Brett James, B.S. '91
Award-winning songwriter, singer and producer Brett James attended Baylor with aspirations of a career in medicine. He finished Baylor’s three-and-one pre-med program and began medical school at the University of Oklahoma before God pointed him down an entirely different path.
On a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, during his first year of medical school, James was introduced to a few recording company executives through connections with a friend of his from Baylor named Deb Smith. He wasn’t holding his breath but soon things developed.
“The first two record labels patted me on the head and said, ‘Nice to meet you,’” James says. “For whatever reason, Tim Dubois, the head of Arista Records at the time, was crazy enough to offer me a record deal on the spot.”
"At Baylor, you see what top-tier people and top-tier academics look like."
James pursued his music career in Nashville for seven years before returning to his native Oklahoma and re-entering medical school. However, he was still under contract and continued writing songs from afar. During his one year back in medical school, James had 33 of his songs recorded in Nashville with five Top 10 records.
“I’d had two recorded in the previous seven years, so 33 in a nine-month period was a pretty good run,” James says. “It was a good year.”
James finished that second year of medical school and took his final exams, knowing he would not return. He met with the same dean of the medical school who allowed him to return after a seven-year hiatus to say he was leaving again.
“I had a list of all the songs I’d had recorded on a sheet of paper and slid it to her,” James says. “She ended up being a big country music fan, and she knew some of the songs. She said, ‘This is awesome. You have to go do this, but you can never come back to medical school.’”
He never did. Two decades later with more than 500 recorded songs across musical genres to his credit, James is one of Nashville’s most productive and versatile songwriters. He earned the 2006 Grammy for Best Country Song for “Jesus Take the Wheel,” recorded by Carrie Underwood. He earned his first ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year honor that year. In 2009, James achieved two of his three Music Row “Triple Play” awards with three No. 1 songs in a single chart year.
In all, 26 songs written by James have topped the Billboard country charts. Artists who have recorded his songs include Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Jessica Andrews and Martina McBride.
James is a previous chair of the Nashville Songwriters Association International legislative committee. Last spring, James released I Am Now, a five-song EP that is his first solo project in more than two decades.
Despite growing up in a musical home, James did not get his first guitar until college and he began writing songs to play for fun while sitting on his front porch as a Baylor student.
James’ connection to Baylor remains strong through his sons Preston Cornelius, B.A. ’20, and Sam Cornelius, a senior communication major.