McKinley James: Waynesville Music welcomes hot young guitarist Saturday



Hot young electric blues and R&B artist McKinley James is only 21, but he has been turning heads for nearly a decade with his guitar prowess, musical precociousness and knack for capturing the feel of vintage soul music. Waynesville Music in Waynesville is bringing the Nashville-based artist to the area on Saturday, May 13 as part of its guitar series.

James was only 13 when he started performing in Rochester, New York with his dad, Jason Smay, on drums. Two years later, they relocated to Nashville.

“We’ve been doing it forever,” James said. “I actually started touring when I was 15. I was still in high school, so we weren’t touring a bunch, but I always had in-town gigs before we moved to Nashville. I always had gigs when we were still in Rochester so we’ve been playing music together since I could really start playing songs on the guitar.”

In recent years, James and Smay performed with a Hammond organ player, but they have been working as a duo since Ray Jacildo departed in late 2022.

“Our Hammond player flew over to Europe in November and played two gigs with us in Switzerland,” James said. “That was the last thing he did with us. Then we were like, ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘Well, let’s try it as a duo.’ If we could figure out how to do that and get a good reaction live as a duo, and make it sound really cool, that’ll be good.”



It worked out better than James expected.

“It’s weird but I’m really liking it,” he said. “It has really forced me to write better songs because you can’t really hide behind soloing anymore. We’re not going for a rock thing. It didn’t change to a rock duo. We’re still doing traditional R&B music but just in a duo fashion. We’re also doing traditional blues like that Carter Vintage session.”

Surprise single

James is referring to his latest digital single, “This Is the Last Time,” recorded live at Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville. It was released on February 17.

“It’s nuts because we never even planned to put it out on Spotify or anything,” James said. “Carter Vintage wanted us to do some demos for some guitars and then they put the videos up on YouTube and Instagram. They have local artists in Nashville, and they display the guitar each person is playing. They do a really great job at it. I posted my videos on my social media and they did as well.”

The clips went viral, and James started getting requests for a proper streaming release.

“To hear the songs, you either had to go on YouTube or Instagram,” he said. “You couldn’t just stream it, close your phone, go about your day and listen to it. We got a lot of requests, so I asked Carter Vintage to send me just the audio WAV file of the video. We didn’t even have it mastered. It was just like, ‘OK, cool, we’ll put it up for the people that want to hear it.’ It was something new to put out. Within like two weeks it had over 20,000 plays. This was just audio from a video, but people loved it.”

Watch McKinley James in “This Is the Last Time” live at Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville:

A growing discography

The song has since received more than 33,000 plays on Spotify alone. It is now James’ most streamed track on the platform, which has his entire catalog. His latest release, the live album, “Live,” was released in May 2022. Other releases include the six-song EP, “Still Standing By,” from July 2021, and “By My Side,” a five-song EP from May 2019.

James started self-releasing product on Red Lodge Records in May 2018 with the debut 7-inch, “Slip Away,” followed by the song, “Lean On Me,” that August. He has continued to release standalone singles like “Peace of Mind” in April 2019, “Got My Eyes on You” in February 2020 and “The Goodnight Song” in March 2021.



A new self-released single will be out later this month but bolstered by the streaming success of “This Is the Last Time,” James is hoping to secure a record deal for his next full-length.

“We definitely need to put a new record out,” he said. “We have a bunch of demos put together. We have 12 or 13 songs and nine of them are recorded as demos. Now, we’re in the process of shopping for record labels because we don’t want to put the next record out as a self-release again. We’re kind of pitching it to a couple of different labels to see who is interested.”

Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or


Who: Waynesville Guitar Series presents McKinley James

Where: Waynesville Music, 198 S. Main St., Waynesville

When: Saturday, May 13 at 7 p.m.

Cost: $20 in advance and at the door

More info: 513-897-0602 or

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