Song Writing

Director Wes Edwards ("Drunk on a Plane")

by Amanda Flinner

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What do you call an airplane crammed with comedians, musicians, a jilted groom, a fake priest, and a country singer in the cockpit? Just another day at work for Wes Edwards, who directed Dierks Bentley's "Drunk on a Plane." The clip won the 2014 CMA Music Video of the Year and earned the coveted immortal status on the comedy site Funny or Die.

Wes is a prolific music video director with a cinematic eye, who has brought his vision to several projects for Bentley, along with country singers Jason Aldean, Brooks & Dunn, Randy Houser, Cassadee Pope, Eric Paslay, Chase Bryant, and electronic artist Dash Berlin, to name a few.

Aside from music videos, Wes was also at the helm for Bentley's Riser documentary, several TV commercials, and short films like Falling to the Top (2008). He told Songfacts the back stories of some of his most memorable videos and shared his creative process, his love of ramshackle locations, and how an inside joke with his buddies inspired a hit video.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into directing music videos?

Wes Edwards: I grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, and ever since the age of twelve or so, I have just been shooting. I used to make silly movies with my friends in the backyard and did it all through high school. I went to Middle Tennessee State University, which is about 45 minutes outside of town, and I continued all through college to make short films with my friends, and I always have wanted to do movies. For me, music videos became sort of a way to hone my craft. When I got done with college, I applied to go to film school in LA and didn't get in and thought I wonder if I could just do it without film school, and I am so glad that that happened because I think I got some real-world experience.

Songfacts: Were you interested in music much before then? Being from Tennessee, I'm thinking liking country music is a requirement.

Wes: My dad listened to country music, but my dad also exposed me to the Beatles and my mom was into pop music and occasionally she would listen to country. I would go over to my grandparents' house and watch Austin City Limits. I have great memories of that, but when I was growing up, I was into alternative rock. I listened to Nirvana and all that kind of stuff, so music for me was kind of across the board. Being from Nashville, country music was so ubiquitous and everybody was somehow affiliated with it, so it just seemed like not that big of a deal. I guess it was just around everywhere, but yeah I love music, but I really came at it more as a filmmaker than a music fan. I was more of a movie fan than a music fan.

Songfacts: So did you watch other videos for inspiration or were you more inspired by movie directors?

Wes: It's funny because I loved music videos; I loved watching music videos. I can still remember before school every morning, I would watch MTV or CMT and just watch music videos, but I never saw myself actually directing them. I had always fancied myself or imagined myself making feature films, and so the idea of making a music video seemed cool, but it just never occurred to me that was something that I could actually do. But when I got out of school, I knew they were making music videos in town, and I decided that I was just going to see if someone would let me do a music video. About a summer before I graduated from college, I went to LA and I took a course in music video production at the University of Southern California, which was really great but it also solidified the fact that I didn't necessarily want to go to film school. I thought I'd just like to see if I can do this without film school. So, yeah, I watched music videos, but I never really pictured myself doing them.

Songfacts: There was a turning point where you started to see a lot more music videos with a cinematic quality that brought in stories as opposed to straight performance-type videos. In country music, I remember in the '90s Travis Tritt had a few where he would play a Vietnam vet.

Wes: That's true. The '90s were sort of the golden era of music videos. It was pre-Internet really. The Internet existed but no one was watching music videos on the Internet, and the music industry was still making a ton of money and spending a ton of money on music videos. I still think some of those '90s videos in country and in pop music are just so good. They had so much production value, and they were important at that time. They knew that when they made one of those videos, people would see it and it would be an important thing for that artist. I think that music videos have made a comeback and are more important than ever now for an artist to make a splash.

Songfacts: Well, now with YouTube, a lot of people are hearing the song for the first time through the video rather than on the radio.

Wes: It definitely is a big deal. I think to make an impression, a video is just so valuable for an artist.

Songfacts: What is your process like when you first get a music video project or is it kind of different depending on the artist?

Wes: It's funny that you ask this because I'm actually trying to come up with a concept for a video right now that is due tomorrow. Basically what happens is, I start listening to the song and in the beginning, images and certain associations pop up in your mind as you're listening that sometimes have nothing to do with the song or the artist necessarily; it's just these random images that come to mind. What I do is try and listen to the song and let those images come to me, and then I try to refine those images so that they do have something to do with the song to come up with some sort of visual representation for that song and that artist.

