By Dan McDermott
Warren County Report
At the age of 24, Derek Wells is the band leader and lead guitarist for the top-tier country act that is Josh Turner, Inc. In an interview with Warren County Report conducted a few days after a sold out high energy appearance at the Warren County Fair near Front Royal, VA, Wells talked of his first big break, life on the road with Josh Turner, recording with Dolly Parton and the joys and risks of playing in a high profile national act.
A tale of two Nashvilles
Both of Derek’s parents are musicians. His dad is a guitar player and producer. His mother is a songwriter, singer and piano player. Derek moved from Nashville, Arkansas to Nashville, Tennessee when he was one, a fact that Josh Turner frequently picks on Derek about between songs.
“He’s the only guy in the band from two Nashvilles,” Turner jokes.
Despite the 24 year-old’s long list of accomplishments, Derek only got serious about playing the guitar when he was 16. After finishing high school, Derek attended Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY for two years where he majored in journalism. While Derek is clearly intelligent and a quick thinker, the call of the lights and stage beckoned. He says he lost the bite for journalism when he started a career in music.
Derek’s first real paid gig was for Tammy Cochran of “Angels in Waiting” fame.
“I was 19 in 2003 and was playing around Nashville for free for anyone who would take me. I was playing acoustic guitar for a friend at a writers’ night when this guy came up to me after the set and said, ‘Man, you don’t know me and I don’t know you but I play guitar for Tammy Cochran and I can’t make a gig this weekend. I’ve called every guitar player I know and nobody can do it. Will you sub it? And I said, ‘Sure. Absolutely.’ So I drove over to this guy’s house the next day and he gave me 75 minutes worth of music and I got on Tammy’s bus the next day and went out.
With 24 hours to learn 75 minutes of music, Derek relied on his knowledge of the Nashville Number System, a simplified method of writing chord charts with numbers popularized by the Chordettes in the 1950’s and widely used among Nashville’s session players ever since. The idea is to assign regular numbers to notes so the song can be easily transposed into any key on the fly.
“It’s tough. I mean it was definitely unnerving to go get on a bus where you’re at least 10 years or probably 15 or 20 years younger than everybody else and you don’t know a single person. It was a little bit nerve-racking but luckily I made it through. I just sort of laid the charts down on the floor next to my pedal board as discretely as I could. It was intimidating. They were nice guys but there was definitely this feeling of ‘Well, we like you but are you going to be able to handle this show tomorrow….’ But it worked out well and they really welcomed me with open arms, especially after the first show.”
Derek says Tammy and the band liked his substitute performance so much he ended up staying on and did a handful of gigs for her until he got the call to sub for Kellie Coffey in 2004. Derek played for Coffey for about 6 or 7 months. Her biggest hit was the Billboard Top Ten “When You Lie Next to Me.”
Also in the mix was a stint with Julianne Hough who recently released the single “That Song in My Head.” Hough toured this summer with Brad Paisley, Jewel and Chuck Wicks. Hough can be seen along with Paisley and Willie Nelson in the Snoop Dogg video for “My Medicine.”
Derek was touring with Kellie Coffee when a friend who was playing for multi-platinum artist Josh Turner suggested Derek be considered for Josh’s band.
Josh Turner made his debut with the 2004 hit “Long Black Train,” an inspirational song that highlighted his powerful and deep voice. At the time of Derek’s audition, Turner had just finished the “Your Man” album, which would produce two #1 Billboard country singles: the title track and “Would You Go With Me.” “Your Man” also featured the #16 hit “Me and God.”
“I auditioned with about 9 other guys that day. The auditions were at a place called SIR Rehearsal Studios in Nashville. It took about two days for them to call me. The way it works is you work up about 2 or 3 songs. You walk in and set up your stuff. You play and no matter how good or bad you did, they’ll look up at you and go, ‘Well great. We’ll call you.’ And you pack up your stuff and leave. And as you leave the next guy’s coming in. It’s a very nerve-racking experience that doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Derek was quick to praise the talent off all the skilled guitar players he was competing against but conceded that there are factors besides musical ability that weigh on an artists mind.
“The musician in me would like to say it’s all about the playing but the truth of the matter is on a road situation like this where you’re going to be on a bus traveling with somebody in close proximity all the time I’d say 70% of it is how much do they like you. Do they think you’re going to be a good dude? Are you going to be on time? Are you going to know you’re stuff? You know, all those little things. You obviously have to be able to play well but like we talked about earlier in a town like this playing well is just understood. Everyone who auditioned that day could play well, it was just a matter of if they played well stylistically, did they give Josh what he wanted and beyond that, did he just get a good vibe from ‘em. He was there at the audition. He’s really laid back anyway.”
