We had the good fortune of connecting with Derwood James Willhite and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Derwood James, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
My initial interest and passion to pursue a career in the music industry both as an artist and entrepreneur was likely sparked at a young age. It’s not your typical tale though of how most people start out in music as a kid. Actually, I didn’t even start teaching myself to play an instrument or experience much for live music until I was 17 or so. Growing up as a young boy near the Mississippi River in Louisiana, there was minimal to offer a kid like me in terms of music education. The k-12 school that I attended cut the music class and teacher by the time I was in 5th grade and there wasn’t much for lessons or even music shops in the area without having to drive nearly an hour.
During my teenage years, I had a guitar but only knew how to strum one chord and never picked it up much out of general frustration and a lack of knowledge… So I stuck to writing mostly poetry in-private for myself even though I wasn’t a fan of poetry, but it later helped me find, and convey, my passion in songwriting. After high school I didn’t feel ready for college and I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, so I did what many young people do and simply joined the Army.
It was shortly after arriving at my first duty station in Arizona near the border of Mexico that I found myself with enough time and motivation to finally sit down and learn the guitar. Part of this had to do with Youtube beginning to finally have its first real guitar lessons uploaded during this period when I was about 18. So I had my father ship my guitar to me and I began to watch videos and teach myself how to play the guitar in the barracks after duty hours and on the weekends.
Over the following year I learned enough chords to structure my first few melodies along with some basic lyrics and found myself finally proud to have something I could call a “real song’. Then I quickly began to feel like a real songwriter and that my calling might be in music because I just couldn’t quit thinking about the next chord to learn or lyrics to write. I found new motivation and influences that grew more by the day, but just as I began to feel comfortable performing in front of friends and such, the Army decided to station me elsewhere.
It was after moving out to North Carolina when I met my wife Megan at a rock show where her godfather Bernie’s band was performing that night at a local venue in the Fayetteville area. It was both her and Bernie that helped motivate and push me in the right direction to get out and perform my songs in front of people. Shortly after venturing into the local music scene performing at open mics, I began managing a few artists and a band. While I was managing a band named Oakcrest, the founders Maxx and Tim asked me to join the band as their bass player. It was while touring and recording with the band that I grew a passion for creating and designing things like websites, band merch and album covers. It was then I started my first small record label from home called Inaboat Records to help protect the band’s music.
When Oakcrest decided to move the band out to California, I felt that Cali was too far west for me… so shortly after I chose to relocate out to Colorado around 2011. Sadly, after arriving on the front range in Colorado Springs I quickly found out that the music scene out here was different and difficult to navigate compared to what I was used to back on the East Coast. So instead of rushing out to make money in music around Colorado, I got a little side-tracked learning to create in other areas working for myself in photography, marketing and product design that helped give me the entrepreneurial skills that I use now to grow and navigate the ever-evolving music industry.
In 2017, I started a record label here in Colorado called Tall Tale Records to shift my energy as an entrepreneur over to music full-time and help other songwriters, bands and artists like myself. Outside of my time growing the record label you can typically find me writing new music and performing a variety of dark folk, rock and blues songs under my stage name “Tensas”. This year I began working on recording my new full-length album that will be titled Let the River Speak, which was postponed last year due to a spine and throat surgery.
Please tell us more about your work. We’d love to hear what sets you apart from others, what you are most proud of or excited about. How did you get to where you are today professionally? Was it easy? If not, how did you overcome the challenges? What are the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What do you want the world to know about you or your brand and story?
What sets me apart from others is my will to persist, which likely derives from the burning desire that I have to create and build the most respected independent record label in the music industry with Tall Tale Records. In 2020, the COVID pandemic likely changed the music industry forever and it made me have to stop and re-strategize how to potentially grow and earn revenue for the long-term as a small record label in a volatile industry.
Since the virus began, I’ve begun implementing new and unique plans at Tall Tale Records that will make it a true “artist owned” record label in a unique way with the first ever “Artist Stock Ownership Fund” that I am creating. It will give the artists on our roster the opportunity to invest and earn more revenue as the record label continues to profit! Also, fair-share majority royalty splits for artists, non-exclusive recording and publishing contracts are just a few of the new untraditional plans that are starting to be put in place at Tall Tale Records that will help set the record label apart in the industry.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I’m a big fan of the small mountain towns in Colorado, and I would definitely take a day or two to go on a few long back highway drives to hop from small town-to-town around the state sampling the local food such as Biggies in Buena Vista and outdoor activities like gold panning and hiking. I’d also head out and explore old mining towns like Victor, CO and other historical places around the state and would make sure we had time for a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater! In particular, my favorite places to eat are probably Bingo Burger and King Chef in downtown Colorado Springs.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d like to first thank my wife Megan and daughter Harleigh who have always been there to support my music endeavors since the beginning, and also for never giving up on me! Also, my wife’s godfather Bernie Mangiboyat who is a small business owner and talented musician who pushed me to get out there and grow as an artist and not be scared to make mistakes, and for also inspiring me to play the bass like a madman!
Lastly, I’d like to thank my bandmates Maxx Kranz and Tim Kranz (the founders of Oakcrest) for seeing the potential in me and opening my mind to music in ways I would have never thought possible.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all of you wonderful humans in my life, and I sincerely thank each of you from the bottom of my heart!
Instagram: @TensasMusic / @TallTale_Records
Facebook: @TensasOfficial / @TallTaleRecords
© Megan C. Willhite