When we listen to music, whether we're conscious of it or not, I think we have to use symbols and images and codes that we associate with a certain song that play out in our heads. What I try to do is listen to that and then come up with a visual metaphor that makes sense for that song. It's a process because you have to not only let those images come to you, but then you have to weed through them and try to figure out a way that you can make sense of it all. And you have to consider who the artist is and the budget that you're working with, all these things. It's kind of like threading a needle to get from point A, here's a song, to point B, which is here's a concept that fits this song and this artist that can be done in one or two days for the budget. As I've written more and more treatments, I've gotten better at the process, but it's still difficult. It's still very organic. Sometimes an idea will come while I'm listening to a song the first time; sometimes I need to listen to the song for hours on end and take a break from it.

Songfacts: What came to my mind immediately when you were talking about those images was the sign falling over at the end of Dierks Bentley's "Tip it on Back."

Wes: I remember when I had that idea. That was one of those really exciting moments where I was listening to the song, loved the song, really wanted to do the video, just thinking about it all - and then I had that image of the sign being pulled out of the ground and falling over and this camera move that went up and over. I just remember getting really excited about that visual twist on that. My parents actually, we had a family farm in Kentucky that they had just sold. Of course I supported them when they did it because it needed to be done, but for selfish purposes I kind of wished that they had held onto the farm, so that's where that came from. That's something that I really try and do. If it's not just purely visuals, if a story starts to emerge, I always try and find an unexpected twist on the lyrics to bring something to the storyline that people wouldn't necessarily expect. That's how I work when I'm trying to come up with a storyline.

Songfacts: So you would say the visuals almost always come first and then the actual characters or story ideas come later?

Wes: Yeah, I would say so. So much of it is also weeding through the first cliché things that pop in your mind as well. When you've watched a bunch of music videos there are music video images that come into your head first. It's trying to dismiss the first and the second and the third immediate ideas and trying to come up with something in a way that is so obvious that you don't think of it sometimes. Then sometimes it's just trying to find a way in and surprise people. I wish that I could tell you that there's some magic formula, but there's really not. It's just sort of throwing things against the wall and seeing if anything sticks.

Songfacts: Is "Tip It On Back" the video that you think has the most of yourself in it because you were inspired by such a personal story? (The couple in the video nearly loses their farm.)

Wes: Oh gosh, I don't know if I would necessarily say that, because I was never in a position like the couple in that video. I don't know if I necessarily have a music video that I've done that I think is my most personal video. I don't know if I have one that I really think that feels very personal to me. They're all personal in their own way, but none of them really tell my story, but that may be the closest in terms of that image hitting home for me because I had that sort of attachment to that farm.

Songfacts: And you have such a short amount of time to really make the audience feel for these characters, so did you audition a lot of people to find the right couple or is there even time to audition many people at all?

Wes: It depends. The audition process for a music video is the part that I hate the most, the auditioning and the location scout. I feel like that's where I earn all my money and the rest of it is just play. Trying to find someone to be in a music video is a really tough process. I like to cast people who haven't been in a bunch of videos, so I'm always looking for someone fresh, and then they need to fit a certain kind of demographic that you're going for, a certain look. I remember when we found those people for that video. Jason Burkey was a really great actor, and the girl was Sarah Ames. When I saw her I just thought that she really fit that role. They looked like they belonged together. The way that happened was I had just seen Jason in the audition and he had walked out the door, and then Sarah came in and I immediately liked her. So, I sent somebody to run out into the parking lot to try to find him before he drove away so that I could put them together, and they were so natural together. He threw his arm around her, and it just felt like they belonged together, and sometimes that's the best kind of way to do casting. I always like to cast real couples whenever possible.

The people in another one of Dierks's videos, "I Hold On," they were actually a real couple, and the guy was an assistant camera guy. I met him on set, really liked his energy. He was an AC, which is someone who changes lenses and pulls focus and just basically helps maintain the camera onset. I knew that his girlfriend was a model, and I had met her and she was really sweet. When we were trying to cast that video, we hired a casting agent, and she was looking all over the place, but she was going to a lot of the expected places, like different agencies. She was doing the scouting out in the real world and for whatever reason he popped into my mind. I called him up and said, "Hey, I know you're not really an actor, but do you think you would want to come in and let me video you and your girlfriend and just try and do a camera test and see how it turns out?" and he said yeah.

Songfacts: That's the video Dierks said he put a lot of pressure on to get just the way that he wanted because it was telling his story.Wes: It was sort of the alternate reality of Dierks's story, absolutely. I was simultaneously shooting the documentary for Riser at the time I was shooting the music video, so we went on tour with Dierks in a separate bus to Texas and filmed everything along the way, so that was a lot of fun to do.