Derek joined Josh Turner’s band in February 2005 and was at Josh’s side playing lead guitar for packed venues over the next year as Josh’s songs slowly climbed up to the top of the Billboard country charts.
“Before Josh had a band he was playing guitar and singing by himself for years so he’s pretty comfortable with it. There are a couple of songs that Josh doesn’t play guitar on because he likes to free things up for mobility’s sake but Josh is a pretty good musician. He’s got a pretty good ear. He went to a music college here in Nashville and has a degree in music performance.”
How much does a touring musician earn?
From Derek’s experience, the pay for a touring musician runs the gambit.
“Every [earnings] scenario is different. It just depends on the artist and their management and what they decide they want to do. Some bands are on a salary; some bands get paid by the show; and some get paid by the show but have a retainer for when they’re off. It absolutely depends on the artist. The low, I’d say is $250 a day. And it’s understood in Nashville you’re not going to pay for any room and board or travel. They’re going to pay for all your airline or whatever. They’re going to take care of you; they’re going to feed you – all those things. The upper scale guys, they could be making anywhere from a grand to $1,500 a day. It just depends on the scenario. A lot of those guys are on salary. There are a couple of acts that make a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand a year on salary and they may do thirty shows; they may do sixty shows.”
Like most musicians, Derek owns all of his guitars and uses quite a variety.
“I use all kinds of stuff. Mainly I use Fender guitars with Josh. That seems to be the call for his gig. It depends what the situation calls for. When I played for Kellie or Julianne Hough I may not have used any of the guitars I use for Josh. It depends on what the situation calls for.”
While there are lots of budding stars in Nashville, Derek looks at the race as a friendly competition.
“Every waiter in town is a musician, singer or songwriter. It’s real competitive. Take Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the famous bar next to the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. You can go in to any one of those places at one o’clock in the afternoon and run the risk of hearing the best guitar player you’ve ever heard. Everyone is sort of clamoring for the same thing. But at the same time everyone is really friendly. It’s still that southern sort of atmosphere. It’s competitive and everyone is working for the same goal but everyone likes to help each other. Everyone likes to throw each other a line when they can. You won’t get anywhere without somebody’s help and you won’t get anywhere without helping somebody. That’s the way it goes.”
In country music, the musicians that usually play on the records are from a select few of the top tier of Nashville talent. The touring band is then hired and learns the songs the way they were recorded. “There are probably 60 or 70 guys in town who play on 60-70% of the records. And then there are a handful of other guys who play on other stuff. There is a lot of demo recording. There is a lot of what we call ‘limited pressing’ which aren’t really your major labels but are lower-end independent albums and things like that. You do see a lot of other guys, the session thing is a real hard racket to break into because there is a limited number of albums being made, there is a limited number of producers and when the call comes down and there is money on the line, the producer is going to call the guys they know that are tried and tested and that they know are going to come in there and play great, play great parts, come up with great ideas. Those are the guys who have proven themselves time after time. These guys are great players but I can’t stress enough that the good playing thing is pretty much just across the board. There are guys playing down on Broadway who have never played on a record in their whole life who are every bit as good as some of the guys who play on records. It’s just understood that you have to be good and then it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time and proving yourself over and over.”
Derek agreed that the job of playing music gets easier to an extent as your career advances. Nightclub bands play for 4 or 5 hours a night while national acts do a set of around an hour. There are also other benefits.
“It’s kind of a running joke. You get on a high profile gig or you play on some high profile records these companies call you up and they’re going to give you something or they’re going to give you a really good deal on something. That’s when you don’t even need the deal. You can afford it. I can afford to go out and buy guitars now but when I was 19 nobody would give me a deal.”
Making it in Nashville
Derek has no problem coming up with the most frequently asked question he receives.
“We’ll travel and we’ll be in Oklahoma or Ohio or wherever and people will say, ‘Man, I really want to make it to Nashville. What do I do?’ Well, you’ve got to come to Nashville. Must be present to win! It’s sort of like the session musicians but on a smaller scale. I mean everyone is good. There are a lot of good players. And no doubt those A-list session guys are the best musicians in the world but they would be playing Broadway too if they hadn’t met the right person or gotten to play on the right project. It’s kind of the luck of the draw to a certain extent but you have to be good.”
