Justin Golden is proof that one doesn’t need to be broken to play the blues. He owns a backstory of fractured hearts, missed opportunities, and lost jobs, but those disappointments serve as a prologue, the inspiration for one of the year’s grittiest releases, Hard Times and a Woman. Produced by Richmond, Virginia-based multi-instrumentalist whiz Chip Hale, the record showcases Golden’s fingerpicking, a technique characteristic of his signature style, the Piedmont blues. His initiation to the blues was The Black Keys’ debut, the lo-fi smash The Big Come Up. The album proved to be a gateway, an entry point for him to discover real-deal bluesmen like the Reverend Gary Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and Blind Boy Fuller.
Yet he doesn’t hesitate to find inspiration in more contemporary influences, including indie acts like Phil Cook (Megafaun and DeYarmond Edison), J Roddy Walston, Hiss Golden Messenger, and Bon Iver.
Most striking about HTaaW is its versatility, how Golden vacillates between the driving, raucous stompers, and the solemn, sometimes austere, acoustic numbers. The electrified lead track “Can’t Get Right” has groove for days, setting the tone for what’s to come– an authentic contribution to the blues lineage. There are the indie pop hooks and embellishments of “Lightning When She Smiles” and “Why the Sun Goes Down”, but they’re anchored by Golden’s Piedmont blues fingerpicking, the same style that gives weight to acoustic songs like “No Riches”, “Moon Far Away”, and “Oh Lord, Oh Lord”. Perhaps most remarkable is how Golden blesses his songs with space, confounding the notion that blues guitarists must double as virtuosos of the instrument. There’s room for notes to hang, lyrics to land, and thoughts to percolate.
If there’s bad news to share, let Golden, guitar in hand, be the herald.
CF- You’re in Virginia, right? How have you been influenced by your surroundings? Is there a blues legacy to pull from? What about your contemporaries?
JG- I think coming here and being around all this rich music exposes me to different types of music. I never really listened to honky tonk or what I would consider more classic country until I moved to Richmond because it’s a thing you hear pretty commonly here. And bluegrass and old-time is really popular here as well. That was my initial exposure to that, other than the little bit I had growing up. Also, around that same time I moved here, I was getting exposed to more traditional blues. Somewhere along the line after being here a couple of years, I heard the term Piedmont blues, and I thought, “Well, that’s what I play.” I didn’t even realize that there was a term for that, and it came from this region, coincidentally, so I think it’s been a pretty significant influence overall.
How would you describe the Piedmont blues style to readers who are unfamiliar with that subgenre of blues?
Piedmont blues– the country blues– it’s based on what they were hearing on piano back in the early 20th Century and before. They were trying to emulate that sound, but I think it’s got elements of a lot of different styles of music. If you listen to a lot of those players, there’s elements of gospel; there’s elements of what you hear in Delta blues, as far as the lines they used; and there’s bits of country. It encompasses all of that, but with a particular picking style as one of the main features. For me, it’s a good way to be a singer-songwriter, which is how I got my start. A lot of those people wrote their own songs and wrote a lot of songs. They weren’t always the same style; they were different styles, stemming from the same place.
Your album moves back and forth between the electric and acoustic guitar. Which did you pick up first when you were beginning to learn the instrument?
I began on acoustic when I was in college. I always had something that drew me to fingerstyle music and guitar playing. I wasn’t really that drawn to electric guitar at all, so I started out with my fingers. I really never, ever played with the pick, the whole time I’ve been playing.
Were you writing songs out of the gate, or did you spend time learning covers?
I was writing a little bit before I had any concept or grasp of chord progressions or anything like that. I started out writing a little bit of music, but primarily I was just learning songs that were popular at the time and then things that I had always thought were really good.
I am curious about your writing process. I read that you actually spent some time alone writing at Jekyll Island. I was taken by that story because there was a stretch of years when I would also disappear there for a few days out of the year to do the same. It’s such a beautiful, almost secluded spot…
It wasn’t a planned trip, either. I was touring down there and spending some time seeing some shows. I went to Shakey Knees that year and I had friends playing there. After Shakey Knees, I was going on a little tour, and I thought, “I got some time between some of these dates. What are some things I can do to make my way down to Miami, my last stop?” I went to a rest stop, and they had a thing that said, “Georgia Sea Isles” that looked cool. I went there, and it was magical, really just beautiful. I spent three days there and wrote some songs. The process was being in the car and really having a lot of time to reflect on where my life was at the time. I tend to write a lot in the car when I’m driving, at least the actual lines come to me while I’m driving. “Can’t Get Right” was the first song that I started writing, particularly for the record. It was on that trip, somewhere around that time, where I wrote the hook and the riff.
I know you have a background in archaeology. Has that played a role in your music?
It really gave me a good perspective on the historical aspect of music and a little bit of ethnomusicology because that is part of anthropology, as well. You get that kind of training in there, and I was doing archaeology as a job out of college for the first three years or so. I got to travel a lot around the region and hear music from all over. I was in the mountains in Virginia and West Virginia a lot during that time,
Hard Times and a Woman blends genres– there’s blues, along with traces of gospel, folk, and indie music. Does your background in ethnomusicology account for the genre-hopping?
