When Fort Mill’s Steven James was 18, he started dating a girl who would change the course of the rest of his life.
And no, it wasn’t because he would go on to marry her (spoiler alert: he wouldn’t).
During that time, James was enjoying listening to 90s and early 2000s rock and alternative music. But his new girlfriend was a fan of country music. So, guess what James started listening to anytime she was around?
“Country music was OK to me,” he said. “But she really liked it.”
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James, a high school baseball player with a chemical engineering major in his future, had certainly never considered a career in music. But one day, an epiphany: “Hey, I could do that,’” James said he told his girlfriend.
Fast forward four years, and James was knocking on the door of the country music capital, with the pivotal memory of that day.
“Didn’t really think that such an offhand remark would later find me leaving school and coming to Nashville to be a country singer,” James said. Yet here he was, at age 22, chasing his dreams in Tennessee.
As for the girl? Of course, she made for a captive audience those early days: “That poor girl was subjected to the start of my musical pursuits. I had a lot of potential, but I still joke that it was buried very deep,” James said.
“Needless to say, my musical career wasn't one she planned on hitching her wagon to.”
A jagged line to and from Fort Mill
After high school, James started taking classes at Clemson University. He took with him the $100 acoustic guitar his mom bought for him at Costco. James said he noodled around with the instrument, but didn’t really start learning to play until then. Beginning by searching YouTube for tutorials, James, who lists George Strait, Chris Young and Cody Johnson among his main influences, said he got more out of studying musicians on performance videos.
“Tutorials never seemed to play the song I wanted to learn ‘like the record,’” he said.
Country music was calling, and James wanted a change. His parents were surprised but supportive. “Though he had taken piano lessons as a young guy, when he mentioned that he had been thinking about switching his life's direction from chemical engineering to country music, we were taken aback,” said his dad, Bob Taggart.
“But, he sounded really good,” Taggart said. “It was apparent that he had that ‘it’, so we encouraged him to go for it.”
James transferred from Clemson to Middle Tennessee State University in Nashville. After only one semester there, however, he felt leaving school all together was the right choice for him. He found solace at the home base, returning to Fort Mill to write, perform and make a little money.
The change in direction also prompted an upgrade in instrument from the generic Costco guitar to a Taylor 714.
The former athlete started working at Play it Again Sports in Pineville, N.C., and became an umpire for travel baseball. “Umpiring is hands down the most humorous job,” he said. “It’s completely dulled my senses to being praised and criticized. I often joke that it's fully prepared me for a life in the spotlight!”
James found a booking agent, Beth Johnson, and he started playing all over the Southeast. He won the Texaco Country Showdown at Fort Mill's S.C. Strawberry festival in 2013 and won the best male country artist for the Forsyth County North Carolina Music and Entertainment Awards in Greensboro, N.C., in 2014.
Nashville, for good this time
Then Nashville rang again, but this time, in a more permanent way. For James, chasing his dreams in Music City resembled exactly one room with a small bathroom in a makeshift duplex rental. He had no kitchen, feeding himself with a griddle and a mini-fridge. His Spartan room held a bed, a desk and his guitars.
James was isolated from friends, family, and his whole support system.
“I was pretty much alone, not knowing anyone, not knowing how to go about the ‘business of the music business,’” he said.
Still, he started picking up signs that Nashville was where he was supposed to be.
“One evening I was at Winners Bar on Music Row to play a few songs,” James said. “I was introduced to Earl Bud Lee, the man that wrote ‘Friends in Low Places’ for Garth Brooks. After I played, Mr. Lee told me that he liked my songs and that I definitely had the ‘it.’”
“That was encouraging insofar as having someone quite accomplished in the Nashville music industry feel like I needed to be there,” James said.
“Another time, I waited to introduce myself to Anthony Smith, another famous writer, after he had performed at the Listening Room,” he said. “I didn’t even get ‘Hi Mr. Smith’ out of my mouth, when he blurts out at me, ‘You’re a singer, aren’t you!’”
“Those little things let me know that I made the right choice and it will just be a matter of time, while I just grind it out,” he said.
What does a big break look like?
Now 25, James is still in Nashville, and he continues part-time work as an umpire. Full time, he is a handyman for a Nashville-based home repair company.
“I’ve written several songs in my head while on the job,” he said.
Multitasking at its finest.
He still has a one-bedroom apartment, but it’s no longer the one-room rental with no kitchen. It’s “a step up from the room he rented when he got there,” Taggart said.
James is constantly on stage. He plays at writer's nights regularly in his new city. In April, he performed in Atlanta at the 2017 NRA National Convention. He continues to write his own original music and says he has more than 50 compositions. His current focus is on writing and producing; He recently recorded a song with one of Charlie Pride’s producers.
And through it all, Fort Mill is still where his heart (and his mom’s cooking) reside.
“My entire childhood Transformer collection is still in my old bedroom at home,” he said.
At times, home is only as far away as a computer screen: local friends and fans follow James on social media, offering him encouragement. WRHI host Chuck Boozer has played his music on the radio.
Through it all, James is learning what chasing dreams really looks like.
“There have been ups and downs throughout this process,” James said. “Not every opportunity results in the ‘big break’ everyone talks about. There are usually dozens of disappointments before ‘success’ ever happens.”
“I believe that this paycheck-to-paycheck, struggling phase of my life has yielded some of the most opportunity for growth,” he said. “I’m ready for the world to start hearing my music and ultimately my story.”
Melissa Oyler: @melissaoyler
What’s your story?
Sometimes, dreams are born at home but realized somewhere else. Aspiring country music singer Steven James is finding his niche in Nashville. If you are from Fort Mill, Indian Land, Lake Wylie or Tega Cay, but you've found yourself chasing your destiny — whatever that may be — in another city, we'd love to hear your story. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.