Country legend John Anderson once sang that the Cumberland River was filled with Nashville tears.
“There are lots of talented people here in Nashville who can’t even take smaller risks. They can’t quit their day job. You can be great but if you don’t take the right steps or kind of by happenstance end up at the right place at the right time then no one will ever know.”
Life on a million dollar bus
There is no doubt about it. The tour bus is the way to travel.
“Probably the first time I ever stepped foot on a tour bus was when I was a little kid with my parents. It was probably one of the nicest ones at the time. The first time I stepped on one as a paid musician was probably for Tammy Cochran and it was a nice one. It was definitely a nice new Prevost. It definitely wasn’t a junker. We are fortunate. The busses are the best way to travel. There is a band bus, the crew bus and a bus for Josh and his wife. Jennifer has toured with Josh since I started the gig. There are usually three sections of a band or crew bus. There is the front lounge, the bunk area and the back lounge. Most of the buses are what they call 12-sleepers which means they come with 12 bunks or you can have like what we have they call ‘condo bunks’ and the bunks are larger and then you can only carry 8 bunks but that’s the setup. We have satellite TV in the front and back lounges and video game systems and there is Wi-Fi on the bus and bathrooms and some of the buses have showers and little kitchens and microwaves. It’s really a home away from home. There is no way we could do what we do without them. We’d be miserable.”
Is it hard to sleep in a bus moving down the highway?
“How you sleep depends on the person. Light sleepers sometimes have trouble if it’s a rough bumpy road. I never have trouble sleeping on them.”
“Every day when we wake up on the bus we are at the hotel. The bus driver is already in there asleep. He’s parked us in the parking lot. He goes to sleep. We wake up at our own leisure and we go up front and there will be room keys with everyone’s name on them. There is a day sheet so we know it’s 8:30 and the bus is going to go to the venue at 11. So I know I’ve got until 11 to do whatever I’m going to do at the motel. You go in and get showered. You get back on the bus and you roll over to the venue. There’s lunch and a sound check. Then there is some down time and you can go back to the motel or you can hang out on the bus. Then you have dinner and then it’s show time and then you get back on the bus and you go to sleep and you wake up at another hotel. Repeat ad nauseum.”
How do you stay skinny when there is a huge fancy spread at every stop?
“A lot of guys can gain weight. There is a big spread of food at each place. You’ve got to really either control yourself or you’ve got to be able to work out. A lot of our guys work out. We’ll go play basketball, Josh included. Everyone tries to do what they can to keep thin. You have those spreads everyday but everyone has a day when they just say ‘I can’t.” You’ve just got to try to govern yourself.”
The show must go on
Inevitably, there comes a time when you get sick. In show business, there is no convenient time for this to happen.
“I had a gig about a year and a half ago with Josh when I was throwing up on stage and they set one of those big 5 gallon trash bags off the back of the stage. And every time I thought I was going to throw up I’d just run over there by the drum riser out of sight and hang my head off the back of the stage and just throw up all over everything. It was awful. Nobody in the audience knew. All of the crew knew because I had been sick all day. You just try to conceal it as best you can. A lot of times the adrenalin will kick in. You’d be surprised what you can through for an hour or an hour and 15 minutes. Those are the days when you’re really happy you have a crew to set up and take down your stuff.”
When Derek and I spoke, he had just finished a demo session for Dolly Parton who wanted to record some of the songs she had written over the years but hadn’t gotten down in the studio.
“We were re-doing some of her old, old songs. She found a bunch of old songs that were just work tapes of just her singing and she may have decided she wanted to have them for herself but I’m not sure. I got to play on Dolly’s last record and she is just a joy and so, so talented. Everyone kind of knows her for being Dolly and being this icon and kind of forgets that she’s this amazing songwriter. She’s one of the best singers and harmony singers I’ve ever been around, period.”
The public eye
One of the side effects of playing in a national act on stage and in videos is that you will be recognized.
“It was a lot worse before. We had a few instances where we had done a live album for Cracker Barrel and when that was out they were really promoting it and there were posters up and there was this big display and so it was a little bit more harried. When you walk in there with Josh and there is a life-size poster right next to you the cover’s kind of blown. But we haven’t had any big Cracker Barrel mobs in a while, which is good because we really like Cracker Barrel. Josh is always really cool about it. We find that it only takes one person. Sometimes you’ll go places and you can tell that people around notice who he is or notice you because we’ve done enough videos where even some of the band is recognizable now. Sometimes you’ll go to a place and they’ll notice but no one will come up to you but if one person comes up and asks for an autograph or picture that’s all it takes. That’s like the ‘okay’ for everybody else. It’s usually all or nothing. Sometimes we’ll get out of there without Josh having to do anything and sometimes it’s half the restaurant.
