Seth James’ most recent album, Different Hat, pictures the singer with a crisp white cowboy hat, shiny black cowboy shirt and matinee cleft in his square jaw. That headgear seems to imply that James is an old-school honky-tonker in the George Strait mode, and that’s what makes this hat different, because the noggin inside the brim is that of a funky blues singer in the tradition of Delbert McClinton, Doug Sahm and T-Bone Walker. It’s the same old Stetson paired with an unexpected kind of voice.
After four albums that pictured him bare-headed, James has finally reclaimed the look of his childhood as the son of a West Texas rancher. He’s finally embraced the seeming contradiction of his career: he started out raising cattle in the vast openness of King County but wound up playing the blues in steamy dance halls from Laredo to Nashville. He now refuses to reject either half of his identity.
“For years, I tried to get away from the way I usually look,” he tells me over a picnic table by the HEB in New Braunfels, “because people listen with their eyes. I’ve always played the blues, yet people would say, ‘I don’t like country music, but I like your country music.’ I tried to explain, but eventually I gave up. I just accepted it: I’m a cowboy and I’m a blues singer. I’m both.”
He was wearing that hat last fall when he turned in one of the best sets at the 2022 Americanafest in Nashville. Backed by three horns and his album producer (and former McClinton music director) Kevin McKendree on keys, James turned the Exit/In into a Gulf Coast roadhouse. The push-and-pull syncopation provided the groove for James’ pithy guitar fills and relaxed tenor. His originals, such as “She Likes To Run” and “Pleasing Linda Lou,” held their own against the covers of obscure songs by J.J. Cale and Robbie Robertson.
“Where I come from,” he adds, “everyone looks like they’re in Lonesome Dove. I was 21 before I put more miles on my car than on my horse. We raised our own horses and broke them the old-fashioned way. We branded cows by dragging them to the fire. We’d still take the chuck wagon out, the way it’s been done for centuries. It wasn’t a dude ranch; it was a working ranch.”
Though the predominant flavor of the Nashville show was rocking blues in the tradition of McClinton, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Leon Russell, Freddie King and Gary Clark Jr., there was also a subtle seasoning of country music: a heart-on-the-sleeve lyricism, a working man’s stoic pragmatism, and open spaces that hinted at Asleep at the Wheel’s “Miles and Miles of Texas.”
“When I first heard the blues,” James recalls, “they reminded me of the people I worked with on the ranch; it’s the sound of people who’ve worked hard for a living. The way Delbert talks in a song is similar to the way those old cowboys talk around the campfire.”
Putting the hat back on his head was part of an evolving decision to stop being what other people wanted him to be and just be himself. His first two records were accomplished but unoriginal variations on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues-rock, and the unreleased singles he cut for Sony Nashville were copies of the latest flavor of the month on Music Row. He realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere until he sounded — and looked — like himself.
“I was playing like somebody else,” he confesses, “and I was singing like somebody else. I’d write a song the way I’d say it in King County, then I’d change it to the way I thought the audience wanted to hear it. That was my biggest mistake. They wanted to hear it the way I’d say it. I was taking myself out of my music, and it wasn’t until I put myself back in that things started clicking.”
James insists he never felt disadvantaged or isolated by growing up on a ranch 20 miles by highway from the local high school and 90 miles from the nearest city with a supermarket and a record store. He loved the outdoor life of working with animals and grown men. But the monthly trips to that city, Lubbock, connected him to another world of blues and rock ’n’ roll that he couldn’t get enough of.
He was born Seth James Walker in 1978, and his parents split up when he was young. Older brother Brad went off to live in Galveston with their dad, while Seth moved to King County’s Moorhaus Ranch when their mom married the ranch owner. The siblings would go years without seeing each other in person, but they stayed in touch through the mail. Brad would send his kid brother audio cassettes by everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“One time he sent me Eric Clapton’s From the Cradle with those songs by Freddie King, Lowell Fulsom and Muddy Waters,” James remembers, “and once I heard that, I wrote to my brother and said, ‘Send me more of that and only that.’”
