Hit Songwriter Brett James Thinks Like a 15-Year-Old

Want to write a great country song? Then think like a 15-year-old. That’s Nashville hitmaker Brett James’ advice.

When I sat down with James for 20 minutes during the blur that is CMA week, he told me sometimes you have to go back to that adolescent inside you that doesn’t have a long list of No. 1 songs under your name.

“You always want to keep that freshness, so you feel like a 15-year-old kid who has never written a song,” James said. “Sometimes it’s important to sit down with that attitude.”

So that’s songwriting tip No. 1. Here are a few more from the man behind “Out Last Night,” “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Get Off on the Pain,” “Mr. Know It All” and about a million other massive hits.

Find an idea. “That’s the hardest part — coming up with a great idea that hasn’t been written about before. Sometimes we rehash and put twists on ideas. But there have been a lot of songs written in the world, so it’s tough to find the one that no one’s thought of yet. We’re all trying to figure that out. And when people do, everyone freaks out. Like when ’House That Built Me’ came out, people were like, ’Wow. Never heard that before.’ When you can write something truly original, the world takes notice.”

When you do get an idea, then what? “My rule is that you typically end up where you start. So if you start with a great idea, you’ll end up with a great song. And that’s what new writers don’t do enough. They’ll just have an average idea, and they’ll write an average song. But a great song on an average idea doesn’t help anything.” He didn’t cite any specific examples, but you can probably think of a few on your own.

Don’t repeat yourself. “I’ve written a lot of crappy songs. I spent the ’90s writing crappy songs. But I was good enough to get in the game. After a while, though, day in and day out, you have to step back and pretend that you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. You have to say, ’Where’s a new place I can go today?’ And, ’Have I said that before?'”

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.