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In Studio with Kent Wells

The name Kent Wells might spark a few different thoughts, depending on one’s age and which parts of the music industry one is experienced with. From working alongside some of country music’s greatest legends to starting three of his own companies, Wells has worn many, many hats during his tenure in the business. We had the opportunity to visit Wells at his Franklin, Tennessee recording studio to catch up on all things Dolly Parton, playing and producing, and his brand new business, set to open its doors later this year.

No matter which role Wells takes on, they all boil down to one thing: a genuine love for good music and superior production. “It all started when I was around eight years old. My dad was a hobbyist musician, so he was always sitting around playing and singing with my Mom. My older brother picked up the guitar and then I started fiddling with it. I’d sneak into my brother’s room and grab his guitar while he was at school and work, as you do when your older brother has something you don’t!” Not only did Wells have a natural affinity for the instrument, but an innate talent for playing. “Guitars were lying around our house all the time. I picked it up and things came easily to me, all by ear. My dad was such an enthusiast that once I knew how to play guitar, he bought me a banjo, and then a fiddle.”

Kent Wells with Dolly Parton

It wouldn’t take long for Wells to graduate from playing in his living room to playing the world’s stages behind artists like Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire. Wells spent time touring with both of the reigning country queens in the 1980’s and 1990’s before he stepped back to try his hand at something else. As Wells sat, one leg casually resting atop the other, in front of his state-of-the-art soundboard while we chatted, he recalled his path to mixing and producing. “My Dad always had a reel-to-reel recorder in the house, so he’d record our jam sessions. As I was growing up I moved from that to a four-track recorder. Then, in the mid-’90s I built a house with a home studio in it. I was touring with Reba at the time and I was able to build a pretty legitimate studio in my basement. I’d have a whole band down there recording things we’d come up with on the road, just messing around, then a few people started coming to me for demos. That was when I really learned how to mix, and some of the demos we cut turned out to be hits. By 2001 I was done with the road. Reba is amazing, but I didn’t want to be out there anymore, so I left her tour. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, then a buddy of mine came from Los Angeles and talked me into going into partnership with him to start a production company; Two Monkeys Productions.”

Never one to avoid a risk, Wells and his partners opened their new studio without a single client signed to their roster. “We went into business with Sound Stage downtown here in Nashville, and we moved into the old Warner Brothers Studios. We put in a big SLL consul and we didn’t have a single client. We sat there all day like….what do we do now? We’ve got this studio, but we don’t have anyone to record in it.” Enter Dolly, bringing with her another huge transition in Wells’ career. “ I toured with Dolly early on, and I played on a lot of her albums while she was produced by Steve Buckingham. The formation of Wells’ new production company coincided with Parton’s end to her partnership with Buckingham as a producer and a new team was born. “Dolly called me up and asked me to help her with a new Bluegrass album she was working on at the time called Halos and Horns [released 2002]. The record turned out pretty good and from there Dolly started calling me back to produce more and more. Over the last two decades, I’ve done about eight records with her, and I’m still working with her almost daily on different things.” Wells’ involvement with Dolly Parton would provide him both the expertise and the means to open Kent Wells Productions, the second of his three companies, in 2007.

Kent Wells with Dolly Parton

In response to the changing landscape of the music business, Wells launched a full-service company that offers music production, songwriting, publishing, artist development, and artist representation. With several decades of experience, Wells has a deep-rooted understanding of the way the music business has shifted with streaming, social media management, and the depleted likelihood of new artists being signed to labels and develops comprehensive campaigns for new artists to combat those challenges. “Producing and working with artists has evolved a lot over the years. When I first started producing I was doing projects with Dolly and Reba and, you know, Michael Peterson and Neal McCoy and a lot of great hit songwriters. Everyone was top tier and this whole concept of artist development escaped me because the artists I was producing had already gone through that. Before when a label would call me to produce something, they had already thoroughly screened an artist, and I didn’t have to be on the front lines. Now, the familiar model of record labels footing the bill to develop an artist who possesses raw talent and potential no longer exists. It’s now the sole burden of the artist to fully develop his or her band, image, web presence, live show, and to have a fully produced, radio-quality product, packaged and ready for the marketplace. I’m much more accessible these days because I’ve got to walk these young artists through all these steps that otherwise would have been done by a label before we stepped into the studio to record a single note.”