This was the mid-’90s when everyone at his high school was listening to Garth Brooks, but James was looking for something else. He’d gotten his “hardship license” (given to adolescent drivers in underpopulated areas) when he was 15, and now he started accompanying his mom when she made the monthly drive to Lubbock for groceries and supplies. He’d drop her off at the store and head for the guitar and record shops.
“When I was 16,” he says, “I had a CD player installed in my new pickup truck in Lubbock. The CD in the player when I checked it out was Billy Joe Shaver’s Unshaven: Shaver Live at Smith’s Olde Bar, that one with Eddy on electric guitar. When I heard that, I said, ‘That’s what I want to be: a cowboy singer-songwriter with blues guitar.’ It took me a while to get there, but on these last two albums, I’m finally settling into what I wanted to do all along.”
In 1996, he was half of a graduating class of two from the high school in Guthrie, Texas. “I was at the bottom of my graduating class,” he jokes, “and also the salutatorian.” That fall he enrolled at Texas A&M. “For me,” he says with a chuckle, “going to College Station was like going to New York City. You had 500 people in a classroom, and we had fewer than 500 people in all of King County.”
He got a job as a salesman at Kaiser’s Hobbies, a store near campus that sold model trains up front and guitars in the back. James earned enough to buy a white Stratocaster and met a customer, Philip Tom, who invited him to a jam session. The two young men shared a taste for Gulf Coast blues and would play together for years.
“I can’t be involved in anything that doesn’t have that Gulf Coast groove,” James declares, “whether it’s J.J. Cale, Freddie King or Bob Wills. I’m a sucker for that rhythm. It makes me feel like I’m a kid again. It takes me back to everything I love, and it erases everything I don’t.”
After graduating in 2000 with a degree in agriculture, James moved to Austin, where there was another Seth Walker in town, so Seth James Walker dropped his last name. The rechristened James made an album, Bad Luck and Trouble, which he now describes as “atrocious.” Nonetheless he was soon playing all over Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. At the end of 2003, the Seth James Band (featuring bassist Tom, drummer Connie Walker and keyboardist Johnny Marshall) recorded a live album released in early 2004 as @ Gruene Hall.
At a gig in Houston, he met Lee Roy Parnell, a Texas guitarist and singer who’d refashioned himself as a country music star with Top 15 country singles in the early ’90s. Parnell took a shine to the young man and invited him to Nashville. James lived with Parnell and signed a recording contract with Sony as well as a songwriting deal with Warner Chappell. He was living the life — cutting singles for Sony and co-writing songs with established names such as Tony Arata and obscure names such as Chris Stapleton.
“Every time we got close to getting something released,” James says ruefully, “Sony would get bought by someone else, and there’d be a reset. At the end, Joe Galante was running Sony, and he asked me if I’d cut the sleeves off my shirts. I was dropped soon after that. I knew I’d soon lose my publishing deal as well, so I cut an album in two days.”
That record, 2009’s That Kind of Man, was the first record James was proud of. It includes two co-writes with Arata and four with Stapleton, and it unveils the greasy Texas boogie he’s pursued ever since. For the first time, he added enough country music storytelling and enough dance hall syncopation to put a distinctive spin on the blues.
He’d found his sound at last, but he’d lost any notion of career momentum. He holed up in Wichita Falls with his wife and new baby, wondering where to go next. First, he needed to release That Kind of Man, and Cody Canada’s imprint, Underground Sounds, put it out. Then James and Canada began playing as an acoustic duo all over Texas. That morphed into a full band, the Departed, with the two singer-guitarists in front of a rhythm section. They made two albums: 2011’s This Is Indian Country, a tribute to Canada’s favorite Oklahoma artists, and 2012’s Adventus, where James wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 14 songs.
“That was a whole different world for me,” James says. “Those guys were seasoned rock ’n’ rollers. All we did was have fun. It was a long way from Moorhaus Ranch, but I got right in there with them. I had some good times, but I had to get out at a certain point.”
