Artist Interview: Justin Wells of Fifth on the Floor on marking a place in music

Kentucky is home of some of the best musicians, singers, songwriters, all creating the music we grow to love. From the Appalachian region to the western plains of the Commonwealth, there is a special blend of music that is unique from the bluegrass state. Fifth on the Floor of central Kentucky has been making a name for themselves over the years and representing the state as they travel throughout the United States. Hard work and determination to spread the music to the fans has gained them momentum of success.

During a recent break from touring, I got to speak with Justin Wells of Fifth on the Floor. They are getting ready to play another hometown show this Sunday at Busters in Lexington, Ky., opening for J.J. Grey and Mofro. They will be getting ready to hit the road again, opening for legendary rocker George Thorogood.

It is 2014, new year, new faces, new music for Fifth on the Floor. Let’s discuss the latest lineup with the band. Describe each of them and what they bring to the table individually.
Jason Parsons has been with us for three years and as far as I’m concerned, he is an original member. Really there is a certain point in this band’s history that we probably should have changed our name. There were significant changes in the lineup, sound, and our goals of what we were trying to do. We started years ago as a bar band kind of thing. At this point, he and I are the only songwriters in the band. Parsons is writing some of the, in my opinion, the best that he’s ever written. Lyrically he’s writing a lot. That’s definitely the core I feel like.

Kevin Hogle came on in May. When we were looking for another drummer, I had a short list of two people. Kevin was on that list. I’ve known Kevin for a long time. He’s played with 500 Miles to Memphis since forever, as long as I’ve known them. I’ve known them five years or longer. He’s from the Covington area in northern Kentucky. He’s technically a Kentuckian but he’s very close to not being in Kentucky (laughing). Kevin is one of the most disciplined musicians I’ve ever been around. Besides outright insane skills, he brings a lot of discipline. He’s kind of like the band dad in that he’s unshakeable. Nothing really gets him mad or upset. He’s really good at keeping the mood upbeat. Man, when you’re on tour, that’s as valuable as playing your parts. He’s just one of those drummer that he’s stylistically that there’s nothing I can throw at him that he can’t do. If he screws something up, the next time he plays it, it’s perfect.

We now have Ryan Clackner on guitar. Ryan has been playing with us since the end of September. He’s an incredible player. Both he and Kevin have degrees in their respective instruments. Ryan’s got a jazz guitar degree and came off a two year stint as Bob Wayne’s guitar player. He’s one of those few people that can cross styles really well. He’s a lot of fun to play with. He has some out there ideas, but again he can do it all pretty easily. We’ve got a steel guitar player, metal guitar player, and country guitar player and only have to pay one guy.

When Fifth on the Floor played in Lexington in December, several wondered how Ryan would do as compared to Matty Rogers. However, he held his own and brought his own flavor.
We said coming in, there’s a difference between if you are playing the chord progression on Shine, that’s how it needs to get played. As far as the solos, he asked me about those. We found him on Craigslist (laughing).

So you all went to the Musician’s equivalent?
Yep I guess you could say that. He asked are we beholding to the solos. We said absolutely not, if there is an idea that you like on our records, incorporate it, but we told him what we were looking for stylistically. That’s the reason why Ryan is playing guitar with us right now. We were looking for something else. That’s not a slight to Matt to the least bit of way. That is the reason why we wanted to open the show up with Distant Memory Lane; to show folks that this is the sound now. Here is this, immediately to the point.

Ashes and Angels was released a year ago and fans are already asking about new music. How is that coming along?
It’s hard to say. We’ve only arranged about three songs. Parsons and I have written about nine or ten songs right now that we can play on the acoustic guitar. We want to write about 15 or 20 and then go in the studio and knock some of those off. What we’ve done in the past, we’ve toured and played so much. That had to do a lot with the work ethic of the group we had at the time. We didn’t rehearse a lot and we didn’t put new material together. So when we had 11 or 12 songs, we went into the studio and maybe cut one or two of them. So now, we are looking for this record to be the stamp of what we are. Shooter [Jennings] even told us that. He told us that this record wasn’t going to bring you riches or anything like that. It’s going to open the door and it’s going to say hello. This next record is Fifth on the Floor. We’re going to do everything that we want. I’m not apologizing for the last three records. I’m very proud of them. That’s where we were at the time. With Ashes and Angels, we were in the studio two years ago to record that. It came out this past year. So two years have passed with this band. Obviously a lot of differences and I’ve got kids now, Kevin’s got kids, we’re all in our thirties. We’ve been around a lot of people that are more and learn as much as we could from that. I’m really looking forward to the next record. We’re probably in the home stretch of writing, but we’ve got a ways to go.

