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A roots-rock songwriter with a rough-and-tumble rasp of a voice, Justin Wells’ music shines a light on the highs and lows of a life spent on the road. For years, he shared that road with his bandmates in Fifth on the Floor. The guys were southern rock underdogs, and they climbed their way toward success on their own terms, earning a cult following and a Billboard chart placement for their album Ashes & Angels along the way. Their songs drifted back and forth across the line between brash and broken, carried by loud guitars and louder sentiment. However, the band abruptly parted ways in early 2015. “We made a quick, difficult, and ultimately, good decision, but it took a while to wrap my head around it. I’d spent a decade of my life in that relationship, that marriage, and there it went. Maybe the writing was on the wall. What now?”

A lot had changed in Wells’ life over the previous decade. He was now married, the father of twin girls. “I was concerned that continuing down that road might not be what was best for my family.”

His wife’s opinion: “Well, if you quit, you’re teaching your kids how to quit.”

That settled it,” he chuckles.

On Dawn in the Distance, Wells’ voice still packs a Kentucky-sized punch, but his solo debut takes a look beyond the Southern stomp of his former band. Call the new sound Americana. Call it blue-collar country. Call it fiery folk. While recording the album, Wells was simply concerned with serving the songs, teaming up with producer Duane Lundy (Sunday Valley, Joe Pug, Vandaveer) and creating Wells’ most affecting album to date. Songs like “Going Down Grinnin’” (which Wells describes as “embracing failure with a smile”) and “Three Quarters Gone” (inspired by the retirement of the singer’s father) are layered with pedal steel guitar, auxiliary percussion, and keys.

On the album’s front cover, a beat-up suitcase sits beside a door. For years, that suitcase carried Fifth on the Floor’s merchandise. Now, it serves a different purpose, connecting Wells’ past with his next destination. He’s still traveling, still writing songs, still spending long evenings behind the wheel. He’s just pointed at a different horizon.