Brett James’ career reads like a classic blueprint for a Broadway musical. The soundtrack is already written— just chose from over 300 award winning songs recorded by superstars like Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Kelly Clarkson and many more.
Our hero bravely sets his sights on a career in country music, but stumbles and fails. Then in a classic parable of loss and redemption that even includes repeating the same year at medical school, he returns and triumphs. Throw in some Hollywood sizzle, add a few tablespoons of drama and label it SOLD OUT!!!
Brett James Cornelius’ (aka Brett James) Nashville journey began with an early ‘90s Spring Break trip to Music City that had been orchestrated by his friend Deb Markland and her boss Reen Nalli who heard something in his song demos. They got him in front of Arista lynchpin Tim DuBois who agreed and said, “Mister if you move here I’ll give you a record deal.”
James returned to Oklahoma to finish the year at Med School and then quickly moved to Nashville. “But I knew I wasn’t really ready,” he says. “So for nine months, I worked tables at Midtown Cafe, got a publishing deal with Pat Higdon and played every open mic I could find.” Armed with added confidence and some songs he believed in, James finally called DuBois. “Sir, I don’t know if you remember me, but…” And a few months later James was offered a record deal back stage at the Wild Horse saloon. “Unfortunately, I spent the next six years failing miserably as an artist,” James admits.
By ’98 Brett had sadly lost his record and publishing deals and was beginning to lose hope. “I’m in the wrong business,” he thought. Some relief came that Spring with a contract from Teracel Music, a newly formed Sony joint venture by producer Mark Bright.
But one day at Target James suffered what he describes as “a panic attack” over how he was going to provide for his family. He wrote the Medical School Dean that summer (’99) who pulled some strings and got him reinstated with the caveat that he repeat his sophomore year.
James says, “I remember taking Mark to breakfast at the Pancake Pantry to tell him about my decision to leave only about six weeks after signing as his only writer.” Mark said, “I have kids and totally understand. You have a contract for a year, write songs up there and we’ll see how it goes.”
NEKST: So you returned to the same Med school classes with the same professors that you had attended about eight years ago when you were 22 years old?
Brett James: Yes. Becoming a doctor was still about 6 or 7 years off, but it was a sigh of relief to have a plan. But my fourth day back in Med school I got a call from Teracel songplugger Kelly King that Faith Hill had recorded one of my songs. and then amazingly as the year went on, the calls kept coming.
NEKST: What was it like trying to study and getting this news?
Brett James: Kelly was calling almost every week with news about cuts with artists like Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney. She was my favorite person that year. I’d step back into the library full of med students and there was no one to tell so I’d just celebrate at my own little desk. I finished that year, took my exams and then had to go tell the Dean I was quitting… again. I brought a list with all 33 songs/artists that had been recorded. “Thanks for letting me back into school,” I said, “but look what’s happening with my music career right now.”
NEKST: Was the Dean supportive?
Brett James: Turns out she was a huge country music fan. She said, “You have to go do this, you don’t have a choice.” Then she smiled and added, “but you can’t ever come back.” It was very much a God thing. Our house in Nashville that should have sold never did and my wife stayed with the kids so they never really even moved. Had it been just ten cuts I wouldn’t have quit school, but it was so overwhelming.
NEKST: To what do you attribute that amazing string of 33 cuts?
Brett James: My musical background was probably a little more pop and rock and we started to see the genre shift from artists like Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chesnutt toward Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina type females and Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney males. I had been trying too hard to make the career work. Suddenly it was like screw it, I’m in Oklahoma, going to med school. I couldn’t be further from the music business so I’m going to write what I like and not try to crash the market. It was a big creative shift—letting go of the dream of being a big star and just trying to write some cool music.
NEKST: Do you miss the artist career?
Brett James: I am at peace with it. Hey, you have to be, there’s no choice. That was very much a God thing too. Being able to watch my kids grow on a daily basis instead of being away on a tour bus has been a true blessing. The other nice thing about being a behind-the-scenes guy is songwriters are allowed to fail. People only recognize our successes they don’t know about the 100s of songs that no one recorded, whereas two singles can end an artist career. One of the greatest things is the friendships and relationships you make, that feeling of community, getting a seat at the table. It’s huge. I still love my job. Each day is different. I can’t believe I get to work with these people.
NEKST: Is Tim DuBois the secret head of the Oklahoma music mafia?