I don’t know if it had much to do with that specifically. I think it definitely had a big impact [from] people I met during that time and the things I was exposed to. I spent a lot of time in southwest Virginia, and I didn’t see a ton of music down there, but just the people and the images were enough to inspire.
Are you self-conscious about bringing these different styles together, or does that happen naturally, behind the scenes?
I made a conscious effort with this record when I went down on that trip to write whatever songs came out. Around that time, I had just reconciled the different identities within myself that I have been influenced by. I’ve been influenced by all American music, so it’s hard to focus my writing and keep myself in a box, so I decided to not do that and to write anything, as long as I thought it was good. If it came out of me, that’s how it was going to be. Then I’d find a way to make it cohere on an album
“The Gator” is the song that I keep coming back to. The beat is so primitive and relentless, and the guitar is harsh, fuzzed-out. But it’s the lyrics that stop me in my tracks, specifically the line, “I can’t breathe,” which is a reference to Eric Garner. The track is subtle in its message, but it’s there, nevertheless. Do you believe music affects social change?
I hope so. I really hope it does. I never really intended to write songs that had any sort of political identities, because, before this record, it was really somewhere I saw myself going. For me, it’s more of an escape, but part of that escape is healing myself through the song and, I think, showing people that this has no real political agenda; it’s just how I feel day-to-day. I think that’s how a lot of people feel day-to-day. Hopefully, giving other people a perspective that they may have never had in that way helps them at least understand other folks.
What did Chip Hale bring to the table production-wise?
We did everything together. We sat down and mapped it out. I brought the songs to him, week-by-week. I brought one or two to his house to demo in the fall of 2020. I basically set parameters. I wanted it to be within this box, and most importantly, it had to sound like it all goes together. I didn’t want it to be a collection of songs; I wanted it to be an album, a record, and I wanted to sound like that. I wanted to stay within the Americana world, so there were a lot of things that sounded cool but didn’t necessarily sound right for the record, you know?
Once we got those parameters together, we just tried out a lot of stuff. Some of the ideas are mine, like some of the arrangements. A lot of the arrangement ideas are something that I had in mind as far as what instruments are used, but the sounds, that’s definitely more Chip. That’s all in his wheelhouse. I don’t know anything about fancy electronics, but that’s where he was really vital.
As a guitar play, I have to ask: What was your set-up for this record, particularly for “The Gator”?
For almost all the finger-picking songs, I used my Eastwood Airline H78 semi-hollow body, kinda like a Harmony Rocket copy. That’s why I have that big thump. Then we used a Walrus 385 Overdrive. Then there’s some other stuff on there too, but that’s the main stuff.
What about the guitar solo in “The Gator”? It’s so wild!
That was my lead guitar player [Nate Hubbard] playing that. I think it was a Color Box that he used. It hits super hard. I was like, “That’s the sound!” I don’t think they meant to do that, but I thought, “That is urgent!” That’s what I kept saying at the time when we were doing takes: “I just need to sound urgent. I need to feel like someone’s being punched in the gut.”
Are the people you recorded with your full-time band? Or was that strictly a studio configuration?
The majority of people that were on there are my normal band, like Chip and Nate, who’s the guitar player, and Drew, my drummer. Tyler Meacham plays keys and he does background vocals. That’s my normal band. We haven’t really been on the road yet, but we’ve got some stuff in the works. When we were getting ramped up, COVID stopped all that. Now, I’ve been really, really particular about the gigs we play.
Given COVID, were you able to write new material in the interim?
Funny enough, I released an EP last year [Idle Hands], and the song “Arm’s Length” I wrote after Hard Times and a Woman was done and released it first because I was writing so many songs. Then, same with “It Ain’t Much”, which came out later last year. I’ve got a whole bunch of new stuff, but I haven’t put pen to paper to lock it all up yet. But hopefully, once this record is slowing down, I’ll put something new out.
For better or worse, some guitarists use the “blues” tag as a blank check for soloing. You, on the other hand, are a minimalist. Where did you learn to appreciate space?
I think a lot of that comes from being in the acoustic blues world with Piedmont blues and stuff like that. It’s usually one guy on guitar and maybe a harmonica player or a fiddle player, one person doing leads, but it’s very, very sparse. Something like “No Riches” is the world I lived in before this record. You leave space for people to do what they do. I’m not the lead player. I’m not like the Kingfish guitar player. That’s great; I think it’s amazing that they can play like that, but I just want to write songs and sing the songs. Maybe one day, I’ll be something like that, but right now, it doesn’t really hold my interest to learn to play like that.
The blues has such a rich legacy. What is your contribution to the genre?
I think showing that it can be modern but still hold the traditions because my style of blues that I really love is pre-war. It’s not the electric blues. Something like “Lightning When She Smiles” is basically a country blues song that I wrote on acoustic guitar, and it works great that way, but you add these elements to it, and it becomes like a cool garage rock song. Literally, I didn’t change the form at all. It’s the same thing, but with different effects. I also get to highlight the history of the blues with this.