MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — This has been a good year for country singer James Wesley.
He has a hit record and a video, was invited to appear at the Grand Ole Opry and is touring this summer as the opening act for Taylor Swift.
That makes him a pretty popular guy — especially with his 8-year-old daughter, who, he said, is most impressed that he is performing with Swift.
“When she heard the news, I thought she’d blast off into space. It’s taken my status as a great dad to a whole new level,” Wesley joked.
It’s also taken his career to a new level, garnering him more recognition in the world of country music.
Area fans will have an opportunity to hear Wesley in person when he appears Wednesday, Aug. 3, at the Berkeley County Youth Fair in Martinsburg, W.Va.
While it might seem that Wesley is an overnight success, the Kansas-born singer-songwriter said he’s spent almost a lifetime working to realize his dream.
“There’ve been a lot of hills, a lot of turns. But it’s been real worth it,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Nashville, Tenn.
Finding his voice
Wesley said he was “just a little kid, maybe 3 years old” when he fell in love with music.
“I know I liked singing and I liked the idea of performing,” he said.
But he was a jock in high school, where he was on the wrestling and football teams, and never considered participating in music programs.
“In my senior year, though, a teacher talked me into joining the chorus and trying out for ‘The Music Man,’” Wesley said. “I had so much fun, I realized I had really missed out on a lot. It was like ‘High School Musical’ before there was a ‘High School Musical.’”
Wesley said he was “a latecomer to the instrument thing. We didn’t have much money, so my aunt gave me a secondhand guitar, which I taught myself to play.”
By the time he was 18, he knew his future was in music.
Wesley said he had full scholarships to play sports at Independence Junior College in Kansas, “but music was what I wanted to do.”
He joined the chorus and dabbled in theater, performing in “West Side Story.”
He also tried to make some extra money by singing and playing his guitar at venues not too far from his college campus. Like the Best Western.
“I think there were four people there and they all had their backs turned to me.” He laughed.
At that time, Wesley said he couldn’t afford any kind of equipment. “I rented what I needed for $45 a night,” he said. “I was usually paid $50 for the gigs, so I made a whopping $5.”
After college, Wesley said he continued to pursue a music career but had to make a living. At first, he did construction work. Then he moved to Eureka Springs, Ark., where he found a job cleaning toilets, picking up trash in the parking lots and doing repair work at a country music theater.
Getting a break
It was here that he met his wife, whose family owned the business.
“She knew I was a singer and she talked to her father about giving me an opportunity to perform in a show,” he said.
They later married, and Wesley continued performing at the theater for about 10 years, as well as doing general maintenance and running his own landscaping business.
Wesley said the couple had just built a house when something told him he had to move to Nashville.
“I was scared at leaving everything behind,” he said, “but my wife knew this was where I needed to be if I wanted to further my career, so she said ‘let’s do it.’”
Looking back on that decision, Wesley said it was the right choice.
He eventually was signed to Warner Bros. in 1999 as James Prosser (his real name) “but it was an odd situation and didn’t work out,” he said.
Later, he hooked up with songwriter Rodney Clawson and producer Dan Frizsell and inked a deal with Broken Bow Records.
Since then, he has several Billboard hits, including “Jackson Hole,” “Real” and “Didn’t I,” for which he also released a video.
An album will be released later this year.
Wesley said he had been performing at gigs across the country when he was told by his manager that something big might happen.
“But he wouldn’t give me any hints,” he said. “I had no clue what was going on.”
He soon found out when he received a telephone call from Taylor Swift, who personally asked him to open for her “Speak Now” tour. She had heard Wesley’s music and thought he would be a perfect fit.
“That was definitely one of those pinch-yourself moments,” Wesley said. “To say I was thrilled was an understatement. But I think my daughter was even more thrilled. You should have seen her eyes light up when I told her. She’s a big Taylor fan.”
Wesley said the first night of the tour was in Foxboro, Mass., where he performed before 40,000 people in Gillette Stadium.
“All I kept thinking was ‘This is a long way from Mound Valley, Kansas,’” he laughed. “I could have fit my whole hometown in the pit next to the stage. It was definitely overwhelming.”
The tour, which runs into October, has taken him across the country and before sellout crowds, which is great for his career.
“But I really miss my family on those long stretches,” he said. “I call home every day to make sure everything is good at the house and my wife sends me photos of my son and daughter.”
Though his career has made it to the next big level, Wesley said he tries to stay the same person he’s always been.
He and his band members drive their own 15-passenger bus to venues and they set up their own equipment.
“I don’t have ‘people,’” he said. “We’re the ‘people.’ But I think it makes us stronger as a band. We’re all in this together. I never want to get so big that I forget who I am. Not too long ago, I was struggling to make ends meet.”
Wesley said one of the biggest thrills of his life is being invited to perform at the Grand Ole Opry — not once, but twice.
“The first time I went out on that stage, it was just incredible,” he said. “It was all a blur. It was an out-of-body experience, looking out at some of the biggest names in country music sitting in the front rows. And though I’ve performed there more than once, I don’t think it will ever get old.”
While his career is all about country, Wesley said he enjoys all types of music — from The Beatles (“Lennon and McCartney were geniuses way ahead of their time”) to Dean Martin. He also remembers listening to Elvis, rock ’n’ roll and doo-wop while working in the garage with his father and grandfather.
“Music is universal. It crosses all barriers,” he said. “When you hear a great song, it’s a great song. Period.”
If you go ...
WHAT: James Wesley in concert
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3
WHERE: Berkeley County Youth Fair grounds, 2419 Golf Course Road, Martinsburg, W.Va.
COST: Admission to fair is $5 for ages 13 and older; free for 12 and younger
MORE: Fair is from Saturday, July 30, through Saturday, Aug. 6.
CONTACT: For a complete schedule of events or to download the fair book go to www.berkeleycountyyouthfair.org.