Do you plan on using Shooter Jennings again to produce it?
I hope so if our schedules are good. Shooter has been working hard pushing his own record. If you haven’t figured this out by now, Shooter doesn’t like to stand still and he doesn’t like to focus on a project too long. Fifth on the Floor is really starting to do something. We signed with our agency, Monterey in July and ever since it has been picking up being busy. I would love to work with Shooter.

In working on the new album, there are two songs that you have started playing in your live show that are quite strong in songwriting, Hell in Our Hands and The Line. Let’s talk about those for a bit.
Hell in Our Hands was inspired by Scott H. Biram with that nasty stomp blues. We turned it into this ZZ Top beat, fun, Pink Floyd style thing that I don’t know what it is now, but it’s awesome.

Speaking of Pink Floyd, I picked up the little guitar riff influence in the live version of Burning Nashville Down.
Yep, you are correct. Fifth on the Floor is where we need it to be right now. There were some changes, and I know that some were not popular, be it with members or how we are sounding now. This is something that I think Parsons and I have been consciously or subconsciously pushing towards for some time now with our sound. I’ve said for years that we are a rock band, not a country band. We incorporate country elements and we do it well. I like to think we play country, but we’re just trying. I think with the first three records, especially the first two records, it was all over the place. Ashes and Angels was the beginning of what Fifth on the Floor sounds like. It is no more of ‘is it this, or this, or that?’ This is how it sounds, for the most part.

Let’s talk about The Line. The lyrics stuck in my head from the moment I heard it.
It is possibly the saddest song I have ever written. It is a country song, but country was a precursor to rock. That’s how I always viewed country music with this band. It is like an outsider looking in. We don’t claim country, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play country songs. Over the last few years, we have been able to show the different facets of what puts us all together as a band.

It is interesting that you blend into the different styles of music on Ashes and Angels. The band seems to get attention now to the outside world of what is happening here in Kentucky.
It’s our dirty secret of Kentucky. We actually charted on Billboard with that record. Our one week of glory. To me, it’s a matter of assurance that people are paying attention. It charted in the country format, which is funny because we don’t claim country music. The one thing that is cool is that beside the My Morning Jacket cover, we wrote all of those songs. We put out an album with that song and a bunch of Fifth on the Floor songs that charted in between albums that probably had covers of a good looking person with a good looking tan, dude or chick, in a truck. We’ve got this evil, Sergeant Peppers cover to chart. The label wasn’t too keen on that. They wanted to put a picture of us on the cover. We told them that’s not us. First of all, we’re ugly and we’re not going to sell records. I was never that kid that bought records and gave a crap what they look like. I was into the art and that’s why you bought the records, especially my parents’ generation. It wasn’t just the song, it was the whole thing. I don’t want to give people a bunch of pictures of you. You can get that on Facebook.

It set an interesting tone to what the album was, even the song sequence as well, and made it a good album.
Thank you. We battled back and forth on what to do. Aaron, our previous drummer had this idea of having this Appalachian funeral scene on the cover. It morphed a little into what it was. That was the birthing of the idea. While we were discussing it, we realized that the common theme across the record is death; more specifically lost, people dying, or are dead and you are mourning them. If you go and listen to that record with that in mind, that is true with almost every song. Either someone is killing, or dying, or dead.

