Preston James looks out over the Tennessee landscape from the front porch of his home on a high hill just past the Dickson-Cheatham County border, delicately strumming his guitar as a small group of people he’s never met sits in his front yard watching a young couple recite their wedding vows.
The couple met as bridesmaid and groomsman at another wedding years ago, the wedding officiant says.
‘You just might find you get what you need.’
James says that the property,the site of Front Porch Farms, a wedding venue opened by James’ mother Kathy Best, was once covered in a thick forest of trees hundreds of years old. Best, then a publicist for musicians in Nashville, fell in love with the farm as a place to build a house, settle down and raise a family outside the city. In 2004, she and her husband Brian got married under the same tree as that young couple.
But she couldn’t bear to cut down those trees.
In 2005, about a week after she and Brian had a “huge fight” over the trees, a tornado came through, ripping them up.
Best had been looking for something new to do, and inspiration struck when she saw her new house on the hill.
“I didn’t realize I was a tree-hugger until then,” Best says. “I was just ‘-boo-hoo’ crying because in my life, I would never see those trees grown back.
“God knew more of what we needed than I did. By clearing out all this view, it led to us doing weddings here,” she says. “You never know what you need in your life.”
In general, James is an affable, thoughtful beyond his years, well-spoken guy who epitomizes that attitude of rolling with the punches. He and Best both recognize and appreciate the predictable unpredictability of fate.
The fact that a tornado led strangers get married in his front yard on a regular basis was neither the first nor the last twist that reality had wrought for them.
‘Behind the Curtain’
James spent a month earlier in the year in Los Angeles. One street in LA, really. He and the other contestants on the 11th season of the NBC singing competition that out-American Idol‘ed American Idol, The Voice, were sequestered to a single hotel and watched over by production staff as they shot footage for the preliminary blind auditions and sing-offs that weren’t supposed to be happening for another couple months.
James was eliminated from the competition in an episode that aired last Tuesday. Really, he’s been back in the Nashville area, playing shows and being home-schooled for months now.
In LA, there were 168 musicians living in the hotel, with new ones coming in and others being rotated out every week.
“We all met and had kum-ba-ya jams out by the pool all week,” he says. “I was like, ‘these people are all just so cool. they’re all as focused and passionate as me.’ There were all these different styles of music.
“It was just one of the coolest things I’d ever seen … Like a really stressful, crazy summer camp,” he said.
After Blake Shelton turned his chair around during James’s blind audition, in which he performed Chris Stapleton’s “Nobody to Blame,” James had to compete for a spot on Shelton’s team against Austin Allsup in a “battle” over who could sing “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Best, James, and an Entertainment Weekly episode recap are in agreement that having James and Allsup sing a Creedence song was the production’s way of picking the winner before the song had even begun: the 32-year-old Texan, whose father was a guitarist for Buddy Holly and who has opened for Blake Shelton in the past, just plain sounds like John Fogerty.
James isn’t a sore loser, though.
“It feels so far away. It feels like I forgot about it, kinda,” he says. “But, oh, that was like two months ago.”
“You got wrapped up in it … It’s easy to get caught up in that being real,” says Best. “‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ from The Wizard of Oz, that kid of thing.”
“It was hard. You know, I’m kind of seasoned in producers and how they finagle things, but even I was kind of taken aback,” she says. “Yeah, they’re very good at it.”
When James got back to Nashville, he snapped back to reality: “I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to keep making music. This is the place to be,” James says.
Something that amused James most about being “behind the curtain” the process before the blind auditions, when the field was whittled from 98 to 48, was the way each contestant would groom themselves into different characters suited for their genre of music and would actually discuss with the others about who was pulling it off the best.
“You’d see them sitting around before we’d go into interviews or something like ‘nuh-uh, I look more like me than you do.'” James says. “Before you got all the characters narrowed down, they would be like ‘I’m the Southern Rock Guy, you’re not the Southern Rock Guy. I’m the Country Guy, you’re not the Country Guy.'”
Coincidentally, Best put together the wedding of Shelton and his now-former wife Miranda Lambert, and Best wonders if the reason James was given conspicuously little airtime, especially during his blind audition, where he was just a clip in a montage, was an effort by the producers to avoid that connection being dredged up.
“They montage’d my blind audition, which was disappointing,” he says.
‘You can’t plant me in your penthouse / I’m going back to my plow.’
Entertainment Weekly characterized James as having connections in Music City. If he does, it doesn’t show. He didn’t even want to do The Voice because he saw it as “skipping a step.”
“I felt I owed it to my favorite singers to go the route of just working really hard, and making it by just working hard,” James says. “I thought I owed it to Merle Haggard and Ray Charles and people like that.”
His mother sent in an audition tape without telling James, and soon he got a call telling him that he could skip the open auditions in Nashville. He says it took some encouragement from his friends and neighbors before he could go to the callbacks in Memphis.
“It’s not that I was scared to do it, I was just … I’d never thought of doing something like that. It was totally avant-garde in my head.”
“This is the best place on Earth to make music. LA’s fun, but it’s nothing like here.” James says.
For James, that has everything to do with the Nashville system of music notation, which he says allows for greater improvisation than the sheet music read out west.
It’s the tiny, endless variations that make playing music fun for James.
‘Everyday, everyday, everyday I write the book.’
James immediately strikes you as a bright kid, but he says he had a lot of trouble in school, at Lipscomb Elementary where he didn’t fit in, wasn’t excelling academically, and was bullied. He says that things seemed to move too quickly. He became depressed and discouraged.
“A lot of people feel like they’ve found themselves when they find a group of people,” he says. “But really, it’s really hard to find yourself until you separate yourself. When you find yourself in a group its because you’ve found something you like and something you want to be.
“For me, the best thing to do was step back and figure out who I was by being by myself a lot of the time.”
So, to see him talk about the numbers-based Nashville system is something special: James becomes laser-focused; ebullient and articulate as he gives an impromptu lecture on what is, at the end of the day, math.
The eccentric Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos, a specialist in probability and the mathematics of combinations, who was so prolific that he is essentially the Kevin Bacon of academia, was known to remark that, whenever he found an especially elegant theorem, it came from “The Book,” a collection of theorems he imagined to be written by God–despite being an atheist himself.
In James, you can see that, in his own way, he opened The Book when he discovered music. It gave him something to retreat into when things were hard at school, it gave him a framework to make sense of the world around him, and it taught him who he was.
And James is still learning.
“Here’s the thing: a lot of the really die-hard musicians look at that show and say ‘those people are skipping a lot of the process. They aren’t paying their dues. That’s unfair to say, because I know a lot of people who have paid their dues, and they’ve worked hard and nothing has really worked out for them. That is their last option to do what they want to do at a higher level.
Whether or not I got my blind audition aired, it has opened doors for me beyond belief. I just got to be on WSM 650. I could have maybe done that before, but the only reason they had me on and were talking to me because I was on The Voice and was on Team Blake,” James says.
“Right now, I’m Preston James from The Voice. I don’t always want to be known as that, but right now I’m okay with being Preston James from The Voice for a little while.”
James’s songs on The Voice, “Somebody to Blame” and “Bad Moon Rising” are available on iTunes. If they sell well, he has a chance to be brought back on the show.
Max Smith is editor of The Ashland City Times. He can be reached at 615-792-0036 or on Twitter @maxrsmith217.