After he gave notice but before he left, he played a last show with the Departed at the annual Braun Brothers Reunion in Challis, Idaho (hosted by Willy and Cody Braun of Reckless Kelly and Micky and Gary Braun of Micky & The Motorcars) in 2013. The road manager came on the bus and told James, “A guy dropped off your guitars; here they are.” That was weird, because James’ guitars were already packed on the bus. Someone was gifting him two nice guitars and hadn’t left a card or even a name.
“During the show,” James remembers, “I noticed a guy off to the side, and somehow I knew that was the guy. I tracked him down after the set, and we hit it off. His name was Scott Meehan, and he designed and build race cars, but he was also a serious music guy. I’d visit him in Utah, and he’d visit me in Texas, and our wives liked each other, too.
“After a few years, Scott asked me, ‘When are you going to record again?’ I tried to explain it’s almost impossible to make money on a record these days, but he said, ‘Let’s make an album.’ It’s the best possible situation for an artist: he makes everything possible and stays out of the musical decisions. He calls his label Tiny Ass Records, which is a terrible name, but he’s a beautiful human being.”
Their first project together was 2016’s A Million Miles of Love, an album of duets between James and his wife Jessica Murray, who’d been a touring backup singer for Pat Green and Cory Morrow before getting married. Produced by Lloyd Maines and relying on songwriting from James’ old Nashville pals (Stapleton, Mike Henderson, Jay Knowles, Sean McConnell and Al Anderson), the album offers different variations on the commitment to making romance work in the face of multiple and nefarious obstacles. The back-and-forth between James’ low tenor and Murray’s big soprano echoed the interaction between Chris and Morgane Stapleton on their records.
That disc had minimal distribution, but the next one, 2019’s Good Time, was a breakthrough for James. He made a decision that he wasn’t going to do any more songs that were just an excuse for the guitar solos. He was only going to do tunes — whether originals or covers — where the melody and words were as important as the grooving and picking. And 2021’s Different Hat was another step forward in the same direction. Both records were produced by Kevin McKendree at his studio in Franklin, Tennessee, with a band of Nashville pros including a horn section led by Jim Hoke.
McKendree and Hoke were on hand when James sang songs from those two albums at Americanafest. He nodded to his biggest inspiration when he sang a rocking version of McClinton’s “Solid Gold-Plated Fool” with his crisp vocal answered by saxophone honks and female “oohs.” He revealed his love for New Orleans with a second-line version of “Mamarita.” He sang a previously unreleased J.J. Cale song, “Raisin’ Kane,” which had featured Lee Roy Parnell on the album.
James had been a Cale fan since high school. “His stuff was super simple and super groovy, and he sang so naturally. He sang like a cowboy.” So James was thrilled when Sam Seifert, Ray Benson’s son/manager, had passed along some Cale demos that had never made it onto an actual album. “Raisin’ Kane” jumped out at him. He could immediately hear how it should go with a full band.
Near the end of the Exit/In show, James told the crowd, “This is the only song I ever wrote when I was angry. In the ranch lands of West Texas, it often happens that the first generation works real hard, the second generation makes the money, and the third generation starts fighting among themselves, and a ranch that’s been around for 150 years falls apart. And when you lose those ranches, you lose a whole way of life.”
That song, “Third Generation” from Good Time, is a good example of James’ increased attention to his lyrics. The midtempo number, co-written with Cody Canada, reads the riot act to a third-generation fool: “You light the match and you clown around / I hope you’re satisfied when it all burns down.”
James is determined to not let ranching culture die out. He still goes back to King County whenever he has the chance, hoping that handling the reins and ropes again will rebuild the callouses on his hands. But he sees his music as also keeping that legacy alive. The Gulf Coast blues may not seem like the obvious soundtrack for raising cattle, but there’s something about the down-to-earth vocals and physical rhythms that echoes the ranch life — something that deserves a white cowboy hat.
Cover promo photo courtesy of artist.