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Early James may appear unassuming in photographs, but don’t let that fool you – when the microphone is on, the vulnerability and passion in his performance leaves no room to wonder why he was discovered and picked up by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and signed to his label.
In more normal times, that would have been reason to celebrate, but as luck would have it, that first LP, Singing for My Supper, was released in March of 2020, right at the beginning of the national pandemic [on Friday the 13th, no less]. Touring was put on pause, live shows in general came to a screeching halt, and that’s where we met James, a few months later and still full of optimism, fresh off a stint as our featured “Elixir Strings Artist of the Month.”▼ Article continues below ▼
Let’s take it back. You’re originally from Alabama – what were some your first musical experiences down there?
Early on, my mom was a huge fan of the Eagles, so she would always have that Hell Freezes Over DVD on while she was cleaning the house. I think the first song I knew the lyrics to was “Take it Easy” – I would sing that to people in the grocery store, she claims, and not really get the lyrics right [laughs].
That was the first guitar-heavy music that I was hearing and I always say you whittle along a good while before you realize what good music is. You just accept what you hear on the radio…I guess the first artist I heard where I was like, ‘Oh, this is aimed at me,’ was Hank Williams, Sr.
My dad and grandparents all listened to Johnny Cash, Waylon and Merle, Willie Nelson…
OK, so more of the outlaw country stuff…
Were you picking up a guitar around this point?
I think I asked for a guitar when I was 14 and finally got one when I was 15…right when I started listening to stuff like James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix…my sister was even a huge John Mayer fan. I thought he was just pop music until I heard him play guitar. ‘Wow, when this guy plays guitar he sounds just like Jimi Hendrix.’
Yeah, especially with his trio.
It probably worked backwards [for me], like ‘Man, Jimi Hendrix sounds like John Mayer!’ [laughs]
Now you’re making me feel old!
Well, John Mayer’s old [laughs]. That first album came out in like 2001, I believe.
At some point you must have had that moment where you wanted to write your own stuff. When does that start happening?
I remember the first song I ever wrote after I learned how to do [imitates E blues guitar shuffle and turnaround lick] I wrote a song about one of my teammates in football making a sandwich, just naming the ingredients and left it as my voicemail so when people would call me, they’d have to hear that terrible song [laughs]. Then I started taking it a little more seriously with the more chords and scales I learned.
I was trying to write a good song, but the first [serious] one I wrote when I was 16, maybe a year later.
From there – where do things take you? You’re 16, you’ve moved on from sandwich material. By 21, you’re moving to Birmingham to do this professionally. What happens in the years in between where you decide this is what you’re going to pursue?
A lot of it was just being hard-headed, not really having any other interests and deciding early that I didn’t want to go to college. I grew up, at least in that time, kinda broke and lived with my mom and step-dad in a one-room apartment for a little while and learned…that money just made everything bad. One I figured out I could just get a retail job and play gigs and support myself and not have any debt, I thought, ‘If I keep doing this, what’s the worst that could happen?’
There weren’t very many gigs to play [in the surrounding area] – it wasn’t a very culturally diverse town, by any means. But my sister had moved to Birmingham and said I could go up there and live with her…It was not so far that it didn’t still feel like Alabama.
Did you ever have a desire to leave Alabama? I would think that most folks making a go of it in that part of the country would try to take a shot at Nashville.
I definitely got told I should move to Nashville and get a job and not play out six nights a week. They were like, ‘You need to stop oversaturating’ but then I got the deal with Easy Eye…Nashville’s a great place in its own right…I like visiting Nashville [laughs].
At some point, you do get the break, even where you were. That comes from Dan of the Black Keys. How did that happen?
I was equally obsessed with him and the White Stripes, that resurgence that brought me back to blues and roots music, but long story short my old roommate had moved to Nashville to pursue music, and he ran into his friend from high school, Katie Pruitt [ed. note – see her interview in this issue, as well]. They were sharing shows together at The Basement, and her manager at the time was showed a YouTube video of me, and he had to meet Dan because he was repping someone cutting a record on Easy Eye. So he was already in the building having a meeting with Dan, and while he was there, he showed him the YouTube video.
And he was like, ‘Hey, can you meet me at Dan Auerbach’s studio?’ It sounded like a trap [laughs]. I thought they were gonna harvest my organs or something [laughs]. But that’s kinda how it happened.
So did Dan end up producing that record, or just putting it out through the label?
Yeah, he produced it.
What were those sessions like?
It was super organic, not a lot of talk of direction or anything. His recording crew and session players are just insanely experienced people…I had to pinch myself. These are guys that played with Elvis. Some [of them] toured with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison. It was great.
I had sent in demos that were just my bass player on upright and me on acoustic guitar, about 35 demos. And they charted them and picked the ones that rose to the top. And I think five of them, I had co-written with Dan, and other writers he brought into the studio. The other five that made it to the record, I wrote myself.
As far as Dan’s role in making your record, is he also behind the board, hands-on, or…I’m just trying to picture how the recording sessions went.
Yeah, Dan played a little bit of guitar but he was behind the board a lot [too]. Once we got the live takes, because he was pushing no clicks, all recorded live with just some overdubs…that’s what I was worried about. Everything I had recorded before with Dan was all live, and every time I tried to record with a click it was a nightmare.
It was kind of like being a coach, I guess. Mostly the magic was in the team he put together, so there’s not as much talking as I thought there would be; it was mostly people getting to work and having an unspoken…I don’t know, it’s magic.
That record eventually does come out, when, March of last year?
Yeah, on Friday the 13th!
Well, that’s fitting. Arguably, March 2020 was not the best month to be releasing a new record and planning a tour behind it…
We were in the middle of a tour, we were as far away from Birmingham as you could be while still being in the US – northwest Portland. And we were about to go play [the Fillmore] with Lone Bellow but they sent us home when everything got cancelled. But everyone was in the same boat, so I try not to get too disheartened. It was a long three-day drive back to Birmingham [laughs].
Part of me feels bad – you get to this peak where the record is out, you’ve got this momentum, and BOOM, everything’s pulled out from under you. Hopefully live shows come back at some point…
Well, I have a show today in Columbus, Mississippi at the Arts Council, and we have a Lone Bellow tour at the end of the year that may [still] happen. As far as recording goes, I talked to Dan a couple of days ago and I think we’re gonna get in the studio this year. They just joined forces with Concord so I’m sure there will be some advancements into a more normal year. Hopefully.
Photos by Donna Winchester and Alysee Gafjken