James was 12 or 13 years old the first time he experimented with songwriting. Describing himself as a "slow learner," he joined a band and began the "copycat" phase of his young career. "We did all the things that everybody did; you hear stuff and you try to recreate it." After a few years of that, he packed his bags and hit the road to Nashville, convinced he was going to be the Next Big Thing. "I actually didn't move here to be a songwriter. I basically moved here to be a singer. That was my goal. I mean, I could always sing and play. I started playing ukulele and singing around my neighborhood when I was 6 or 7 years old, and everybody would be kind of patting me on the head, and encourage me. I took piano lessons and did that whole deal. But I just always thought that I was gonna be a singer, or a rock star or whatever. Everybody told me I was, and I believed them."
But it's only like that in a fairytale. It was a much tougher slog than he anticipated. "You finally get here and you realize that the record deal is just the beginning," he confesses. It's ugly when the real world hits you square in the face. "When I got to Nashville I realized that a new artist isn't gonna get top shelf songs unless you're one of the few on the label. And so basically I was encouraged to start writing my own songs. If you're not going to be given a song, you're going to have to try to write it. I wrote about a thousand really bad songs. It was total baby steps. It was one of those things where I moved here and thought I was gonna be famous within the month, and I think two years later I finally got a publishing deal after moving here.
It was quite a while before I even got my first cut. But my record never actually came out. The one thing that the record deal did for me was I started writing with a higher level of co-writers. And it's like playing tennis with somebody; if you're playing with somebody better than you, it's going to make you better. I was able to land a publishing deal with Reba McEntire's company, Starstruck, and basically just started doing the Nashville co-writing thing every day. And so by having a deal, it's like people want to write with people who have record deals. And I feel like I just kept improving and learning from the people who I was writing with, and kind of went from there. And then one day I realized I'm not on that road to being an artist, I'm on the road to being a songwriter. It's a switch where you think you're on one path, but you're really on the other one. And I just never stopped songwriting from that point on, and I never lost a lot of the contacts that I made when I had the record deal. And it just kind of went from there."
Songwriters in Nashville, says Tommy, "Don't necessarily wait on inspiration. I think the normal time here is 10:30 in the morning, and you have an appointment with either one or two people usually, and you start throwing out ideas with each other. And hopefully you come up with a verse and chorus by lunch, you go eat lunch, and you write the second verse after lunch (laughs) and do a little work tape. It's kind of an unnatural process. And then once you've got four or five songs that you feel are worthy, you do a demo session with live players. That's how they do it here. And that was 20 years ago for me, and it's still kind of how they do it here.
And it's necessary to keep expanding your circle of co-writers, since it's a very intertwined community. Tommy says he's not as open to working with new writers as he used to be, but warns that it's not good to pass up opportunities; you never know when you're going to be paired with an exceptional talent.
"The Nashville thing is almost like going to school," says James. "You learn how to do it on a real grassroots level, and once you kind of learn that process, nobody can really ever take that away from you. It's a craft that you learn, and you know how to do, but you still have to have the inspiration." (Check out our interview with Tommy Lee James