Justin Wells soaks every syllable with soul-moving conviction. His work, namely his 2016 solo debut, Dawn in the Distance, is appropriately steeped in the stone cold classics — a little bit George Jones and Waylon Jennings, and a whole lotta rock ‘n roll. Even so early in his career, Wells plants his feet as a true firebrand that’s ready to shake up the establishment. Formerly frontman of Fifth on the Floor, a band out of Lexington, Kentucky, Wells makes his mark with an impressive set that hits hard but doesn’t skimp on the vulnerability.
“That album was born out of as big of a ditch as my life had ever been in. My band, this project that I’d devoted everything in my life to, felt like it just suddenly disappeared. It’s as close to divorce as I’ve experienced. Or failure,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I have a family, so I talked to my wife about what I should do. Quit music? Go to the factory?”
He adds, “Her reply: ‘If you quit, you’re teaching our children how to quit.’”
He then dug his feet deeper into the earth. Now, three years since that release, he eyes the possibility of a follow-up. However, he remains quite tight-lipped on exactly what’s coming next. “I spent a bit of time writing about current events and things that were on my mind. But it came out feeling forced,” he confides. “Things are so polarized; there doesn’t seem to be room for conversation. Instead, I started thinking about what is the middle ground of humanity and what is the human experience. We go through birth, life, death… what’s in the middle? I’ve been writing about all of that.” Below, Wells chats with Hashtag about newer material, faith and the beginning of life.
Justin Wells is set to play Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company on Saturday, August 24. Music begins at 6pm.
You issued “A Love Song” last year, a rather smoldering mid-tempo song with an evocative vocal performance. From where does the power of this song come for you?
That song’s been around for a while. My wife and I were high school sweethearts, but at a certain point, when we were younger ,we ended up taking an eight-year vacation from one another. In that time, I wrote my far share of sad, heartbreak songs. When Andrea and I got back together, I did my damnedest to write a love song and was hitting a wall. So, I wrote a love song about not being able to write a love song.
You recently shared a new live performance of “Temporary Blue,” shot at the Wild Bean. What is the meaning of this song?
It comes from that constant doubt that comes with being a parent. And if you let that doubt steer the wheel, by the time you figure it out, you’ve lost precious time with your child. It’s about admitting you don’t know where their life is going, and maybe you have less control than you think, and maybe that’s where the beauty is.
“Screaming Song” is another song you performed, a song about your nephew’s birth and the loneliness of that. What led you to write this?
My sister had a difficult childbirth with my nephew. As she was going through that, everyone was attending to her, and certainly when a child is born, everyone attends to him in a medical way. But I was struck with how, even in a room full of loved ones, how lonely, or more specifically, how singular childbirth is for the child. You’re taken from all you’ve ever known, this comfort, and you’re passed around and poked and prodded in bright lights. That song is me trying to speak from the child’s point of view.
What can we learn from reflecting on the very beginning of our life?
I’m not sure. That’s what I’ve been writing about, and trying to focus on. If nothing else, I think we can learn to be in the moment and let that be good enough.
In a Facebook post, you shared your thoughts on what God’s voice could be like. What has been your relationship with faith?
I’d quoted something Nick Cave had said, that I think is so beautiful. I was raised Southern Baptist. We went to church quite a bit when I was much younger (I know plenty of the old hymns), but that kinda chilled when we moved to Kentucky. I read the Bible on my own quite a bit, and, with respect to other people’s beliefs, I started seeing the disconnect between the concept of religion and the practice. As for where I stand now, I’m positively clueless, and all ears.
Your vocal tone has such a classic, almost George Jones, thickness to it. When did you realize you had something special?
I don’t know that I have something special. I know that I have my voice, and I have something to say, and I am constantly grateful that that connects with other human beings. Also, George Jones is the GOAT.
You rebelled against country music for much of your life, until your 20s. What changed for you?
I was a rock ‘n roll kid, with a little bit of soul/Motown sprinkled in there. The only country I was really exposed to was George Jones and Hank Williams. I liked the big energy and big production of Pink Floyd, Guns N Roses, Metallica. Country music was pretty popular when I was in high school, but that music felt kinda vapid. I started getting into some more folk type writers (Matthew Ryan, Shawn Mullins), which led inevitably to country music.
When I really listened, I fell in love with country music. But it was mostly the old stuff, so that’s what I started learning, and what I ended up starting [on] with Fifth on the Floor. It wasn’t until I first heard Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll, Shooter Jennings, and especially Sunday Valley that I thought, “Okay, this is my shit.” Country music can be real, while simultaneously incorporating that big energy and big production from rock ‘n roll. That’s the music I’m interested in making.
– Jason Scott w/ B-Sides & Badlands. HashtagWV #116. August 2019.