For nine years, Justin Wells played a succession of dive bars and honky tonks with Fifth on the Floor, a potently electric band based out of Lexington. Its sound was huge — a blast of Southern rock might leveled by doses of blues, boogie, outlaw country and other renegade sounds. It was the sort of music made for barreling down a highway, which Fifth on the Floor did on a frustratingly regular basis.
Standing onstage for a solo acoustic show at Phoenix Park earlier this month, Wells — a Louisiana native who lived in Cynthiana and Richmond before relocating to Lexington in 2005 — had no barbed-wire band electricity behind him. But the songs he sang, pulled mostly from his debut solo album, “Dawn in the Distance,” were deceptive. They may have been lighter in tone, but they crackled with a massive spirit, one that wore the trials and triumphs of band life like bloodied badges of honor.
“I made an early decision, encouraged by some people in my professional life and in my personal life, to just be brutally honest,” Wells said of the music that permeates “Dawn in the Distance.” “There is not a lot of metaphor on the record, necessarily. It’s pretty specific and pretty obviously, I think, autobiographical.”
I didn’t want to do anything that was in any kind of comfort zone.
Justin Wells on his debut album
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What Wells wanted for the album wasn’t as apparent as what he didn’t want. Not intended was a record that mirrored the titanic charge of Fifth on the Floor or even a watered-down variation. “I knew I didn’t want to make a Fifth on the Floor record,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to make a Fifth on the Floor Lite record, as it were, either. I didn’t want to do anything that was in any kind of comfort zone.”
So Wells convened in the Shangri- La studio of Lexington recording vet Duane Lundy, assembled a few pals who have become staples in all manner of local band projects — guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, bassist Blake Cox, drummer Robby Cosenza and keyboardist Lee Carroll among them — and came up with songs that had the fervency and fierceness of the blues but the narrative detail and intensity of vintage country.
“I keep telling people that I think this is a country record in as much as you have to call it something,” Wells says. “There is a lot of density to it. With Fifth on the Floor, we found ourselves lumped into Southern rock and outlaw country. In some cases, I guess, that was a little bit appropriate. But to me, to go as far away as I could from that meant being brutally honest, heartbreakingly honest and kind of uncomfortably honest, frankly.”
I keep telling people that I think this is a country record in as much as you have to call it something.
Leading the “honest” pack is a song called “The Dogs,” a hardened road anthem set to a heartland rock groove, although it was just as commanding as an acoustic confessional at Wells’ Phoenix Park performance. “We’re the last one to know it’s over and the first one to have to beg,” Wells sings. “We’re the dog that crawled for miles on broken legs. We’re the dregs.”
“Well, it’s got kind of heavy lyrics,” Wells said of the tune. “But I do think it’s proud. That’s kind of a recurring theme in a lot of my work with Fifth on the Floor. We kept that band running for nine years. We had four releases, we charted long before this sort of renaissance happened in country music. We didn’t have a label. We did so much of it on our own. So there almost has to be a pride to that because that’s all you have, in a way, when you’re touring out of a van and you’re not making much money. In a way, it’s almost like sadistic pride. That’s where ‘The Dogs’ comes from. It says, ‘We’re the dregs,’ but not in a negative way. It’s just not very pretty.”