Soon after graduating from Baylor University in ‘91, Brett James Cornelius, known in the music industry as Brett James, realized that both his medical school aspirations and his performing dreams were ending, but his songwriting career was just beginning.
James has since become a successful songwriter penning songs for Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban and many more, while also winning a number of industry awards.
Though he spends his days in Nashville writing songs for “big-timers,” he talked over the phone with me about his career, personal life and faith.
Do you have any songs that are personal or mean more to you than others?
“The ones that end up meaning the most to me are the ones that really touch people. I’ve been fortunate enough to write a few of those over the years like “Jesus Take the Wheel”, “Blessed”, “Something in the Water” or “Who I Am”. You hear stories back like, ‘I really needed that song at that point in my life’ and that’s when you realize how blessed you are you get to do it. You’re like ‘Wow, some of the words that I made up in a room, one afternoon, there is this megaphone called radio and they go out to the world.’ Those little words that you got to be a part of, become a part of someone else’s life and they mean something to someone, and that’s the best part.”
Tell me about how Jesus Take the Wheel came about.
You would think there would be some massive lightning strike kind of thing with that one because it turned into a special song. But, it was a very typical songwriting day with two of my best friends. A girl named Hillary Lindsey and a guy named Gordy Sampson, we were sitting in Hillary’s living room like we’ve done lots of times and you know we drank coffee for a while, and caught up on life, and finally we sat down. Hillary always sits on the floor and Gordy was sitting on the floor and I’m sitting on the couch and we’re just kind of talking about stuff. Usually when writing a song we say ‘Okay, where are we going to start. What is our idea for the day?’
I always keep a list, I have about 500 song titles on my list right now. We’re always kind of collecting ideas so that when these situations come we can stir them out. So we’re going through song titles and Gordy goes ‘Well, I’ve got this kind of crazy song idea and it’s called ‘When Jesus Takes the Wheel”’ And you know honestly the first time I heard it, I kind of laughed, I chuckled. I thought, ‘What in the world! So, like Jesus is driving a car? What is going on?’ When he first said it, it struck me as a crazy idea. So, we moved on and went through what else we had. Fortunately, we came back to that one and started writing a song about a little girl, driving to Cincinnati on a snow-white Christmas Eve. We loved the song when we wrote it. It moved us but it still seemed like a crazy idea. I mean “Jesus Take the Wheel”? We almost didn’t even put it on a demo session because we didn’t think it was almost worthy of putting on a session because it was almost too crazy, like no one would ever want that. But, that is a great example of the right song and right artist. We wrote that before Carrie Underwood had won American Idol and then she goes on to win and they liked that song for her. It seemed like the perfect fit. I feel totally blessed that I got to be a small part of that.”
Do you have specific themes you like to write about?
“We write about just the general themes of life. We write about love a lot, we write about spirituality and God a lot. These days, especially in Country [music], we write about sexy stuff a lot. And we’re forced to write about trucks and bonfires. You kind of have to write to the market. But I think all songwriters in all genres end up writing about the same themes, the basic themes of life. You kind of just keep trying to draw from that well. We always say that songwriters spend almost every day looking for another line for love. There’s some truth to that. We’re trying to find a little different way to say something that has been said a bunch of times.”
What is a piece of advice would you give to a college student trying to pursue their dreams?
“Don’t take yourself or it to seriously and work really, really, really hard. The ticket is perseverance and it’s like any craft or any sport. You don’t get to be Tiger Woods without hitting 1,000 golf balls. You might have natural talent but you still have to write and write and write to hone that talent.”
What have you learned the most through the process of becoming a songwriter?
“I didn’t come to Nashville to be a songwriter, I didn’t even really know that was a job. I came to Nashville because I wanted to be the next Garth Brooks, you know, from Oklahoma. He was huge at the time and that’s what I wanted to be. So I proceeded for the next five or six years to fail completely miserably as a recording artist. (chuckle) All of my singles went to like 28 on the charts and it just didn’t work for me to be the guy on stage.
So after trying for five years, and also having two little babies at home I decided this isn’t working out and I’m not going to make it in Nashville. After being in Nashville for a full seven years, I decided to go back to medical school. I actually went back for a year and that’s when my songwriting career exploded. I decided after being in Nashville for seven years, I would go back to school, and when I did, I literally went back to the University of Oklahoma and jumped back into med school as a sophomore. I had to repeat my sophomore year and for whatever reason I was home for nine months and got 33 of my songs recorded and five top ten singles and all kinds of crazy stuff. I got offered a record deal, which was crazy, while I was living in Oklahoma. So I finished that year of med school as well and for the second time, and they said ‘You can’t come back.’ They were very nice about it, but said ‘You’re done now.’
So I quit med school for the second time and made another record for that same record label, and it didn’t do well either. It was definitely God telling me I wasn’t supposed to be the star. I think initially I learned a lot of humility. You know when I first moved to Nashville, everybody told me I was going to be the next Garth Brooks. And they treated me like that — they treated me like I was going to be a big deal. I was getting paid lots of money, I would go to a party and people would treat me like I was special and then all of a sudden it doesn’t work and you go to the same party, you’re getting ignored and you’re not making as much money. It’s humbling. I learned a lot through that process. First of all, I learned that feeding your family is the most important thing. It doesn’t really matter how you do it. It’s a matter of whether you’re taking care of your kids. And then the main thing is that God has a plan…We think we have a plan but often God has a different plan and always a better plan.”
You can find Brett James’ full story, also written by Mary Claire Brock, in the Winter 2017 issue of “The Baylor Line.”