One song that stuck out on the record was What For. It is one of those songs that you go back to and overall a lesson on songwriting.
Matt [Rogers] came in with that song and it floored us. Lyrically, he had gone through the loss of his grandmother and that was real hard on him. Matty is not one of those guys that are like one of those heart on your shoulder kind of people. I’ll sit there and give you my whole story, but Matt holds it up inside him. I thought maybe that was a release for him. He took it in and then you have Parsons, whose biggest strength is arrangements. The song started out almost like a folk tune with pretty much an acoustic guitar and lyrics. Parsons gave it where it builds, and builds, and builds bigger. He is really good at putting it into layers. I think those two things combine to make it that song that is one of my favorites, if not my favorite on the record. I think between that and Angels in the Snow, make for good stories.

Do you think with music as a whole, it is more about trends instead of substance of the song?
In pop, probably, which is funny because I feel like I’m more in touch with pop music than I have ever been in my adult life. My most played record I played last year was the latest Daft Punk record. I listened to it more than Jason Isbell’s record, which is my close number two. I feel like I’m kind of hip to that music, maybe not to Britney Spears kind of pop. Pop has really been about trends, or a constant of making people move. I don’t think Isbell’s success has been about trends. I think he wrote a record that was so brutally honest that to deny it was not an option for critics and the fans. What a thing for every songwriter to inspire to do.

You’ve got pop and then you’ve got this idiot scene people that are in every genre. Especially in this underground country thing that we are sometimes associated with, we are the redheaded step children of. There’s this thing of these old punks that are playing acoustic instruments now. I mean, that’s cool and some do it really well, but some of them suck. It’s like any group of music. There’s all of these Limp Bizkit bands that want to be like Rage Against the Machine. The first band that did it was cool and every other band after that subsequently sucks. I think for our band, we don’t associate with any of that. We’re friends with a lot of those kinds of bands, but we’re not a country band.

Last year Fifth on the Floor was featured at Muddy Roots Festival in Tennessee. Explain that experience.
It is really cool. It is a commitment of discomfort and an overdose of music. It was awesome. I got to see Austin Lucas, who I had wanted to see for a long time. He was really great talent. Otis Gibbs was there and he’s a songwriter’s songwriter. There was a guy by the name of Joseph Huber that used to be in the 357 String Band. I didn’t know anything about his music prior to that. I’m 6 foot 6 and I’m in the middle of this tent and he was on the third stage, which was the smallest thing. All these people knew his songs and were singing them. It goes back to like Isbell, it felt real. I was crying. I was in tears at the experience and I got his record. The record was great, but it didn’t replicate that experience. He seemed real, not all punk rock, I’ll kick your ass, style. Check him out. The record is called Tongues of Fire. I challenge all Top 40 country artists to listen to that and still say what they do is country.

One neat thing that the band does whenever you play a hometown show, you bring in outsiders that possibly would have never gotten to play in Lexington otherwise. When they leave Kentucky after their performances here, what do they say about the fans here?
It’s a big deal. The reason why we do it is a two-fold reason. First of all, anytime we play in Lexington now, this is our home. We worked really hard for what we have in Lexington with little to any help from anyone except for the people coming to see the show. I want it to be that any time you see Fifth on the Floor play, you get to see an experience. It’s like itty bitty mini festivals. We want to bring in other bands. So the second reason is that these are bands that we like and we want people to take a chance and hear. There’s not a whole lot of people who go out and see bands. I go out and see acts come through Willie’s Locally Known and Cosmic Charlies all the time, and no one goes to see them. They don’t know who they are. Not everybody is as aggressive music fan as you and I are and check these people out. We don’t want it to be like Whitey Morgan playing at a place in front of 10 people in Lexington. Rather, we want to put him in front of 800 people and then hopefully the next time he comes through he will have a big crowd. We get local bands to ask us to open for these shows. I love Lexington and all of these bands, and fans of some of these bands. But, why would we do that because anyone can go see you any other time. We want to put these people in front of Lexington. We want Lexington to see them and they see Lexington. You are already in Lexington and people can see you anytime. You can do this just like we did this, by playing Lynaghs once a month.

