Derek Wells talks playing on 100 No. 1 hits over a long career
Nashville native Derek Wells has been called “one of the most talented people in music – period” and “a magnet for great people and great music” by Frank Rogers, his boss at the Spirit Music Group of Nashville.
As an A&R and production talent, he is renowned. As a session guitarist, he also enjoyed success. Recently – via Kane Brown’s “Like I Love Country Music” – Wells scored the accomplishment of playing on 100 No. 1 singles on country radio..
He’s a Grammy-nominated creator who has been named Guitarist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and Musician of the Year by the Country Music Association for the past decade.
However, noting that he did so after performing with Brown, Kenny Chesney, Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock, Maddie and Tae, Maren Morris, Midland, Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett, Carrie Underwood, and more , Wells has a great perspective on the depth and range of sounds emanating from the end of Music City.
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The 39-year-old son of session musicians has seen his time in Nashville encompass everything from touring with Josh Turner to being the city’s most in-demand artist. It offers a unique perspective on the past, present and future.
Question: How do you break down the depth and scope of what your work entails lately?
Answer: A big part of my job every day is translating an artist’s vision into sound. I’m not here to make my record; I’m here to make their record. So whether I’m playing guitar or producing or both, at the end of the day, I’m just trying to bring their vision to fruition. I play a demo song in a perfect world, and it inspires me. Then I use my mental catalog of music and influences to come up with parts that serve to help the demo I just heard. Then, the artist savors what my instinct inspired him.
But sometimes I have to play the “reference game”, where an artist will say “remember that Chicks song? Maybe if you leaned more towards that?” Even more, sometimes it’s a production or mixing thing, and we decide to put the acoustic instruments at the forefront of a song.
Even deeper, some days you don’t make the song happen. And that is also acceptable. You don’t have to be able to repair your own engine to know that something is wrong with your car.
Question: There must be times in such a tedious process that are difficult and make you want to leave the studio work behind?
Answer: I rarely play music that makes me unhappy. Nine times out of 10 I can sit down with an artist and figure out what works best. We talk about our problems with an arrangement, then it usually clicks. I’m a collaborator in getting that ball (metaphorically) across the goal line. It’s my job.
Question: You have spoken in the past about your influences and their diversity – and the impact that has on the present and the future of how country music has evolved and will continue to evolve. Thoughts?
Answer: As a teenager, I wasn’t an express fan of country music. However, the pop radio of my youth had everything from Jay-Z and Sheryl Crow to Incubus all on the same radio station. It created a unique sound library in my brain. Similarly, an artist like Kane Brown – like many – grew up listening to everything from Alan Jackson and Charlie Daniels Band to Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” album, Limp Bizkit, Puddle of Mudd, whatever.
If you only listen to country radio, you have a particular view of the genre. However, if you stream it through DSPs, you get – for the first time in a long time – songs (releases) from major labels, independent releases and artists that many people have never heard before. So, yes, the “country music” space is bigger than ever.
Question: Whether it’s Kane Brown remaining fully grounded in country music while seemingly doing every other kind of music or HARDY going “all in” on early 2000s rock influences, the country again does a “this and that” thing which is really fascinating. You’ve played with the people I named – and many more. Am I right to point this out?
Answer: More and more artists these days are willing to commit to “going for it” with their sound – not a metaphorical foot or toe in the pool, but jumping in the water. In “Like I Love Country Music”, Kane Brown was adamant about the presence of violins on the track. In fact, throughout his career, Kane has always expressed his love for authentic, traditional country fiddles in his songs.
Question: I want to take you back to 2015 when you started getting more recognition working with artists like Maren Morris (“My Church”, “80s Mercedes”) and Maddie and Tae (“Girl in a Country Song” ). What about these artists who have distinguished themselves musically?
Answer: Oh, yes. Maren is another artist with a diverse upbringing that gave her no pure allegiance to any particular genre. She’s so deep musically that she can quote you as many Dixie Chicks and George Strait songs as Rufus and Chaka Khan (classics). On his first album, “HERO”, we went from the very roots and soul sound of “My Church” – with acoustic instrumentation and unmistakably country lyrics – to “80s Mercedes”, which is not it. The common thread running through these songs, though? Maren – her artistry, her voice and her outlook on the world.
Maddie and Tae are two sides of the same coin. They are Oklahoma girls with a traditionally “southern” and “country” upbringing, but they are by no means one-dimensional. Their single (released in 2020) “Die from a Broken Heart” is a country-sounding record, but they will then do more sassier, rock and soul records too. I remember we sat down to do 2020’s ‘We Love Christmas’ album, and the first thing they wanted to record was a cover of Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas’ – you don’t have those influences in being totally (consumed) in one genus.
Question: If you were asked what could facilitate an artist’s creative time with you in the studio these days, how would you answer?
Answer: More artists should commit to showcasing as many facets of their personality as possible in their projects. Plus, they need to be comfortable having honest conversations about their music and ideas. The conversation boils down to something like whether I play more or less notes or not is not a problem. These days I’m mostly concerned with knowing what people think of the way I interpret their music. Are they satisfied or dissatisfied with my work? Also, what, if anything, do I need to change to execute their vision?
Question: Country music feels like it’s reaching unprecedented momentum. Amid all of this, what’s the most encouraging thing about life on Music Row these days?
Answer: There are so many hit songs that I had absolutely no part in creating. I like this. Human nature says we return to the wells that have served us well. I’ve played on 100 #1 songs because people know some of the staff (have a history of creating hits). But I’m excited to see people not only thinking about recording their music in different ways and with different influences, but also with a wider range of musicians. Music making and the music industry in general can only thrive if this continues.