My First Hit: Adam James on writing “Knowing You”

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Songwriter Adam James moved to Nashville in 2009, hoping to get a song cut by one of his idols, Kenny Chesney. Just around 10 years later, he accomplished his goal and scored his first number one in the process when Chesney released “Knowing You” as the fourth single from his 2020 album Here and Now, marking the country superstar’s 34th number one. Below, James shares the story behind his full-circle moment.

What was your Nashville journey like before this song? I moved to Nashville at the very end of 2009 and started writing by myself, as everyone does. I got a publishing deal somewhat quickly, signed in 2011, and just started doing it. Trying to figure out how to write a hit song, and it took 11 years to find out.

Did you have Kenny in mind during the writing session? I wrote this song with Kat Higgins and Brett James in 2018. I’d be lying if I said he wasn’t in the back of my mind, just because Brett has written so many songs with him and I hadn’t written with Brett before. Any time you get a session with someone like that, you really want to bring in an idea that would hopefully work for one of the artists they’re in with.

How did you come up with the idea? I had that title “Knowing You” because it’s such a conversational thing. I wanted it to wrap around with “We’re not together anymore for whatever reason, but I’d do it over because it was good knowing you.” And everyone was like, “That’s great, let’s do it.” 

I wanted to make it about someone passing away, but Brett, in his infinite wisdom was like, “If we keep it vague enough where people can make up their own minds about it instead of making their minds up for them, people that lost someone will read into it that way and people that broke up with someone will read into it that way, all of the above.” That’s really what took that song to number one, in my opinion, the message being vague enough for people to put their own spin on it.

At the end of it, we all knew that it was something special and we did a demo on it and the next thing you know, Kenny heard it and loved it. It was incredible. 

It’s a nearly four-minute-long waltz. Were you surprised that it became a hit? I was just happy to get a song on his record. I knew that people would react to it positively, I knew that people would see a lot of themselves in it, but when it comes to radio, it’s not a surefire home run when it’s 6/8 and slow. Kenny has such a great relationship with radio, and he knows when he’s got a little bit of a wild card and he’s not scared to play it and they’re not scared to play it either.

How did you find out that Kenny was cutting the song? We turned it in like every other song and people are saying, “This is good, we like this,” but you just never know. We just went about our business and Brett calls me about a month later and says that Kenny loves it and wants to record it, and I was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s the best news I’ve ever heard.” That was November of 2018, and he didn’t cut it until July of 2019, so the wait there was brutal. It came out spring of 2020, so it was a two-year waiting game that was tough on all of us, but it really paid off.

The song took 37 weeks to get to number one – what was that wait like? Everyone tells you not to check the charts. I understand why they say that, but when it’s your first one and you have two kids and you’re living in a small condo and you really want to buy a house, it’s impossible not to. It’s such a crapshoot as far as what’s going to work and what isn’t. 

I think it connected with people on a level that maybe Kenny hasn’t in a while. It was a winning formula and it’s just so cool, he’s one of the greatest country artists ever in my opinion. It’s so cliché to say, but it’s a dream come true. He’s one of those guys that pretty much taught me how to write songs when I was first learning how to play guitar, first learning how to write songs, I listened to his songs… that taught me what a great country song was. It was such a full-circle moment when I got to get that song with him. It’s really wild.

It was also Kenny’s 34th number one. He moved to town in the early ‘90s. I asked him, “Who was your dream cut as a songwriter?” and he said George Strait. I said, “You were George Strait for everyone in my age group.” He’s such a connected person when it comes to the bigger picture, and he’s just a very gracious person.

As a songwriter, you would take a number one song with literally any artist. But the fact that my first number one got to be with him on a meaningful song… I told him, if I never get another number one, that’s a job well done.

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