A towering figure, in physical size and in sonic prowess, Wells is a proud Kentucky singer-songwriter, one whose latest album, “The United State,” is already making a rumble through the backwoods of Southern Appalachia and the bright lights of Nashville.
That afternoon, he stood in the rain (guitar in hand) in front of The Grey Eagle Music Hall in Asheville, filming a clip for his latest single and video “Walls Fall Down” — a call to action for the current #SaveOurStages recovery bill currently making its way through Congress (www.saveourstages.com).
With a staggering voice at the crossroads of George Jones and Hank Williams, Jr., Wells aims to bridge societal gaps with his presence, onstage and off. It’s about dissolving division and blurring the lines between “us and them,” to find common ground between friends, neighbors and strangers alike.
Relaxing into the dimly-lit barroom, he raises his head and smiles with a devil-may-care grin when asked about the life of a troubadour in uncertain times.
Smoky Mountain News: So, what is “The United State”?
Justin Wells: “The United State” is not boundaries on a map. It’s the state of being a human being. This isn’t new in 2020. Unfortunately, it’s ramping up. Sadly, this has always been the case — dehumanizing your opponent or dehumanizing the other, the things you don’t understand. When did it become so incredible to be in the room with somebody you don’t agree with?
SMN: See, I revel in that, because it’s the idea of learning something about not only myself, but society that maybe I didn’t realize.
JW: Of course. How would you ever find music, cuisine, verbiage and speech patterns if you weren’t around people different than you? I feel like it’s always adding clay to the basis. We don’t come in and vacuum: artists, writers, politicians, whatever. It’s always built on the backs of whoever else.
And it’s OK to improve or try to improve. It’s OK to be unique. But, we don’t have to break down the other. I’m just trying to point out that we are human beings. There’s an end and there’s a beginning, and it’s OK to disagree.
SMN: Where back in the day it was, “I disagree with you, but I still respect you.” And nowadays it’s, “I disagree with you, so I automatically hate you.”
JW: Yeah. What is that? Where did that come from? How did we get here? As a student of history, this has come before and it’ll come again. We’ve been polarized before, but we’re going to come back. It will come back.
I’m not speaking to any specific thing in politics. We were all raised by mothers, grandmothers, fathers — people who taught us to care for our fellow humans. It’s kind of what we learned in preschool, man. This isn’t new ground. We’re going to get back, we got to quit letting the screens dictate.
SMN: This album was already written and recorded before COVID. Has that title emphasized more to you now? Whether you wanted to or not, it’s a political statement.
JW: Yes. Well, I can’t pretend like it’s not a political statement. I would like to think that it’s an apolitical statement. This isn’t taking a side — it’s humanism.
SMN: “You’re all welcome in my tent.”
JW: It’s not even my tent. It’s “our tent,” you know what I mean? Can we get back to the fact that this enemy you oppose — your goddamn neighbor — you don’t have to agree on anything, but that’s a human being over there. That’s a mother or a father trying to keep the roof over their heads, their children’s heads. Maybe their wrong. Maybe you’re wrong.
But, it has to start with humanism — talking like we are right now, eyes to eyes, face to face, you’re a human, I’m a human — [and if it does], I don’t think it ends up in that madness. And it’s ended up in that madness by necessity or otherwise, by social media, by 24-hour [news]. This isn’t sitting around a campfire. This a new normal, we’re going to be on screens. But, on the other side of that screen is a human being, someone figuring it out same as you.
SMN: So, where does that love in our heart come from? Because a lot of people are disenfranchised with where we’re at right now.
JW: [Love]. That’s the one word if I had to put one word on [this album]. I’m promoting the way I was raised. What I know is that if it starts with love, it will not fail you. It’s sitting down at this table with love for one another as a human being.
I come from two grandfathers that fought for this country in [World War II]. Flying the flag was a thing growing up. I also come from traveling all over this country and obviously seeing where things don’t work, things [that] specifically don’t work for people that don’t look like me.
Having said that, I do think that the cats that got together and decided, “Hey, we’re going to try this thing on this piece of land between Canada and Mexico,” I think they might’ve been onto something. What they were onto is that this [country] is an evolving thing. This is something we can figure out if we lay this groundwork a certain way. And I think we’re figuring it out right now — people need to be heard.