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By James Rea

Brett James
Brett James

Over the past decade, Brett James has had more than 300 of his songs recorded by some of the biggest artists on the planet. From Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts, to Bon Jovi, Backstreet Boys, Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson, and Leona Lewis, his songs have appeared on albums with combined sales of over 100 million. He has had numerous hit singles including 13 #1's, he won a Grammy in 2006 for "Jesus, Take the Wheel", was named ASCAP's songwriter of the year in 2006 and again in 2010 and appeared on Billboard magazines' year end top ten country songwriters list 7 of those 10 years. Brett has the current Kelly Clarkson single, "Mr. Know It All" and also has the current Kenny Chesney single, "Reality". Brett is a current CMA and NSAI Board Member and his producer credits include Kip Moore, Mark Wills, Billy Ray Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Buddy Jewel, Jessica Simpson and Josh Gracin.

A native of Oklahoma, Brett grew up singing in church, got his first guitar when he was 18, taught himself to play and by the time he reached college he was the lead singer in a rock band. "As soon as I learned 3 chords, I started writing songs." Following in his father's and his grandfather's footsteps, after college, Brett went on to spend three years in medical school. "One night I went to a Steve Warner concert and it was that night that I decided to get serious about writing songs."

That year while working at a summer camp, Brett wrote 10 songs and sent the best five to his friend, Deb Markland whose husband Steve Markland now runs Warner Chappell. Deb's boss, Reen Nally, wanted to manage Brett, so in his sophomore year, they met in Nashville, on spring break. They met with 2 labels before she introduced him to Cliff Audretch. Cliff liked Brett and took Brett to meet Tim Dubois, who had just started Arista. On Brett's third day in Nashville, Tim Dubois said "If you move to Nashville, I'll give you a record deal."

Brett went home, finished out his year, took his board exams, 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 9 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 immediately 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'."

In the meantime, Brett left his pub deal with Pat Higdon and was signed to EMI, but had no cuts through that period and lost his deal with EMI only to find himself, walking the streets looking for a new pub deal in 99' at 23. But that year, Mark Bright was just starting Teracel, a new co-venture with Sony and Brett was the first writer to be signed at about 1/3 of the money he had been making at EMI.

"Too many guys hold on to the dream too long. I'd been here going on 7 years and the reality was, I had a family to feed. One night while I was at Target on White Bridge Road in the shoe aisle, I had a major panic attack. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for my kid but I couldn't. 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 now 30 years old, but I knew that at 36, I'd be working as a doctor. When I got my acceptance letter from med school, I went to Mark Bright and said here's the deal...I'm going back to medical school. Mark was totally cool. "We've got a 1 yr deal, write all you can while you're in school and we'll see how it works out." At that point I only had 2 cuts on Dean Miller & Kenny Chesney, but Kenny released SHE THINKS MY TRACTOR IS SEXY instead of my song, even though it was earmarked as a single."

Brett started back at med school on Sept. 1 and on Sept 4, he and his co-writer Troy Verges got a cut on Faith Hill's BREATH album, which sold 7 million copies. Meantime, Brett was living at his parent's house and Troy would come up and they'd write 7 or 8 songs per week. All of a sudden Kelly King who was plugging their songs started to get cuts like crazy including BLESSED by Martina and WHO I AM by Jessica Andrews. Brett got 33 cuts in 9 months while he was still in med school. By this time, his advance had grown and by the end of the year 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 4-500 of them. I've now produced close to 2,000 demos in the studio. One day Dan 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 Gallante in 2000 after Tim Dubois left, co-produced the album with Dann and put out one single, which went to bout # 29, called CHASING AMY. When that single stiffed as well, Joe Gallante 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 hit # 1, for 6 weeks with WHEN THE SUN GOES DOWN."

Producer's Chair: What was the most important thing that you learnt from Dann Huff about producing?
You can learn a lot from making a record with Dann Huff. He's the master. There wasn't any single piece of advice but I did learn that it's the atmosphere that he creates and it's the respect that he demands, because he's a musical genius.

Is producing something you see doing for a long time?
Yes & No - I love producing, but I love writing. If you get into the details of it, the money isn't what it used to be, 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. For instance, I sang all the background vocals on Kip Moore's record and I engineered all of his vocals. It's very labor-intensive for me. The fun part for me is tracking and I love mixing.

How did you and Kip Moore hook up?
Kip is a pro golfer, a surfer and an outstanding all-around athlete. He introduced himself to me at the Marylyn 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 did schedule anything and I got to the point I felt so bad that I was afraid I might see him at the Y.
One day Joe Fisher (A&R) Universal calls me and says; "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 just had a gold record this week on Universal. He sold 38,000 records - first week; he's number 3 on Country Charts and number 6 on the "Hot 100" overall. His first single SOMETHIN' BOUT A TRUCK has already sold 600,000 downloads.
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 here every step of the way.

When did you produce Taylor Swift?
Taylor Swift is an interesting story and it looks good on a resume. When Taylor was 12, Rene 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 7 years later and became the biggest artist in the world. She put one of the songs we cut, on the record.

Does being an artist give you a unique sensitivity?
Absolutely...It would be very difficult for me to produce vocals if I weren't a singer. Weather it's demos or records, I can sing it for them to convey my thoughts. That's a huge benefit of being a singer. I love producing. There is no greater joy for me than being in the studio with a bunch of musicians. Nothing will top that. 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 do you feel about our industry today?
I think our business is going to do what it's going to do and you just have to roll with it. My one complaint and this is my songwriter beef...Nashville is and was the last "best song wins" town in the world. There isn't another best song wins town. There's a "best political song wins" and there's one were everybody gets the right piece of the song. In a perfect democracy, we had all these artists that didn't write like Reba, George Strait, Faith and Tim, who became starts on the backs of the writers in this town. If I have a beef that's least include some places for the writers in this town who are working their asses off every day. Kenny Chesney is just the opposite. Kenny likes everybody else's songs better than his and he's an amazing songwriter. He's written a number 1 song by himself. Allen Jackson is different because he was a songwriter first. I have no beef with that. That's how great records get made...the best song wins. It serves our community better and it serves the artist better. Staff writer positions went from 1200 at its peak in the 90's to about 200 now. It's not a payback issue...Country music is better off when the best song wins. Once this town closes down and says "we want the publishing too, everybody suffers.

Brett finished an independent album of his own last year called SUGARCANE and he's currently working in development with un-signed artist Caitlyn Smith. "I think she's going to take over the world". Brett lives in Brentwood, Tennessee with his wife, Sandy, and their four children.

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

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tony Brown

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Forest Glen Whitehead

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Scott Hendricks

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Trey Fanjoy

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