Justin Wells lyrics run deep with debut record

By Matt Wickstrom

This article originally appeared in the August 25 issue of the Kentucky Kernel.

For years Justin Wells has been a mainstay in Lexington’s music scene as the frontman for self-proclaimed “dirt” rockers Fifth on the Floor, but now the guitarist and songwriting wiz is making waves with the release of “Dawn in the Distance”, his debut solo record which released on August 5.

“Dawn in the Distance” has Wells wearing his emotions on his sleeve, bearing all of his frustrations and emotion following the breakup of Fifth on the Floor and having to restart from square one going solo.

The record comes out swinging from the get-go with “Going Down Grinnin’”, a quintessential made-for-radio country tune with all the fix-ins including eloquent and catchy lyrics mixed with dance-inducing instrumentals highlighted by percussion, steel pedal, and electric guitar.

“The Dogs” grasps at the energy from “Going Down Grinnin’” and accelerates into high gear with a slow intro that slowly builds up energy before releasing it all in enormous bursts when the songs hits it’s chorus.

The frustration left by Fifth on the Floor’s breakup shows itself on “The Highway Less Taken”, which touches on group’s end and how Wells had to contemplate his future before opting to go solo rather than take up a “normal job. According to Wells he’s never had an everyday job, always wanting to make it as a musician, a thought that echoes throughout “The Highway Less Taken”’s chorus with the lines “If it was God’s intention to make me better / I’d have some more to give than words to rhyme.”

Accompanying “The Highway Less Taken”’s heartfelt lyrics are the talents of multi-instrumentalist and Lexingtonian J. Tom Hnatow on steel pedal and the soulful melodies of Joslyn Hampton of local funk / soul outfit Joslyn & The Sweet Compression. According to Wells all the musicians who lent helping hands to the record are Lexington-based, with the exception of the late Ken “Big Bamn” Smith. The former drummer for Cincinnati’s Freekbass lost his life in January in a car crash on I-75.

Hnatow, who also helped produce a handful of the record’s tracks, again lends his honky tonk steel pedal to “Can’t Break My Heart”, traversing the highs and lows of the song. Hnatow performs with a bevy of Lexington area groups, including Vandaveer, Warren Byrom and The Fabled Canelands, and Wells, among others.

Duane Lundy at Lexington’s Shangri-La Productions also aided in producing the album. Lundy and Shangri-La are favorites for many Lexington-area acts including the aforementioned Vandaveer, Debraun Thomas, Ben Sollee, and Cincinnati’s Freekbass.

“Dawn in the Distance” comes to a close with “Little Darlins”, an intimate, torn-down tune written by Wells during the Fifth on the Floor days but never recorded or performed until now. The song features only Wells gritty southern drawl and guitar, allowing his second-to-none songwriting skills to take center stage. Ironically enough Well’s songwriting prowess isn’t due to a specific process, but rather the lack thereof.

“I’m far less disciplined than I should be at this point in my career”, said Wells. “What usually happens is I’ll jot down ideas and when I really start to feel the pressure to write I’ll sit down and review those notes and flesh them out from there. There’s times when I go months between writing songs and others when it’s like a flash of lightning.”

With “Dawn in the Distance” Wells proves that there’s nothing than can slow down your success if you’re determined to fight through adversity for what you want. The passion Wells has for music is contagious, and something we should all aspire to seek out in our daily lives. Fans can catch Wells perform songs off “Dawn in the Distance” on Sept. 16 at WUKY’s Phoenix Friday’s at Phoenix Park in downtown Lexington and Oct. 1 in an album release show at The Burl.