Here’s the exciting thing about profiling prolific songwriters: No matter how well you know his/her catalog, there’s always an “aha moment” when you discover he/she penned that song.
Over the course of his 25-plus-year career, Tommy Lee James has written No. 1 hits for a who’s who of country music A-listers, including Brooks & Dunn (“A Man This Lonely”), Reba McEntire and Brooks & Dunn (“If You See Him/If You See Her”), Kenny Chesney (“All the Pretty Girls”), Martina McBride (“Wrong Again”), Blake Shelton (“My Eyes” and “Nobody But You”), and more. James also has penned Top 5 hits for Reba (“And Still”), Tim McGraw (“She’s My Kind of Rain”), Lonestar (“Let’s Be Us Again”), and Gary Allan (“Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”), among others.
“Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” was my “aha moment.” What a beautifully penned song about life’s ups and downs. Of course, Gary’s vocals are always amazing.
In addition, James has two cuts—”Untouchable” and “Don’t You”—on Taylor Swift’s 2021 album, Fearless (Taylor’s Version).
Tommy Lee James took a break from cranking out the hits to talk with Outsider about the 5 Songs That Shaped the Songwriter.
1. ‘We Can Work It Out’ – The Beatles
Tommy Lee James: I’d be remiss if I didn’t start off with a Beatles tune. Like so many other kids around my age—I was seven, maybe eight years old—I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show and was mesmerized. I started playing the ukulele and imitating Paul McCartney. A few years later, I got a Harmony electric guitar and formed a band with some buddies. And I never looked back! There are so many songs I could pick here, but the hopeful message of “We Can Work It Out” with Paul’s incredible vocal and John Lennon’s super cool low harmony on the refrains puts this one at the top for me.
2. ‘Galveston’ – Glen Campbell
Tommy Lee James: I used to love Glen Campbell’s variety show when I was a kid. I was a big fan before I even knew who Jimmy Webb was. Of course, I love “Wichita Lineman” and many other Jimmy Webb songs, but “Galveston” has always been my favorite. When I listened to it as a kid, I just liked the way it sounded. I had no idea it was about a young Vietnam soldier dreaming of his girl and his hometown. I get chills when I hear the lines: “I still hear your sea waves crashing / While I watch the cannons flashing / I clean my gun / And dream of Galveston / I am so afraid of dying / Before I dry the tears she’s crying.” I’m in awe!
3. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – The Beach Boys
Tommy Lee James: Timeless! For me, the rock ’n’ roll holy trinity is The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys. “Don’t Worry Baby” is one of those songs I could never get tired of. Brian Wilson’s beautiful melody and vocal and the reassuring lyric from his girl: “Don’t worry baby / Everything will turn out alright.” Brian is trying to capture the Phil Spector girl group production here. True genius!
4. ‘Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’ – Aretha Franklin
Tommy Lee James: This song brings together two of my all-time favorites: Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder (Stevie is a co-writer on this one). I’ve always loved the early ’70s soul music—Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Staple Singers, and so many more. This song captures that moment in time for me. It’s so well written and Aretha’s voice just flows so effortlessly, as always.
5. ‘Even the Losers’ – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tommy Lee James: On an album, Damn the Torpedoes, with a lot of amazing songs, this is the one that resonates with me the most. Tom could rock like The Stones and weave a story like Bob Dylan. I think this is one of his best lyrics. There’s so much atmosphere packed in “Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon / And I’d show you stars you never could see / Baby, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.” Wow! This is a true anthem for the underdog—even the losers get lucky sometimes!