Steven James has spent large parts of his young life searching for a home.
The 21-year-old was born in Fresno, Calif., raised in Georgia, educated in Fort Mill and spent months at a time living in Nashville. His next move to Texas, which could happen as early as November, might just be the one that launches James, an old-school country singer with a Motown twist, to notoriety in the country music scene, affording him fans, funding and a little sense of permanence.
“I have an idea of what I want to do, but nothing really can be set in stone,” he said. “I could be back in school or around here, because it depends on how my music moves forward.”
Don’t be fooled; James is young in experience, but wise in knowledge of “the industry.” After spending time in Tennessee in his third semester of college, rubbing shoulders with professionals and playing with other budding artists, he realized that the Nashville scene just isn’t for him, not right now, anyway.
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“Texas was just totally different than Nashville,” he said. “I went there for 10 days and got to play seven out of the 10. I could just show up at a bar and they’d let me play whole sets. You can’t blow off Nashville, but I want to be an artist, I want to hone my skill.”
Wherever James ends up, it’ll be a culture shock for a man who spent his childhood in a lonely home in Brooks, Ga., where every property has to have at least five acres of space in between houses. James was homeschooled up until his sophomore year, when his family moved so he could attend Nation Ford High School. By then, he had taken several years of piano lessons, but never really was interested in music.
Baseball was more of his passion.
“It was equal parts me wanting it and equal part of my parents wanting me to do it,” he said. “It was how I defined myself.”
Despite playing Legion ball during high school, James wasn’t getting many looks and he resigned himself to trying to walk on to Clemson’s program after he graduated. For better or worse, James’ dreams of baseball glory got sidetracked.
“Light in the darkness”
It wasn’t that James found his chemical engineering classes hard by any stretch of the imagination. The talented freshman arrived in Clemson touting a 4.2 grade-point average from high school, with scholarships in tow. Rather, it was the Clemson party scene that made sure that James’ time as a Tiger remained short.
“It was pretty much every weekend,” he said about his roommates’ party nature. “I was on my own, it was kind of depressing. [Clemson] wasn’t the place for me.”
Whether he was back home or cooped in his Clemson dorm room by himself, James turned back to music for solace. He taught himself the guitar, chord by chord, and would write simple songs for each new trick. In time, the music would become the comfort he never knew he could have.
“I didn’t know where it all came from,” James said. “I was terrible when I first started and then I got a little better. It all happened pretty quick.”
In May 2012, when James had just returned from school after completing his freshman year, his father, Bob Taggart, signed his son up for the Texaco Country Showdown at the Fort Mill Strawberry Festival. Before then, James’ stage experience had been limited to dorm room walls and his parent’s living room. That was when Chuck Boozer first saw him.
“Now here’s a young, gangly kid with a guitar who doesn’t sound anything particularly country at all,” said Boozer, a morning radio personality at WRHI. “And then he just comes out with his country voice and he sounds like a Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean.”
It was just for fun, James said, who had no intention on placing, but earned a respectable third place, which lit a fire under the young songwriter.
“It was a snowball effect,” he said. “Once I was on stage, I wanted to do it more and more. Talk about one door closing [with baseball] and another one opening. I never dreamed I’d be doing this. It was my light in the darkness.”
Time in Tennessee
After the Texaco Showdown, Steven James caught what he calls “the bug.” Knowing he needed to learn his craft from the experts who taught it, he took a trip to Nashville. Open mic nights are everywhere, he says, but only if crowds like the music will they invite budding musicians back to perform at writers’ nights, to collaborate on new sounds. James has lost count how many writers’ nights he’s attended.
He would also soon learn the Nashville “system,” where singers thrive, but songwriters rarely survive.
“I don’t think people realize that a lot of singers don’t write their own songs,” he said. “Some co-write, but it’s very rare for artists to write their own songs. That’s one thing I’ve got going for me.”
Undeterred, he asked for his parents’ blessing which allowed for James to transfer from Clemson to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., to be close to Nashville. After just one semester, he came back to his parents with another request: to leave school altogether in order to pursue his music career full-time.
“Most parents would be like, ‘You’re not dropping out of school,’” James said, “ but my parents are unbelievably supportive. The fact they support me in this gives me a lot of confidence.”
Starting this past spring, James has been back and forth between Nashville (rubbing shoulders with potential new clientele, like songwriters Chris Wallin and Rich Fagan) and cities in Texas, like Austin and Dallas Fort-Worth (clinking beverage glasses with bar regulars after playing sets), trying to find where he feels comfortable. Lately, he’s been enjoying the easy-going, artsy Austin lifestyle, where a songwriter can build a fan base and earn a little money for what they do.
In Nashville, James says, neither of those attractions come easily.
“Nashville’s set in their ways,” he said. “There’s a certain way you have to start off at entry level and work your way up. You can’t blow off Nashville and I’m wanting to come back, but I want to be the artist.”
For now, James is waiting out the summer back home in Fort Mill, as he tries to secure accommodations in Texas. He spends his days as a youth baseball umpire and his nights going out to local bars and grills in the area, hoping they’ll let him sing the way he knows how.
“My day job is to get yelled at,” he jokes, “and my night job is to get yelled at, but in a good way by my fans.”
James has begun taking voice lessons in Baxter Village, a move that Boozer thinks will bode well for the future.
“I’ve been in this business for a long time and it’s just a matter of time for him, you know,” Boozer said. “It’s one of those businesses where you put in hard work and some luck and being in the right place at the right time. He’s one of those kids who can handle it well.”
Just last month, in James’ most recent public performance, the 21 year-old took to the stage at the Strawberry Festival and played his favorite piece, “Lean Into Me.”
It’s a peppy ballad about James purposely turning right in the car with his girl so she “leans into [him]” so they can be closer. James won his second ever Texaco Showdown and will be competing at the state final in October.
“Being on that stage, it was so unbelievable,” he said. “The song really has that ‘it’ factor that people feel like they’ve heard before. I get a real energy from it.”
For as much traveling as James has done, he admits that he’s been disappointed that his own “hometown” isn’t as aware of him as his “loyal” fans in Texas and Nashville are. He says he’ll be sad to leave the area again, whenever that happens, but that it’s the best career move.
“I like living here, but musically, I have to be in Texas,” he said. “I’m really a nobody, I consider myself a nobody trying to get heard. I want people to start realizing, ‘This kid is around and I want to hear more.’”
Time, energy and dedication in the Lone Star state may just help him get heard. And maybe, his search for a new home will end.