Derek Wells - Weezy
NASHVILLE SINCE BIRTH
Derek Wells really didn’t think he’d end up a musician. Once the ACM Guitar Player of the Year got the bug, however, there was no turning back. His creativity and prowess shape much of today’s country music, and he plays guitar on records from household names like Blake Shelton to rising game-changers like Maren Morris.
Derek grew up in Nashville. “My parents are both studio musicians, but I had no interest at all,” he shares. “It’s a little bit of that thing where whatever your parents do just isn’t cool, and I was so desensitized to it all that it wasn’t exciting or glamorous to me, I had a very real picture of the whole thing.”
That changed when he was 17. “My cousin, who I was real close to at the time, he was like a brother, was just like, ‘Hey, I wanna start a band,’” Derek recalls. “He played drums and he was like, ‘Can’t you just get one of your dad’s guitars and come play?’” That was all it took. “The bug hit me, and when it did, it really got me.”
He headed off to college in Bowling Green, KY, but his mind was on music. “I had morning classes, I’d be done by 11 am every day, and I’d just go to my dorm room and play guitar,” he says. “I lasted 3 semesters at college and then it was kind of like, alright.” He moved back to Nashville.
“I think my parents’ biggest fear at the time was that I thought it’d be easy,” he says. He hadn’t been loving college, and his parents were concerned that seeing their careers in it might have given Derek false impressions about how easy a similar path would be. “It was the opposite,” he says. “Because of them I had a very clear picture of where the bar was.”
He moved into his parents’ basement and waited tables while he continued to play and improve. “I’d go to Walmart every week and I would buy two CDs and I’d go home and I’d just learn them cover to cover, as best I could sound them out,” he says. “It was certainly big gaps in the beginning … I had the huge resource, which was when I got really stuck I could run upstairs and go, ‘Mom, Dad, what is this chord?’”
Eventually, a chance meeting led to a show filling on the road, which in turn led to a steady stream of touring work. Derek toured from age 20 to 26, then quit the road – a gig with Josh Turner, at the time – to focus on playing in town in studio sessions full time. Nashville session musicians operate at an extremely high level. The best ones, Derek included, can hear a demo once and are able to immediately start recording. With his parents as examples and guides, he knew exactly what it would be like. Still, it was far from easy.
“The first time I ever did what we call a triple demo … I went home and cried,” he says. It was three sessions in a row; they recorded 16 songs, which is on the high end of typical for a Nashville session musician’s work day. “It was a combination of having just kind of been pushing through a situation that I knew I wasn’t really prepared for, adrenaline kind of forcing me through, and a lot of embarrassing moments throughout the day,” he says.
They talked him through it, and he kept practicing, listening, and getting better. He’s now one of the leading recorded guitarists in country music, delivering exemplary creativity and prowess. It’s taken him to some pretty cool places. “I got to record with Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, and that was definitely surreal, to hear that voice coming through the headphones,” he recalls.
Some sessions stand out in other ways. “Maren Morris, the first record,” he says of her debut Hero. “That was a very small unit of us that made that record; it was really just her and three dudes. There’s a lot of my soul in that record, maybe more than others. I always joke someday if I have kids or grandkids and they say, ‘What did you used to do?’ that’d be one of the records I’d play for them and say, ‘That’s me.’ That one’s got a little more of my DNA in it.”