It helps open ears to other bands outside of our area like Jayke Orvis, J.D. Wilkes, and Carolina Still.
Yeah and I think that Carolina Still hasn’t been a band that very long. Jayke has worked with other bands and I think this project is one of my favorites of his. J.D. Wilkes is a legend. He started this and guys like him, Wayne Hancock, and Hank III started all of this muddy roots stuff, if you want to call it that, and did it better than all of them. Those are the kinds of people that I want to be around because there is a ton to learn for somebody like me. That is the definitive front man.

You are getting ready to go out on the road with George Thorogood. How did that come about?
We have a wonderful agency that we work with. I want to sing the praises of our manager, Randy, who probably more than anybody has worked harder to help Fifth on the Floor. I know that he has clients that pay him a ton more money, but he found us and believes in us. He hustled to find us an agent to work with us. These guys are used to working with more zeroes than we can put on paper. They saw something in us that we can get to that many zeroes. I can say with confidence that with all of the changes you’ve seen over the last year are directly or indirectly with working with Randy, our manager. He really challenged us to step it up as a band to deliver the song to scare other bands. Look at the last show at Busters that is some arrogance to think we have any right to follow to those bands. That’s not to say that someone is better than somebody else, but it’s a matter that we’ve worked hard enough and it showed. The Thorogood stuff came about thanks to Randy. Apparently George is a fan of the band. I grew up listening to him.

Are there songs live and recorded that sound better live or the recorded version?
Both. There’s some songs that we recorded that for whatever reason either we don’t like the way they sound or we play long sets and don’t have time for it. There’s definitely songs that don’t work live. On the reverse of that, there are songs that sound a lot better live. Sometimes the reasoning behind that is that we have played those hundreds of times, bordering thousands of times, longer than when we did when we recorded them. Another Day, I remember specifically off our second record we played live one time before us recording it. I wish we had one more chance to record it. Some songs like Distant Memory Lane and The Fall we do because it’s live. You got to treat a record as a snapshot of right then. Every single song off of Ashes and Angels, which I’m extremely proud of, I would change. Every single song on the next record, there will be something a year later that I would change. My goal is to minimize those changes.

In your live shows, you bring up George Jones and play homage to him through several songs. However, you never got to see or meet him.
I never did, but about the time when I could have, I’m probably glad that I didn’t. I know his voice was failing and he was having medical issues. I don’t know. I would have like to have met him more than seeing him live.

You did get to meet Georgette Jones, the daughter of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. How was that experience for you?
I’ve never been star struck until I met her. We were playing at a festival and I just tore down when I went to meet her. I said, ‘I know that you get this a lot, and I’m sorry, but I never got to meet your dad or see your dad. It’s just kind of important to me that I come tell you that he shaped my life. Even before I liked country music, even when I hated country music, I always liked George Jones. I just wanted to tell you that.’ It was a cool thing but she was cool as all get out. I didn’t make it any weirder than that and I was about tearing up when I was saying that.

Now that Fifth on the Floor is gaining success and being recognized by others, how do you guys keep humble?
(Laughing) Look at us, how could we not. I can’t even answer that question seriously. You know us, and anyone else that seen or knows us; the better question would be how do we shake off this stigma of us being party animals. I don’t know. I think the real answer is our raising. I know wherever I am, mom pays attention to this. If I ever started acting too big, mom would come after me with a hand of God. If you’re buying the record or coming to see a show, you may pay $25 to see the opening act. That’s a lot of money. That’s not money I could pay to see a band often times. You’re not paying to experience Fifth on the Floor, you are a part of that.

When it is all said done, how do you want to be remembered as?
I said for a long time, be this naive, or be this whatever, its honesty, all of my end goals, besides feed my family, I want to make music that my grandkids are proud of. That’s not having met them. I don’t know what genre of music they will be into. If we’re just real and we’re honest, and when we never let any of that douchebag bull crap in, or even if someone completely hated our style, they would appreciate us. We hear a fair amount of ‘we don’t like country music, but I like you guys.’ I’ve always wanted my grandkids be proud of that. That little cloud dictates a lot of that interestingly enough.