Lonesome Highway met James House in Belfast, here for a songwriter’s festival before a UK tour. House looks pretty much as he did when we last spoke at his home in Nashville in 2002. He is touring behind his new album Songwriter’s Serenade, his most recent since Broken Glass, Twisted Steel was released in 2014. Previous to that he released an album, Troubadour Kings, which he had recorded with fellow contemporary songwriter/singer John Brannen. House did some live dates with a band of that name but Brannen was not involved.
In 1989 House released his Tony Brown produced self-titled debut. That was followed a year later by Hard Times for an Honest Man, his last release on MCA. James moved to Epic to release his acclaimed Days Gone By album in 1995. This was produced by Don Cook and sold close to 200,000 copies. It made the top 5 in the country album charts and delivered James’ one Top Ten hit This Is Me Missing You, a song that recently made number one in the line-dancing charts some 20 years after its original glory. That feat in itself was something that brought House back to the UK.
Since then House continues to write and co-write songs, six of which appeared on Steve Azar’s Slide on over Here released in 2009. Another song, Born to Be Blue, co-written with Raul Malo, was included on the Mavericks In Time album. James also wrote In a Week or Two, a hit for Diamond Rio and Ain’t That Lonely Yet with Kostas, covered by Dwight Yoakam. Both tracks appear on his last album, where House did his versions of many of his co-written songs that had been picked up by other artists. These songs were responsible for James getting his deal at Sony and Days Gone By, an album he still considers his finest. His modus operandi was, and still is, that he is always writing for his next album. That is his goal.
The writing partnerships and those currently writing hits have a different sensibility, something that House thinks is because “they are reflecting what they are listening to. They’re putting rap in their iPhones and mix it with country. Kid Rock was doing it.” He feels a big factor is the way that radio has changed. “In 1996 they changed the law in the United States. Before that you could only own two country stations and the FCC changed that to allow as many stations as you wanted. At that time there were 2500 radio stations and 80% were Mom and Pop owned so you were able to break a record regionally. That was a great tool for breaking records, even in rock, people like Bob Seeger. Texas is about the only place that (still) has a local scene. They’re very protective of it and that’s why they’ve kept it. But that really changed the scene so that we were all singing for one station, so four or five guys has the control. Which is why a lot of stuff sounds the same, as it’s being dictated by four or five companies and it all sounds the same. They’re not in the music business they’re there to sell advertising”.
That situation meant a change in the direction of songwriting and James feels that he doesn’t know how to do that kind of formulaic writing. “I don’t know how to do that, I’m still chasing that elusive great song.” During the time between his 90’s album and the current two releases James recorded an album with John Brannen. “I always wanted to make a duet record as I love that sound.” Before that he spent time with a company called Friday Records. “They came into town with some money and I cut a Christmas record and a full album with them but they folded and that had taken about three or four years for that all to happen”.
After that opportunity passed, James felt that he needed to do something different so he invested in a recording studio which he set up at his house. He then spent around three years learning the recording and engineering process. It is where he has cut the bulk of his two recent albums. “I sent Brent (Mason) the tracks and he can add his parts in his home studio”. This is a process that is now common, with parts being added to tracks sent via the internet in different studios, although House can and did cut some tracks with the musicians at home in Dream On Studios.
Of the new freedom this label-free situation he said “it’s good and it’s bad. The good part is that I control it completely and the bad is that I control it completely (laughs)”. This means that he has to step back and consider what he has which means at times something was great or then not so good. “I play the songs for my wife and she is just brutal with me. She would say ‘that sucks’ or ‘that has potential’ or ‘that’s good’. That honest opinion is a positive asset in assessing what he was doing.
Lonesome Highway’s last conversation with James was when he was playing a series of dates in The Wildhorse Saloon. But after that he took a step back from music to look aft his son Jordan, who he had gained custody of in 2003. House is proud of the fact that his son is now going for his master’s degree in psychology. About four years ago James got back to music. Alone in the studio he could turn up the music and just concentrate on his next step, including a number of co-writing sessions in his house.
Those co-writes included Mike Reid, Bill Anderson and Jamey Johnson. “It was a house full of music and it was really fun”. Johnson he had met at a function at the famous Studio A. The studio is owned by Ben Folds, who is managed by House’s’ wife Sharon. House and Johnson spoke about all the music that had emerged from that room, the many countrypolitan sounds with orchestration that had come from the studio. That particular conversation then led to them write their own countrypolitan song.
