Ask songwriter Brett James about CMA Awards nominations day and he'll take you with him to the 2006 Grammys, where he sat starstruck between two of his idols. His third-row seat was hard-earned, as his song — "Jesus, Take the Wheel" for Carrie Underwood — was up for overall Song of the Year, but it was an angsty moment, as he'd lost in similar categories at both the ACM and CMA Awards the previous year.

With Sting and John Mayer on either side of him, he awaited industry approval, and he got it in the way of Best Country Song. Since then he's notched over two dozen No. 1 hits among (by his estimate) 4,000 songs written for commercial consumption. The six he penned for his new Tell the People EP are different, however. He's not hoping to repeat any of these old memories.

“That is, to me, the whole point,” James says, 90 minutes after the 2020 CMA Awards nominations were revealed. “[I] just say I wanna write music for me that I love that I think other people will too."

The soulful, genre-less songs on Tell the People can all be categorized as love songs, and it's not unfair to label the project as a whole as a Memphis record. "Petty Fool," "Just Tell Me" and "Right on Time" rely on clean, blue-eyed soul guitar licks and swooning vocals. James is a man in love — he's engaged — but his wife-to-be didn't necessarily inspire this batch of songs like she did I am Now, released in March. The EP's closer is a love song written to ... love.

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“I think sometimes you realize you’re gonna get hurt and it’s gonna sting and it’s gonna be messy," James says of "Petty Fool," "but at the end of the day love’s in charge and I’m just your petty fool." The 52-year-old is paraphrasing his lyrics, but also his philosophy on life and love. Even during dark days, he says he kept an optimism that love would conquer.

There are no dark days on this EP, however. Each song is a warm hug or a ray of soulful sunshine with a soft message. "Tell the People" was written just before the pandemic began and comes across as most healing. His inspiration was simple, however.

“I literally just wanted to remind myself to tell the people I love every day that I love ‘em,” James says. Each song came from a handful of tremendously satisfying writing sessions and each song is one he believes he needs to sing live. For a man whose successes have been measured by various outside metrics for the better part of 20 years, he's pivoting easily to a world where a good song is judged by emotional resonance, not airplay.

“I’m not gonna make a lot of money doing this, that’s just a fact. But what I’d love to be able to do is reach some people," he says. Look for James to schedule a flurry of shows as soon as stages are open again. His summer was filled with tour dates before the pandemic made us all hermits.

For a songwriter, performing songs other artists made hits is fun, but the prospect of carrying a group of horn players on a full band tour to play songs you wrote for you is the ultimate high. When Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney and Jason Aldean have taken your songs to No. 1, you can afford to eat those expenses with a smile on your face.

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Listen to Brett James' Tell the People EP:

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