Tim, thank you very much for your time in speaking with Roots Magazine.
You’re more than welcome.
Q: So you’ve written hits for dozens of superstars: Trace Adkins, George Strait, Toby Keith, the list goes on. How would you summarize your career up to this point?
A: Probably like most people in the music business would: right time, right place. There are some people who are great guitar players. There are some people who are great lyricists. There’s no formula. I’ve been very fortunate and I’ve worked very hard. I probably write 100 songs a year. In a roundabout way, it’s been great! I gave it a shot and 20-something years later here I am.
Q:. Where did you get the inspiration to pursue a career in songwriting?
A: I just felt like that’s something God wanted me to do. Somebody said to me a long time ago “If you have a Plan B, it’ll happen.” I sold Robitussin as a pharmacist. So when I decided that being a writer is something that I wanted to do I thought, “what’s the quickest way from A to B”. If you’re an athlete, you typically get better by playing with people who are better than you. That’s the same approach I took to writing songs.
Q:. Which artist has been a major influence on your songwriting?
A: Oddly enough, it would be me growing up with a lot of RnB. I loved it. I didn’t particularly gravitate towards country. I grew up on a farm and when I moved to LA, I found that I could identify with Dan Fogelberg or James Taylor type music. But Randy Foster’s Del Rio, TX 1959 record was so good and chalk full of these country songs that made me go, “that’s the stuff.” My inspiration was definitely more singer-songwritery.
Q: What was your first major break as a writer and how instrumental was it to your career?
A: I was always a “list” guy. I’d make my list and cross it off or I’d forget about it. After my dad had gotten sick, I realized my list should be of things more important. I would end up writing “My List” with a friend of mine which Toby Keith ended up cutting. The single went on to be the most played song of the year. Now that song has been on about 12 million albums. That was the song that went from me, having no name whatsoever, to kicking the door down.
Q:. Do you find yourself changing up your writing process when you’re working with a newer artist as opposed to someone who’s more established?
A: In today’s world, so many of the younger guys will write from tracks—strictly instrumental beats. I’m not the guy who’s gonna carry the traditional flag, by the same token, I don’t think I’m great at writing from track-based music. I still love the idea of picking up a guitar and writing a song. I do believe you have to change with the times. But sometimes you just have to stick with what you do and how you do it.
Q: Often you hear from songwriters that the best advice for other aspiring writers is to write, write, write. But what have you found to be the best ways to improve your craft?
A: The only thing that I’ve tried to do is pay attention some of the more Morgan Wallen’s or The Hardee’s. Truthfully, those guys do what they do better than I can do it. But I don’t think that should keep you from trying to adapt. Being a straight commercial writer, you have to write songs that others identify with. I try to keep up with what’s going on without totally conforming.
Q. What would you say has been the biggest challenge of your career up to this point?
A: Probably just that (conformity) and trying to stay current. That’s the challenge now. To write stuff that the market calls for. If the market calls for apples than you have to make a certain amount of apples.
Q: We’ve already namedropped a few stars but let’s focus on Trace Adkins and the single “All I Ask For Anymore”. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Song and awarded Adkins his second consecutive nomination for Best Male Vocalist. What were those moments like when you were writing the song?
A: I wrote the song with Casey Beathard, two-time BMI songwriter of the year. One of my kid’s had bruises on their shin when they were little. Me, being a new parent, I worried about it. I found it was nothing serious. But I had prayed that night for my family. The next day I wrote the song with Casey. It was very simple and laid out. That was a great time—it was fun! Just to even get to go to the Grammy’s, when 10-years before that you’re selling cough syrup, is pretty wild.
Q: Did you expect it to take off the way it did?
A: Yes! It was great to see it climb the charts and everyone would be saying that it’s gonna be a number one song.
Q: Another big track to touch on is Lee Brice’s “Love Like Crazy”. Not only was it a #1 hit but it broke the record for consecutive weeks on the charts. What was your reaction to all of this buzz and did it have any affect on your next project?
A: When you have success and you continue to have success, each time your stock improves. But “Love Like Crazy” was another huge blessing. Anytime you write a hit—you’ve gotta strike when the irons are hot. The next day I went back and wrote another song. If you take too much time to sit around, it’ll catch ya.
Q: Is there ever a sense of pressure when writing a new song after coming off a chart-topping hit?
A: Not really. A lot of writer’s would say, “you just write what’s in the room”. I like to come in with an idea, a groove or a melody. Everyday is a different day.
Q: Who’ve been your favorite writers to work with thus far?
A: Danny Myreck, Rivers Rutherford, Kendell Marvel and people who’ve just done very well for themselves. I’ve always said, “find your circle of guys.”
Q: Is there a single that you’re most proud of when you look back on it?
A: “Love Like Crazy” by Lee Brice. A couple weeks went by after my dad passed away and I went back to work. I sat down with Doug Johnson and just started writing that song. That chorus is stuff my dad would say.
Q: You’ve worked on a lot of exciting projects recently with your latest being with Chris Stapleton. 2017’s “Either Way” was another monumental hit for Stapleton and a Grammy winner. What’s it like writing alongside someone like Stapleton whose talent seems limitless?
A: That’s how I would describe it, “limitless”. The first song I ever wrote with him I’m thinking, “that guy’s good!” He’s got the gift and is a great writer. He’s just got more talent than anybody.
Q: You’ve worked with some of the best artists in the industry writing hits but did you ever consider writing these hits for yourself in a solo career?
A: I pursued it ever so slightly. Retrospectively, I appreciated people’s honesty when I first started. They would say, “You’re a talented guy but I don’t think you’re talented enough to make it as an artist.” So I decided that I would focus more on lyrics because I loved words. The money is to be made by writing songs for other artists and getting them out on the radio.
Q: The worldwide break of covid heavily impacted industry and halted a lot of artists from completing their songwriting projects. What were those early days of having to adapt like?
A: It was tough. Nobody knew what to do. But I didn’t quit writing. Writer’s write. You may not always make a living at it. But writer’s write.
Q: With Nashville finally opening to full capacity and artists about to head out on tour, what are you most looking forward to this year?
A: Getting back out and playing some dates. Having some fun and being with other writers. Just enjoying life.
Q: Can you clue us in to any upcoming works that you have in the making and with whom?
A: I’m working with Ben Gallaher with Broken Bow Records right now. I’m not writing as much. Because I don’t have to. But I’m still writing. Looking forward to getting back out there.
Thank you very much for your time Mr. James
Absolutely. Stay safe!