Living in these ‘post-truth’ times, after the disaster of the Brexit result and the uncertainty following The Donald’s recent election victory and imminent move into the White House, we have to take cold comfort where we can find it. Just in time, Justin Wells, has shown up with his new solo album Dawn in The Distance. Wells used to be a member of Kentucky based-band Fifth on the Floor until they split late in 2014.
Wells has a distinctive voice, he’s got that Kentucky burr, and his tone is kinda grizzled, a bit like Bob Seeger, meeting Randy Newman, whilst burning two packs of cigs a day. He’s an excellent songwriter, adept at saying how he feels. And boy, this man feels bad. It can’t have been easy, travelling all those miles in a fart-filled van, arriving at a half-filled bar and having to perform like it was your last gig every night, when all he really wanted to do was curl up in front of the TV with his good lady wife, and then be there for his kids when he was blessed with their appearance.
‘The Dogs’ sums up his experience succinctly, the struggle, the endless hope that maybe this year, they’ll break through to the other side. ‘I pawned everything I ever owned, just to drive eight hours to this bar-room show / And play these songs and pray for a friendly face.’ The song captures the day-to day realities of playing in a band, the poverty, drudgery, boredom, the crushing ennui.
Things have been going good for Wells, since the release of his solo album, you can feel his fresh enthusiasm, and hope that maybe he will succeed where Fifth on The Floor failed. He says he’ll be ‘Going Down Grinnin’’, which has a lovely production from Duane Lundy and overflows with positivity. It’s got some beautiful keyboard parts and delightful pedal steel, with a great sing-a-long chorus, and backing vocals that lift it up towards heaven.
Wells sums up his experience in ‘So Far Away’ where he laments being out on the road, thousands of miles and many States between him and his family. This album, while having a great production, the subject matter for many of Well’s songs are what used to be called, ‘tears in my beer’. It’s not what you’d call a ‘feel good album’. However, it is an honest album. A hard-working man laying it on the line about how difficult it has been for him so far, trying to scratch a living out there on the road. Perhaps he was using this album as a crucible to process his emotions regarding Fifth on the Floor breaking up, the way John Paul White used ‘Beulah’ to similarly examine his feelings on The Civil Wars split, before moving forward.
I hope this album helps Justin find the success he has been seeking for so many years and that his next album is more up-beat, reflecting the commercial recognition that has so far eluded this talented and dedicated musician and that his music brings security and comfort to his family. Maybe he can build his own home studio which means he could spend more time with his kin. Hell, he might even have a couple of young stars – his twin girls, who he calls his ‘Little Darlins’ – in the making right there at his kitchen table.