Brett James: [smiles] Tim certainly is the head of the group which is pretty large—Ronnie Dunn, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Reba, Garth, Vince Gill and many more. And I do remember him telling me when we first met, “You’re from Oklahoma so you get 20 extra points.” But one could also argue that the Georgia mafia has taken over country music in the last few years… maybe it’s just something in the zeitgeist of country music. It will be fun to see which state takes over next…
NEKST: Nashville co-writes seem to have expanded from two to three. What are your preferences?
Brett James: Some of the three-way stuff is because there’s a track guy in the room who is not necessarily a top liner or lyricist although he can be. In that case you’ve got one guy doing the track and two guys responsible for most of the lyric and melody. But three-way writes have been around for years. My take is you usually don’t need any more than three. Somebody is driving that ship and it is probably not everyone in the room. Pop records can be different. You find 12 writers on a song because maybe they used a sample from the ‘70s which added an entire band to the credits.
If you can write A+ songs and say something that hasn’t been said before in a way that no one has heard before then you will win.
NEKST: Pop doesn’t split the credits equally. Does Nashville still work that way?
Brett James: Our town is an equal split town and I hope it never changes. I don’t want you and I to have a beautiful day making up something we’re proud of and then have one of managers call three weeks later and say, “My guy really feels like he did 70% of that day.” That takes the fun out of it.
NEKST: I guess if you feel a co-writer isn’t contributing enough, then don’t write with them again?
Brett James: Exactly, just move on. I love the equal split thing in this town, it makes me proud.
NEKST: What’s the marketplace like for new writers today?
Brett James: In the ‘90s there were perhaps 1,200 full-time, signed, published Nashville writers. Today there’s only 100 cuts a year that matter. If 1,000 writers each write 25 songs/yr. that’s 25,000 new songs competing for 100 slots. And there’s maybe only 10 albums a year that really make substantial publishing money. So you got 25,000 new songs, old catalog and covers all competing for very few prizes.
NEKST: How many songs do you write a year?
Brett James: Even in my old age [smiles] I’m still good for about 80-100 per year. I try to have something on the books most every day which can be a little overwhelming cause you also need time to catch up and record them. Tracking guys make it easier because the track can be finished before you leave the writing session. It can be inspiring to hear the record develop as you write the song which pop has been doing for years. With just two guitars you have to imagine everything. But I love to write that way too. Today after this interview I’ll go upstairs to the piano and write by myself. It’s rare for me to write by myself, but I got cancelled on today and am excited to do it.
NEKST: What do you seek in a co-writer?
Brett James: Having something that I don’t bring to the table. It’s a matter of finding two or three people whose talents compliment each other. It’s better if your set of skills aren’t exactly like mine and we don’t always hear things the same way.
NEKST: What do new writers need to know?
Brett James: You have to be here. I realize you can record in your bedroom and most songs don’t get pitched face to face they are sent via email so in theory you could even live in Zimbabwe—but it’s not true. You’ve got to be here a lot, be really talented, hustle hustle hustle and focus on the music.
NEKST: What about the business ropes?
Brett James: Many new writers focus too much on the business side. If you write great music you will hit. Not good or A minus songs. If you can write A+ songs and say something that hasn’t been said before in a way that no one has heard before then you will win. It’s less of a free market now, because so many artists write and may look to co-writers, but not outside songs. But if you write really great songs, eventually those artists will want to write with you. The music leads to everything.
NEKST: Considering the switch from ownership to access, what’s the next 5-10 years look like for writers and publishers?
Brett James: I’ve been Chairman of the legislative committees for the Grammy Board locally and NSAI and I know it is amazingly complex. But in my humble opinion it’s time to sound the alarm and ring the bells. If we feel like the non-performing songwriter in America should exist as a profession, action has to be taken. I don’t believe that my job as a non-performing songwriter will exist within the next ten years if things don’t change. If you take the FM radio piece out of songwriter/publishers livelihoods, we are literally looking for jobs tomorrow. There’s nothing to replace it. We lost mechanical royalties and streaming royalties are not enough to make a living. There was a time when even if you weren’t having hits on the radio, you could get by on mechanical royalties from album cuts. And it’s not for guys like me that the fight needs to be fought, it’s about finding the next Craig Wiseman that moves to town. They aren’t going to be able to support themselves unless things change and that’s a fact. We have such a great history of American songwriters, it’s scary to think that legacy could disappear.