Derek points out that while they love the fans and know they are the cause for their success, there are times when you want to sneak in and out of a place to get a bite to eat.
“Sometimes you just woke up. Sometimes it’s after a show where it was 100 degrees and we’re all sweaty and nasty and wearing our gym shorts and stuff and we want to run by Denny’s and grab some food and there are a bunch of people there.”
The Internet has added a new twist on the problems caused by overzealous fans.
“You have to be a bit guarded. I’ve known musicians who have played for other artists who have had all sorts of bad stories come up. Some girl comes up and snaps a picture with someone and then the next week there’s some blog on the Internet with this girl and how she slept the night with the guy and he’s got a wife and two kids. That’s the unfortunate thing that a lot of people don’t understand. Unless we feel that it’s absolutely the most innocent of innocent situations we’re reluctant to take pictures anytime because some people just lie. People will just make up stuff. My mom and my fiancé get on Josh Turner message boards all the time and I can’t tell you how many times they read stuff like ‘Well my cousin is Derek Wells and he told me that Josh’s new record is going to have this song on it.’ Well not an ounce of that is true. What compels a person to completely fabricate an entire story from top to bottom and include me as their source?”
While there have been some concerns, Derek hasn’t yet had to go to Josh about an untrue story.
“Most of the time it’s really trivial. No one, knock on wood, has ever said something like ‘Derek hates Josh’ or anything. Most of the time if it’s on the message boards Josh probably doesn’t know about it anyway since he is so busy. You get used to it. As for stuff like that, anyone who is around the situation knows immediately that it’s not true. The unfortunate thing is that they trick the people on Josh’s web site or wherever. These folks really want genuine information and these people are telling them lies. For example, if Justin, our steel player, ever got on there and saw something like ‘I took this picture when I ate dinner with Derek at Wendy’s’ then Justin’s going to get on there and say ‘I was with Derek that night.’ So it doesn’t really effect any of us but it probably effects some unknowing Josh Turner fans.”
Looking toward the future
“When I’m not on the road I play around town with a bunch of different musicians. I just enjoy playing music and I love playing with Josh and I love being his band leader. If I wasn’t able to play in a gig I’d lose my mind. I’ve been doing some recording. I’ve been lucky enough to get into the session world and play in some records. As band leader I’m kind of the extra ear for Josh to make sure everyone is playing right, everyone’s playing their part. When we’re learning new songs I’m kind of in charge of writing the charts out for everybody. But it’s a great bunch of guys so I don’t have too much to do. They’re really great about playing great and doing their homework.
There is no doubt that Derek Wells enjoys his job. But he also knows he won’t be 24 forever.
“I’d like to be a studio guy full-time and I’d like to produce. I’m starting to produce some stuff here and there with some local artists. That’s the ultimate goal. I love Josh and a lot of other artists but I would like to eventually quit traveling as I get a little bit older.”
One of the biggest questions we had was how Derek’s fiancé Amy handles his schedule and career choice.
“She’s great about it. You hear all sorts of horror stories about women who aren’t so great about being engaged or married to a traveling musician but things were really good from day one. She really respects what I do and she thinks I’ve got a cool job. She really loves it and she’s really supportive and I want to mention something about Josh. If you want to go on the road and try to raise a family then Josh is the guy you want to go with. It’s really a tame bunch of guys. No one is out there partying. No one is out there tearing up hotel rooms and Josh is so family oriented. He’s really family-first. When I came to him and told him I was getting married I asked him if he wanted me to get a sub and he said no, absolutely not. We’re going to block off a whole entire week. I want everyone to be there. I want to be there. A lot of artists would have given me all kinds of grief. They’d have said ‘No way, you plan your wedding around our shows.’ So that attitude has really helped. When we started dating she came out to a show and once she met everybody it was sort of, ‘Wow. These are just the nicest, sweetest, most down-to-earth people ever so what kind of trouble could he get in with them?’ ”
[Some artists biographical information provided by Wikipedia.]
Dan McDermott: editor [at] warrencountyreport.com