Story by Matt Wickstrom, Smiley Pete
Photos by Garrett Hedrick
MOREHEAD, Ky. — Having grown up idolizing a traveling troupe of Kentucky music educators, Redbush, Ky. native Jesse Wells has gone on to become one of the region’s most revered fiddlers and knowledgeable music historians and educators himself. In recent years, Wells has seen his success soar to new heights as part of Tyler Childers’ band The Food Stamps, and this weekend, the group will make its debut appearance at one of Kentucky’s most iconic venues, when they open for the Grammy-winning, genre-bending artist Sturgill Simpson at Rupp Arena on Friday, Feb. 28.
The evening, which is part of the first leg of the joint nationwide “A Good Look’n Tour,” will be a special homecoming event for many of the musicians from both Simpson and Childers’ bands.
“Rupp Arena is such a legendary venue for both sports and music,” said Wells. “I’ve had the chance to see some of my biggest musical idols perform at Rupp – from John Hartford to Norman Blake, Emmylou Harris and Pearl Jam – so to perform there with Tyler, the Food Stamps and another hero of mine, Sturgill Simpson, is going to be a thrill.”
Born in Morehead in 1978, Wells was raised in Redbush, a small farming community in northern Johnson County, where he comes from a long lineage of fiddlers and old-time musicians. He grew up watching family perform around the house, eager from a young age to play himself. With the long neck of the guitar too large and awkward for Wells to play as a small boy, his father James let his son play the mandolin he’d saved up money for years to get.
Wells soon traded out the mandolin for the fiddle as his primary instrument, after learning fiddle tunes while on the road with the Bottom of the Barrel Bunch, a group of musicians led by his father. Music educators by day, the group toured during summer vacations and other school breaks, primarily along the Kentucky State Park circuit. Wells credits the time following and learning from the band as being monumental toward his own personal development as a musician.
“I was very fortunate to be surrounded by so many teachers who were more than willing to teach me chords, show me melodies and educate me on the mechanics and theory of music,” said Wells.
While growing up, Wells became friends with another musician who would later make big waves: a young Chris Stapleton. The two first met while playing baseball in elementary school before transitioning to playing music together while enrolled at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville, where they both graduated in 1996. After high school, the two parted ways temporarily when Stapleton departed for Nashville to attend school at Vanderbilt University as Wells stayed home to enroll in Morehead State University’s Commercial and Jazz Studies program. They later shared a house – and exchanged music knowledge – in Morehead along with a handful of other creatives, before Stapleton moved back to Nashville, this time to fully to pursue his music career.
Shortly after beginning courses at Morehead, Wells met J.T. Cure – who now serves as Stapleton’s current touring bassist – in the school’s jazz ensemble. Wells and Cure hit it off and immediately began performing an ever-changing mix of music together at bars around Morehead and Lexington, eventually forming the Clack Mountain String Band with fellow students Karly Milner and Brett Ratliff. Throughout the early 2000s, the group performed across the southeastern United States at venues ranging from small concert halls and barns to festival gigs, with their most notable performance coming at North Carolina based Merlefest in 2006.
In 2001, Wells was given the opportunity to work as an instructor at the newly opened Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, an offshoot of Morehead’s music program. At the time, the program was one of the few music programs in the country with a specific focus on traditional Appalachian music, and the school recognized Wells’ Eastern Kentucky roots and experiences as fitting right with the program’s identity. Wells remains an integral part of the program’s identity, with his tasks having expanded over the years to include work as a music archivist and a supervisor at KCTM’s recording studio, as well as an instructor. His advance knowledge on various instruments and music history earned him the nickname “The Professor” – a nickname that has stuck among his current bandmates in The Food Stamps.
A few years after he completed his degree, Wells received the scare of his life. In 2010, shortly after celebrating the birth of his first daughter, he began suffering from severely blurred vision, spurring him to visit a neurologist at UK, who discovered a walnut-sized tumor in his pituitary gland pressed up against his optic nerve. While tests eventually showed the tumor to be benign, the time of uncertainty in between helped Wells reaffirm music as a career path.
“To me, music is the most powerful force in the world,” said Wells. “It has the ability to transcend all language barriers and is the one thing we can all share in, no matter where we’re from, who we are or what we believe.”
