1981, it’s the record I would have wanted to make, if I knew then what I know now. I wanted it to sound like a bunch of 16-year-olds in their garage, figuring out what to play on their guitars. The one thing I miss from music from the ‘60s and ‘70s is there was a naivety about music that drew you in.”
Recently, James’ songwriting has expanded into the EDM market. His track “Are You With Me,” recorded by Easton Corbin, was remixed by Belgian DJ Lost Frequencies in 2014. The track topped the music charts in 17 countries. Since then, James has been writing more music and sending it to EDM markets. In a full-circle move, James says his vocals are featured on an upcoming track from German DJ Thomas Gold.
“[Are You With Me] totally blew up and got me interested in that market,” James says. “Nice to keep it interesting.”
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