Songfacts: You've also been working with Jason Aldean off-and-on since his debut. Do you think that you find an artist becomes more comfortable with letting you take control over time or they are more likely to want to share their own ideas more?

Wes: I think it's a little bit of both. Sometimes when you're first working with someone, they want to be very courteous to whatever it is that you want to do, but I also think that the more you work with an artist, the better you both get at finding out what the other person might be thinking. Jason really just lets me do my thing. He might have a couple of ideas that he shares. I don't think it depends necessarily on the length of the relationship; it's a song-by-song basis. In general I would say that yeah, the more you work with someone, the more they learn to trust you, and that's something that I hear from Dierks. He'll be like, "I trust you, man."

They may question in the beginning, a set-up or something that you want to put in the video, but over time they realize that you're not going to do anything to make them look silly. I always say, Let's try this and if you hate it, I will pull it out of the video, no questions asked, and that really puts the artist at ease because I don't have an agenda - I'm doing what I think is cool. At the end of the day, it's a video for them, and I definitely want them to love the video.

Songfacts: Jason said in an interview: "Wes Edwards is really good at finding stuff that looks like crap and making it look really cool on film." That was about the airplane graveyard in "Fly Over States." Do you ever see a location and have that inspire the idea?

Wes: In that particular case, I knew that the airplane graveyard existed, but often when I write a music video, I have an image in my mind of what I want the location to look like, and then it becomes a process of "does this thing exist?"

I'll give you an example: We just did a video for Eric Paslay ("Song About A Girl"), and we were originally going to shoot in Detroit in one of the these grand, crumbling ballrooms. This was actually Eric's idea. I went online and looked at some of the theaters in Detroit, and they are gorgeous, but they're completely dilapidated. Then they decided that they wanted to shoot the video here in Tennessee, and then it became a question of if there was an old dilapidated theater anywhere around here. We hired a location scout and went out and did a bunch of research for a few days and found this gorgeous, really dilapidated opera house in Pulaski, Tennessee, who's doors had been closed since the 1930s. The place is just beautiful, but beautiful in the most decayed, decrepit way possible. There's something about that. I really like spaces that have history. I like funky, dusty, kind of disgusting-looking places. I know what Jason meant when he said that, because when we shot "Amarillo Sky" in the falling-apart barn, we actually had to have a carpenter come in and reinforce the floor so that the band wouldn't fall through. I think he probably looked at that like, "What the hell is this?" Same thing for the airplane graveyard, but the funkier the place, the better it looks, usually.

Songfacts: Speaking of "Amarillo Sky," you ended up in Illinois for that one right?

Wes: Yes.

Songfacts: And how did that idea come about to use the real farmers starring in the video and telling their stories at the beginning?

Wes: When that song plays, I think everyone pictures an old farmer, so I just said, what if it's the opposite? That's unexpected. What if it's the young guys out there? Then rather than try to cast some dude who's playing a farmer, let's see if we can go find real kids who want to do this for a living.

It's one of those occupations that is getting tougher, but you still find young people out there who are going to grow up and they're going to be farmers. The future farmers of America. So we went up there, and we drove around, and we went to feed stores, and we talked to people. Everything up there is so spread out, but we do a process of just looking everywhere. We uncovered these great kids who live on these farms that have been there for generations, and they are the next in line to take it over. So I thought that was a really nice twist on the lyrics that no one really expected when they first heard it.

Songfacts: Right, and then you see them having a tough time in the first half, just trying to hang on and hope for the best, but then I like how you brought in that aspect of them enjoying life with their friends at the end.

Wes: I didn't necessarily direct them to act a particular way, but I do think that that made them feel more like real people. You know, when people laugh, they're unguarded, and that's when I love to shoot people. It'll be between takes, and people won't think I'm rolling. I'll use the thing where they're just kind of staring off in the distance because they're not aware that they're on camera.

Songfacts: Yeah, that's what I wanted to bring up for "5-1-5-0," where everybody is going crazy with their antics in the mud and everything. How much of that was just letting them loose and filming?

Wes: One-hundred percent. Anytime there's a rowdy crowd - there's a certain amount where you can walk over to somebody with a camera and they're aware and you can ask them to do certain things - but most of it you have to just hang on and try and get what you can. I remember when I showed up to shoot "Hicktown," I had a storyboard and within like the first 10 minutes, I just threw it away, like "I'm never getting any of this, but what's here is so insane that let's just run around and shoot as much of it as we possibly can."

Songfacts: It's like actual fun versus staged fun. Sometimes it just seems stiff when it's too choreographed.

Wes: Yeah, one thing I hate is forced frivolity. Just on any level, forced frivolity is the worst. I always like to make an environment fun so that people actually have fun and just capture that.