As part of Kent Wells Productions, Wells has recently started working with brand new artist, Shantel. Shantel made the acquaintance of Kent Wells only a few weeks after she moved to Nashville to pursue music as a career, and the partnership has been fantastic. Having recently released her first single, “Break My Heart”, Wells has guided Shantel to use her full voice and harness the power she has as a belter. “Shantel has a big voice,” Wells remarked of the artist, “She’s one of the bigger voiced females that I’ve heard in a long time. A lot of new singers kind of fit into the more modern, softer, Maren Morris sound. Shantel has these huge notes, like a Martina McBride type.” Shantel is a perfect example of the new, evolved process of ‘making it big’ that Wells references. “The thing I admire most about Shantel is her drive. She’s a very driven young lady and she wants things to go as fast as they can, but she’s coachable. She won’t be denied her chances, and she’s not afraid to work and to learn.”

Kent Wells with Shantel

In addition to the wide array of upcoming artists Wells consults for and producer, he has turned his attention toward an entirely new concept: artist redevelopment. With doors set to open later this spring, Wells has a full roster of clients eager to work with him to jump start the second phase of their musical legacy. Many have seen mainstream success, but have also seen that success dwindle in an evolving, entrepreneurial landscape. “Carving out a career in music nowadays has a very broad definition. It can mean someone is making boutique records and marketing their work micro-regionally,  it can be a little broader, or it can be full, main-stream, label level marketing. I’m finding more and more that you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit to even get a first look from a major label, much less a second. The labels are able to really cherry pick who’s already got all the components together independently to become a mainstream success. Labels are now looking at an artist, their following, the team they’ve built around them, how many live shows are happening. My new company helps artists put all these steps together with some structure.” Wells’ new company isn’t focused only on new artists, but a roster full of what we know in the industry as ‘legacy acts’; those folks who once saw it big when country was at its prime in the late 80’s and early 90’s. These artists (many of whom we are extremely partial to here at Lula 1892) still have impeccable musical ability and a desire to perform, but must learn an entirely new business landscape and action plan for success. Enter Kent Wells and his hand-picked team of executives and creatives.

In a world where long-play albums have had their shelf life cut in half and artists must produce more, better, faster in order to stay on top, Wells stresses the importance of solid branding, live shows, and a cohesive support team. “Dolly Parton is a great example of resurrecting a brand. Everybody has always loved Dolly Parton, and she’s always been a remarkable artist, but she really launched her career back into the stratosphere when we toured overseas about ten years ago. Her manager [now of eleven years, hired by Wells to join the Parton team] took her brand to another level overseas and brought it back to Nashville where Dolly was met with an amazing amount of demand. I saw the true power of branding with Dolly’s UK tour, and the power of casting a wide net when it comes to playing live. We went from a status quo approach with Dolly, touring around the United States, sometimes to full arenas and sometimes to half empty ones, and now without promoting her at all we can fill 4,000 seats if she announces a show. If this approach can work with Dolly Parton, how many other legacy acts are we sitting on, getting by with the status quo, not promoting the way they should be promoted in this climate?”

Kent Wells in studio with Shantel

If there’s one thing his many ventures prove, it’s that Kent Wells understands how to harness staying power. Though he humbly denies it, joking about missing trends due to his age and the fact that his head is always buried in his board, his success with Parton and other legends, his launch [in partnership with Derailed Development] of Shantel’s first single, and his already full client roster for his new company say otherwise. Wells takes the same critical approach to the business side of music as he does to a song mix; he combs over each changing trend carefully, studying the nuances, adjusting his approach until it’s perfect. Clients who opt to work with Wells wind up with a finely tuned song and a solid business plan that can stand the test of time in today’s constantly changing industry.

Artists and industry executives can reach Kent Wells and his team via his website, Kent Wells Productions.