With a clean bill of health, Wells began getting out to perform again, with a particularly substantial venue being the original Willie’s Locally Known on North Broadway. He was brought to the venue by Arthur Hancock, an original partner and talent buyer at the venue who’d previously become acquainted with Wells as a regular caller to Wells’ radio show “Pickin’ Parlor,” airing on Morehead State Public Radio on Sunday afternoons. After repeatedly being told by Hancock – with whom Wells later collaborated to start the popular Lexington bluegrass band The Wooks, in 2014 – about “this young songwriter from Lawrence County,” he finally got to see and hear Tyler Childers himself at Willie’s in 2013.
“The instant I first heard Tyler, I was in awe of his unique voice,” Wells recalled. “In many ways it reminds me of Chris Stapleton’s voice in its almost otherworldly nature.”
Soon thereafter Wells joined Childers on his revered “Live on Red Barn Radio I & II” recordings, with the two Eastern Kentucky artists bonding over their mutual appreciation of classic bluegrass artists such Jim & Jessie, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, among others. The friendship led to Wells doing a handful of one-off shows with Childers and the Food Stamps while he was still performing with The Wooks, including a sit-in in June 2017 on West Virginia’s Mountain Stage, a radio program distributed by NPR Music that brings live music to the radio, alongside fellow Wooks bandmates Hancock and CJ Cain for a handful of songs, including a performance of “Purgatory,” the title track from Childers’ debut full-length effort released later that year.
Already being close with Childers, Wells quickly clicked with the Food Stamps, connecting with bassist Craig Burletic and drummer Rod Elkins over their shared love of jazz (which they all studied in college) and sharing a love for music equipment with pedal steel player James Barker. The Wooks’ future was in question at that point, due to Hancock’s lingering hand and back issues as well as mandolinist Galen Green’s plans to enroll in grad school. Wells began calculating his next move musically, leading him to give Childers a call.
“It didn’t look like The Wooks were going to continue at one point, so I reached out to Tyler and the boys to talk about sitting down to play with them sometime, at which point Tyler hired me on the spot,” said Wells.
With no practices prior, Wells was thrown into the fire less than a week later, performing during a sold-out three-night with the band at Lexington venue The Burl from Oct. 12-14, 2017. The weekend was a busy one for Wells, who was making trips to Morehead to gather possessions to move to Lexington in between gigs, with his wife having been offered and taken a job the vocal music director at Lexington’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA) at Bluegrass.
In the two and a half years that have followed, his journey with Tyler Childers and The Food Stamps has taken Wells around the world, performing throughout Europe, Australia and beyond, along with performances at such bucket list American venues such as Red Rocks, the Louisville Palace and a recent residency at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, which Wells claimed as his most cherished moment as a member of the Food Stamps.
Wells continues to balance life on the road with his work as an educator and archivist for the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music. While life as a touring musician has limited the time he can spend in the classroom, he communicates with students via Skype and email when he can’t be there in person for lectures or to discuss senior capstone projects. He says that much of the work he completes on the road consists of archiving, which has him meticulously cataloguing and digitizing recordings from yesteryear. Despite his time away from his students, Wells sees the opportunity to convey his experiences as a successful touring musician to his students as an invaluable asset – ultimately allowing him to better help them to shape their musical goals.
“It’s nice being a working part of today’s music industry and conveying my experiences to my students, who themselves have big ambitions of being touring musicians,” said Wells. “I think [Morehead State] sees the importance in that as well. Part of allowing me to tour with Tyler is being able to be in the industry at such a high level – it’s an indispensable tool for our students studying both traditional and commercial music.”
Last summer, Wells returned home to Kentucky for arguably his biggest home state gig yet with the Food Stamps: an August performance on the grounds of Keeneland during the inaugural Railbird Festival, in front of a sea of thousands of adoring fans who were singing along to every song. However, that landmark Lexington show is set to move back to number two on Well’s biggest home state gigs when he takes the stage at Rupp Arena for this weekend’s “A Good Look’n Tour.”
For Wells, things definitely are look’n good.
View the originally published version of the story at Smiley Pete.