If you know hits by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Brett Eldredge and many more of country’s biggest stars, then you know Brett James and Chris DeStefano. The two have countless number one hits between them including “Something in the Water” by Carrie Underwood, Kenny Chesney’s “Out Last Night” and “From the Ground Up” by Dan + Shay – just to name a few.
We chatted with these mega-hit writers along with Charles Judge, arranger for Music City Hit-Makers, after their CMA Fest show at Ascend Ampitheater to talk about the show, their hit songs and which tune enabled them to be knighted in France (seriously).
On the history of Music City Hit-Makers
Charles Judge (CJ): It was started by Brett’s cousin, Charles Dickson. He approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing orchestra arrangements for this concept, which was songwriter in the round, a la Bluebird Café, but with orchestra accompaniment. It sounded really cool to me like a great opportunity so of course I said sure. And the thing that’s so great about it is you [have] the best songwriters in town and getting to write an orchestra and have it performed is a wonderful opportunity, but on top of that, to have such great songs, and these guys are amazing singers. So it’s just win, win, win, so I was all in when he asked me. I couldn’t be happier; it’s a great opportunity.
On how it feels to be a part of Music City Hit-Makers
Chris DeStefano (CD): It’s amazing. As a singer-songwriter, you’ve obviously been playing and singing songs for many years on just acoustic guitar and I’ve always loved doing that, and to be able to basically do that with an orchestra is just [an] unbelievable experience. It just takes the music to a whole fresh, different place. And Charlie over here does the arrangements and he’s just an amazing arranger and they just take it to that next level. They change it up enough that you’re just like “wow this is fresh, something different.” Even if you’ve heard the song, obviously there [are] people that are familiar with the songs, but they get to hear it from a different perspective and get to hear it on a different stage, which is pretty fun.
Brett James (BJ): It’s just amazing to hear strings in a real orchestra behind you, it’s like “what am I doing, I just made this up on a little guitar, it’s not that important” and then all of a sudden you’re standing in front of the Boston Pops and going “what am I doing here, I can’t believe I’m here” kind of thing. It’s just powerful; it’s a beautiful thing.
On how Music City Hit-Makers is different from other shows in Nashville
CJ: Well the orchestra I guess is the thing that really sets it apart. [There are] so many great singer-songwriters and it’s always a thrill to watch them give their spin on their song, but I think it’s cool to have a nice, different kind of arrangement behind them. That’s what makes it different.
On their favorite hits they’ve written
BJ: We like all of them, as long as they’re hits, we like them.
CD: And they all kind of balance each other out too, which in a great way it’s like I feel like one of them would make the other mean more in some crazy way; they’re all fun. Some of them dig a little deeper, some of them shouldn’t dig deeper, they should just be what they are and that’s just what’s fun about it.
BJ: It’s hard to pick them. There [are] some you like a little more than others because you like singing them or they’re more you maybe, but you’re always happy to have a hit.
CD: Yeah, and grateful to be a part of all of them, that’s the thing too. I’m just super thankful to have been a part of all of them. Brett and I have had a few together.
BJ: Hopefully many more.
On their favorite people to write with
BJ: The best thing about being a songwriter is being a part of the songwriter community. Chris and I are just two of a bunch of people. It’s a pretty small community; it’s getting smaller over time, unfortunately. Our little club that we get to be a member of everyday is the coolest club in town because of great people. When you sit all day with somebody and write a song, I mean especially when you do it like 10 times, you really know somebody. You’ve spent a lot of one-on-one time with the other person and you make really deep friendships that way and that’s my favorite part of our whole thing.
On favorite artists to perform with (Past artists include Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton)
CJ: You just named two of my favorites. They’re both wonderful people, incredibly talented and fun to be around and gosh, the level of songwriting is so high. I’m just always happy to be here, it’s a very humbling town. There’s so many talented people at every station: writer, player, producer, engineer, you name it. Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and go “I can’t believe I get to do this.”
On the most interesting story behind a song they’ve written
CD: It’s almost easier for me to answer that from somebody else’s song. I love the “we went out last night” story. I could listen to that story a thousand times, it would still be entertaining.
BJ: Here’s one Chris and I had together. We’re standing in a castle in France with a girl named Priscilla Renae and it’s a typical day at a songwriting camp at a castle in France. Pretty soon we find ourselves in this castle with this big, crazy room that’s three stories tall with velvet couches and knights everywhere and [starts stomping and clapping], we’re doing stomps and recording them all and that song turned into “Somethin’ Bad” for Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert. And Chris and I at this particular songwriting camp, if you write a song that goes No. 1, then when you get to go back, you get knighted. So Chris and I are knights at a castle in France based on that song “Somethin’ Bad.” True story. So when we’re there, which we’ll be there again in September, they have to call us Sir Chris and Sir Brett.
CD: And we can walk into a room and shout “silence” and everybody has to be quiet.
BJ: We rarely pull that card
CD: We rarely pull the silence card
BJ and CD: But it could happen
BJ: (Laughs) It’s all silliness, but we had a blast with that.