Songfacts: Well, that's a good intro for "Drunk on a Plane," which looks likes it was really fun. How did that idea come about? That was a little bit different being associated with Funny or Die.

Wes: I wrote that treatment - actually this is going to sound really bad [laughs], but my friends and I used to joke around, and we used to make up bad country songs and sit around and sing them. We would try and come up with the most ridiculous scenarios possible, and there was this joke song that we made up called "Let's Land This Thing," and it was exactly the plot of "Drunk on a Plane." A guy gets on a plane, he's too shy to talk to the girl, but then the plane starts going down and in the song he actually marries her on the way down.

We were going to do that with "Drunk on a Plane," that's why we had the priest sitting there. He was going to perform the ceremony, but we ran out of time and it felt too complicated, so we just did it where he puts the ring on her finger and now they're engaged. I think that works just as well, but that actually came from this silly joke song that me and my friends made up probably 10 years ago. You never know where the idea is gonna come from.

Songfacts: Yeah, it was a similar thing with "5-1-5-0." That line, "Somebody call the po-po," they thought it was ridiculous but just threw it in there anyway, and it was a hit.

Wes: Being wacky is never a bad thing for the creative process.

Songfacts: And what was it like shooting in such a confined space for "Drunk on a Plane"?

Wes: That was actually one of the most difficult and stressful days of shooting I have ever had because we had to shoot it all in one day. We had a bunch of extras, we were in a confined space, and there wasn't a bunch of room to move around. We were on a stage, basically. We shot it in a place called Hollywood Air outside of LA, and all they do is fake airplane sets. They have several in this little warehouse there and that was their 737 mockup with turbulence. It was difficult shooting because it was hot and we were trying to roll two cameras on everything and stay out of each others' way, and there's a party going on and seats everywhere. The day went a little long, but we got everything we needed. We were trying to tell a really intricate story which always complicates things because you can't just run around and shoot stuff; you have to make sure that shot A connects to shot B and so forth. So it was a tough day, but I'm glad it worked in the end.

Songfacts: And that was one of first ones that Dierks took a role as one of the characters in the video rather than just the performance part. Was that something upfront that you knew you wanted him to do, or did he speak up and say he wanted to do it?

Wes: Well, I remember Dierks wanting to be the pilot. There was a Foo Fighters video ("Learn To Fly") that came out a few years ago that the guys in the band play a bunch of different parts on the airplane, and I just used that as the inspiration for Dierks being himself and being the pilot. And the other guys in the band, they each played a role. His drummer, Steve, played the co-pilot and then also played himself, so that was a lot of fun to do.

Songfacts: And the video has reached immortal status on Funny or Die.

Wes: I was really humbled and just really excited when it did well on Funny or Die because you just never know. I mean, they don't put country music videos on Funny or Die, so I was a little worried about it, but I was really happy when it did well.

Songfacts: You usually edit your own music videos. How much of the editing process were you involved in for the Riser documentary?

Wes: I was heavily involved in every process and I actually spent some time down there working with them editing, for the most part. It was really great to work with these two guys who are these young documentary filmmakers, and they have done some brilliant work. The company name is the Moving Picture Boys, and it was Jace Freeman and Sean Clark, and they helped me shoot some of the footage of Dierks's interview. They were really great to work with in the editing room because they're so good at telling stories documentary-style, so that was really great. I owe a lot to those guys.

Songfacts: And that footage included a lot of personal moments like when Dierks' son was born.

Wes: Absolutely, and Dierks shot a lot of that stuff on his iPhone. As you could imagine, I was really, really happy and excited when I got that footage from him. I wasn't there, but there was a piece of me when we first started talking about the documentary that thought, well, I'll be on call. And his manager was just like, "That'll never happen." So I talked to Dierks and said, "Dude, could you please, please, just shoot me some stuff on your iPhone because I really think that would help," and I really think that's some of the best footage in the whole film. It was done in such a low-key way and it's so personal to Dierks. I don't think the documentary would have been half as good if we didn't have that footage.

Songfacts: And was that over a two-year period that you collected the footage for that?

Wes: Yes, although I wasn't really involved in the very beginning. He has a day-to-day shooter named Ryan Silver, who's fantastic and has become one of my good friends. A lot of that really early footage, from in the studio writing and some of the stuff on tour, was shot by Ryan before they were sure they were going to make a documentary. He was there every day shooting stuff, so I got to look through the archives and at the footage that I thought would help tell the story.