Another co-writer was Jim Lauderdale “I have this great image of Jim. He was coming out of the writing room and he has my son’s shoes on, kinda baby shoes, and somehow he’s walking in them and I took a picture (laughs)”. The new song he felt was a great combination of their two styles. Again they had met at a listening party for a Billy Bob Thornton album. “Billy Bob had that thing were he’d repeat a line three times, which I love but often forget about, so I had this title before Jim arrived and I wanted to use that. He stood at the kitchen table and worked on the lyrics while I walked around the house working on it. It was great to write with him”. They performed the song together later on Music City Roots.
Natalie Noone, the daughter of 60s pop star Peter Noone, is another guest whom he co-wrote with and she duets on Over Getting over You. “She’s a friend of Danny Flowers’ and he invited her to the Bluebird a couple of times. Then I saw a showcase that she did and I was knocked out. She has more of a California country sound than anything. She obviously listens to great vintage music. I heard she wanted to write so I invited her over and I had that title hanging around for awhile so we wrote it together. Peter was at the showcase so I’ve gotten to know him a little too. The thing is, back in the 60s we all heard the Beatles but the next thing we heard was Herman’s Hermits. In fact, my girlfriend at the time was Debbie Brown, so Mrs Brown you’ve Got a Lovely Daughter was special. Plus as a writer I always remember their lyric ‘Second verse same as the first’ from their hit Henry VIII - a genius whoever came up with that”. When he returns to Nashville they are going to do more writing for her upcoming album.
Veteran writer Bill Anderson is another co-writer with House for this album. Anderson continues to write, often with much younger artists and House feels that Anderson “Has got his chops as good as they ever were. He still has a ‘Bill Anderson’ song, he showed me something new he was working on. I gave him an idea ands he immediately took it and worked with it. That’s how he stays young and fresh. He’s just written with a new guy called Mo Pitney, you’ll hear a lot more of him soon, Bill’s got his new single. Bill knows how to structure a song, he knows what’s needed. That’s why he’s as good as he is and writing with him confirmed that”.
House feels that things have changed, so it is a challenge to get your music out there. Getting a cut on a TV show or film can help with exposure. But writing is the essential ingredient. “I always got my cuts when I was writing for my next record so I have to move forward with that”. However, he has found an audience in the UK, specifically after This is Me Missing You went to the top spot in the UK dance chart after being chosen by line dance choreographer Yvonne Anderson. That helped get him back into focus again. He is also shortly going out on a tour in the US with John Berry and Deborah Allen, using one band and one bus. But he wants to establish a strong link in the UK and hopefully Ireland. “I want to keep coming back as it works for me”.
House has also been writing with Joe Bonamassa and says he has had a lot of fun doing that and will see him play in London during this current tour. He also feels that a lot of today’s artist grew up with a heavier rock influence than may be true in the past and the influence of rock can’t be discounted. “A lot of it is 70s rock. To me there was the Eagles. I grew up around the music played at home. They loved Buck, Merle, Eddie Arnold, Ray Charles - all those records. They were part of my DNA”. Not that that source was always foremost in his musical memory as he reminisces. “I tell story that when George and Tammy were at the Opry on the last night of the duet tour in the 90s, they invited me up to do Will the Circle be Unbroken and they’re all taking verses. Johnny Russell was there too and George looks over at me I’m ‘Go away I don’t know the verses’. I’m just singing the choruses. I didn’t go to church (laughs). Then the next time he comes over and says ‘It’s your turn son’. So I have to mumble something that kind of sound like a verse”
Of the current crop of song writers and singers he feels that a lot of what he hears (and he doesn’t listen too often to the radio) sounds more to his ears like a jingle rather than a song but he understands that times change as did the demands of radio. He does feel that his generation had a different approach; “We’re lucky as we’ve seen the evolution of music, of rock ’n’ roll” He observed that while teaching a class recently with young art students in Florida, “kids from all over the country, 15, 16, they had good structure to the songs they were writing. But in these songs I heard such melodies as Let It Be and a whole lot more and it stuck me that, unless we evolve to a whole other place as human beings, where can music go? Someone’s going to be original and someone has a good voice but, in the end, the structure of music is there now. There is no forward movement at the moment, a band like the Beatles were always looking forward”. He reckons that writing formats are pretty much set to a template right now. Although the vagaries of life and of love lost in particular were grist to a writer’s mill, House feels that as people get older they tend to look for something different. “When you’re young relationship are more raw and new to you. Everybody goes through that. The first time your heart has been broken and you get older you might not be readily willing to pay that price to write that song again. I know that Hank Cochran fell in and out of love purposely to write songs”.
Writing songs is at the very heart of what James House does, his latest two albums reaffirm his talent in that area. He is also a distinctive singer with a recognisable voice. He has a great foundation to build on and so far has survived the ups and downs of a fickle industry. His day are not, as yet, gone by.
Interview by Stephen Rapid with Ronnie Norton. Edited by Sandy Harsch.