The Sound Cafe
Richmond, VA Blues Artist Justin Golden Set To Release New Album 'Hard Times and a Woman'
There’s a new album coming from Richmond, VA blues artist Justin Golden. Hard Times and a Woman drops April 15, 2022, and though it’s tempting to talk about how adept Justin is at bringing current ideas into blues tropes (especially his songs that touch on the brutal realities of racism in America), I think there’s also something key here in how he touches on indie roots artists in North Carolina like Phil Cook and Hiss Golden Messenger (he loves Daniel Norgren too).
Blues isn’t just twelve bars and a hard luck story. On his debut record, Hard Times and a Woman, guitarist and songwriter Justin Golden showcases the full breadth of the genre and its downstream influences, everything from country blues to Americana, soul, indie roots and beyond. Golden was raised on the Virginia coast and is steeped in the distinctive, fingerpicked Piedmont blues of the central part of the state. He’s studied country blues and can name any number of influences from Blind Boy Fuller to Taj Mahal, but his key inspirations have always come from the indie guitar realm, specifically friends like Phil Cook and J Roddy Walston, with a little Hiss Golden Messenger, Daniel Norgren, and Bon Iver mixed in and maybe a hint of James Taylor. Recording his new album in the midst of the vibrant Richmond, VA scene, producer Chip Hale helped craft lush arrangements with Richmond artists around Golden’s classic Americana songwriting sensibilities. Fuzzed out guitar, keys, and harmonica meld with his deft fingerpicking and slow burning grooves. Across twelve tracks, Golden lays out a caution: be wary when things start going too well. The lyrics of Hard Times and a Woman reference winning (and then losing) it all, heartbreak, and the harsh realities of being Black in America. On his sparkling debut, Justin Golden arrives fully formed as a guitarist and a songwriter. It’s not just that he can move so fluidly between musical genres, it’s that he understands that the blues underpins nearly every American genre, and he hears the blues wherever he goes.
It’s not many artists who learn to play the blues in a dream, but for Golden, the music had been percolating in his subconscious for years before he started playing. Sleeping late at Bonnaroo some years back, he woke up from a dream with a blues fingerpicking pattern in his head, a seminal moment that sparked a lifelong commitment to the music. “Blues was always what I wanted to play,” he says. “It was an idea before I knew how practical it was or what it meant.” Later he played this dreamt fingerpicking pattern to blues elder Phil Wiggins who told him that he’d been unconsciously playing Piedmont blues, the tradition from his home region of Virginia. This musical kismet showed him that he was on the right path with the music, and the encouragement of Wiggins and other elders pushed him to learn more. His passion as a torch bearer and relationship with Wiggins connected him with the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities who helped him release the new album. Now he’s passing that inspiration on, teaching youth to play as well. Trained as an archaeologist, Golden learned to take a long view of history. He studied historic cemetery sites throughout the region and noted that old burial grounds could be lost within a generation. One generation clearing land would remember the site of an old cemetery and leave up the trees to mark it, but the next generation would forget and clear the land, losing the historic memory of that graveyard. “It’s the same thing in the music,” he says, “if there’s no link to an elder, the music can be lost.”
A central theme of Hard Times and a Woman is that unfortunate events always seem to happen right when we’re at the top of our game. It’s something the world is experiencing now, moving into a third year of a pandemic, and for Golden it was tied to COVID as well. Right before the pandemic struck, he had suffered a heartbreak, lost his job, and was then forced to cancel his touring. An optimist at heart, it all ended up being the perfect excuse for him to rethink the album, rework the songs, and to take the time to bring his local community together to help him make the music. Working with producer Hale, the two brought together a dream team of artists from Richmond’s rich musical scene including guitarists Nate and Eli Hubbard, drummer Drew Barnocky, backing vocalist Tyler Meacham, and organist Tommy Booker. Fellow blues phenom Andrew Alli brought his harmonica, and Golden asked Seattle fiddler Ben Hunter to join remotely, eager to support other Black blues musicians with deep ties to the tradition. Adrian Olsen (Lucy Dacus, Natalie Prass) at Montrose Recording in Richmond mixed the album. Golden wanted to put together a full band for the album, making use of Hale’s ear for arrangements and background in indie rock. Still, the blues lay at the heart of the ensemble’s ethos. “It's so popular these days to think you’re BB King,” Golden explains, “and it’s cool if you can play like that, but sometimes it’s what you’re not playing that’s interesting.”
The songs on Hard Times and a Woman run the gamut of blues topics like heartbreak (“Call Me When the Bed Gets Cold”), romantic love (“Lightning When She Smiles”), global pandemics (“Why the Sun Goes Down”), the gospel (“Oh Lord, Oh Lord” which interestingly features Golden on banjo), and even possible deals with the devil (“Ain’t Just Luck”). One of the most powerful tracks on the album, “The Gator,” tackles the difficult topic of racism in America head-on. Golden wrote it at a writer’s retreat in Florida, thinking of the gators lying in wait under the Florida water for a chance to pull him under. It’s a metaphor for the fear many Black Americans feel in public in a post-Trump era and well before that. “‘The Gator’ is about that feeling that something’s always out to get you,” Golden says, “or that you’re never safe because you never know what’s in someone’s heart. You never know if you’re gonna run into someone who’s having a bad day and end up a target.” Over a rolling, trance-like rhythm, Golden sings “When I see blue lights, sometimes I wanna run,” an unflinchingly honest look at the reality of being Black in America. True to form, he ultimately looks for a positive solution. “So where do I look when hard times’ bringing me down / I turn to my brother with both of my arms stretched out.”
Though Golden’s influences range far and wide, the blues will never be far from his heart. That’s because he doesn’t see the tradition as limiting, but rather a musical form open to any emotion. “The blues is not a box,” he says. “They try to make it seem like it’s just twelve bars or it’s gotta be sad or it’s gotta be this or that, but if you listen to so much old pre-war blues, there are so many feelings involved. There’s happy blues, sad blues, just got paid and spent all my money blues, gonna go see my girl late at night blues, there’s blues for anything. It doesn’t have to be a specific form or feeling, it can be whatever you want it to be, but you know it when you hear it.”