Songfacts: I skipped over "Tattoos On This Town" when we were talking about Jason Aldean. That has some pretty clear visuals pulled from the lyrics, but again you brought in that side story with the marine and his wife.

Wes: As I was listening, I started thinking, What's the ultimate tattoo, what's the ultimate mark that you can leave behind in the world? I just thought once you bring a child to this world, that's the best mark you could leave. So from there it all just kind of fell out. I knew I wanted to end it in a really powerful way with the kid looking at the carving his dad had made in the tree. That was the first thing that popped up, and that's one of the things that the audience really connected to. Once I had that particular visual, then I reverse engineered the story. The whole military aspect, I was not sure how Jason or anyone from his camp was going to take to that, but I just thought, it works for me, so I'm going to write it and see what they think. Luckily, they went for it.

Songfacts: I was just reading about the one you made with Chase Bryant, Take It On Back," and he said that he really connected with the treatment because his grandfather really loved trains. Was that a coincidence?

Wes: I know, that was crazy. I had no idea. That was filmed in Nashville. There's a Tennessee Railroad museum, and they take this train that they have on excursions. We shot it on a Saturday, and on that particular day they were taking an excursion to Watertown, Tennessee. They were going to park the train for a couple of hours in Watertown and then come back. We had maybe two-and-a-half to three hours of the train actually moving, and when the train was parked, we had to close the curtains or try to come up with ways to make it seem like the train was moving, even though the train was just sitting there.

In fact, when the kid is running towards the train at the end, there was a little bit of insider, low-budget, music-video trickery. When the train is not moving, the train is not moving. We didn't have enough money to rent the entire train to make it do what we wanted to do, so at the end when he's running towards the train and he's reaching like it's taking off and he's trying to jump aboard, we actually just had a treadmill there, so it looked like he was running and reaching for the rail. He was just running on a treadmill when everything was static. You have to figure out a way to sell the illusion for sure.

The way that I came up with that concept was that "take it on back" implies that you're moving somewhere, you're taking it on back. I tried to think of a vehicle that's retro, and I thought, well, a train. You can take it on back in a train, and it's a retro throwback to travel, and it's powerful. And when you listen to the song and you think of trains, it feels like it fits, so I just went with it. But I had no idea that his grandfather was into trains at all. It was one of those lucky accidents.

Songfacts: You did a trio of videos ("How Country Feels," "Runnin' Outta Moonlight," "Goodnight Kiss") for Randy Houser that was connected as a trilogy. Did you plan to do it that way or did it just happen?

Wes: No, it was not planned. I wish that I could say that I was smart enough to plan a trilogy, but music videos are always just one–offs. When we shot "How Country Feels," the first edit of the video wasn't working. It was much more of a free-form. I concentrated not on that one couple but on several people at the party. They were so good together, and the label didn't think that the video quite worked, so my suggestion was, What if we went back and we filmed some more stuff just with these two kids? And they were nice enough to say yes. We got a little bit of extra money and we went back and we broadened the storyline to concentrate on these two kids. They were so popular that when the next one came out we were just like, let's use them again, because the audience really responded to them as a couple and to her, Shawn Deering. She was great. Then, after the second one came out, we said let's do one more.

Songfacts: So now people connect those three songs, like it's an unintentional concept album now.

Wes: Yeah, totally. I had done a similar thing with another artist that I worked with named Dash Berlin, who's not a country artist at all, but electronic. We had shot a music video ("Better Half of Me") with a couple, and it was so popular, and the couple was so popular, that we decided to do another one with them ("Worlds Fall Apart"). We just did it like a to-be-continued.

Songfacts: Is there a video in particular that you think of as your big break?

Wes: I'd say "Hicktown." I had done a few smaller music videos, but I remember when I got the song, I had just been editing for television for like two years and not really directing much. I decided in 2005 that I was going to not take any more editing work, and I was going to be a director. Whatever songs that were sent to me by any labels, I was going to put 100% into and try and get the videos. The first song I got was "Hicktown." I remember listening to it for the first time, and I thought, "I am doing this video, and I will do whatever it takes to get this video."

I remember the night before the treatment was due, I stayed up all night, and I made literally a book with full pictures of trucks and mud. I knew through talking to his manager that this place existed in Florida where it was just chaos with these monster trucks and they'd drive them through swamps and stuff. That sounded really awesome to me, so I just played that up. I was so lucky, because I was nobody at the time, that I got the video. Jason had never done anything, and they wanted somebody who hadn't done a bunch of videos to bring a different look to it, so that was my big break.

February 22, 2015
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Comments: 1

  • Camille from OhioLove Drunk on a Plane and Amarillo Sky, both he songs and videos.
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