Gold

Striking Gold – Style Weekly

“I realized there’s no rules. You can do whatever you want.”

That may sound strange coming from a musician as steeped in tradition as Justin Golden. The Richmond-based fingerstyle guitarist has made a name for himself as a songwriter, performer and teacher, and as a champion of compositions written as far back as the early 20th century. Whether he’s picking a nearly forgotten melody at a gig or showing students how its played during a Rhapsody Project in-school workshop, few artists are doing more to honor the past.

But Golden is hardly beholden to it, and his new LP, “Golden Country, Volume 1,” exemplifies the thrilling possibilities of the present. “It’s fresh,” he says of the eight-song collection, which was largely recorded over the course of two days in November and then fast-tracked for digital release in January. “It’s fun for me.”

The fun began in August, just before the second installment of Vocal Rest Fest, which celebrates the community that’s grown around Richmond roots-based label Vocal Rest Records. Golden agreed earlier in the year to perform at the annual showcase, but his busy schedule kept him from rehearsing with Devil’s Coattails, Vocal Rest’s answer to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, until the week of the festival. Golden says it was “a little stressful” waiting until then to practice, but he needn’t have worried; as they aligned efforts on two originals and two traditional tunes, ensconced in the friendly confines of drummer Drew Barnocky’s studio, sparks began to fly.

“It was very electric,” says Trey Burnart Hall, founder of Vocal Rest Records and mandolinist for Devil’s Coattails. “Everyone’s grinning ear-to-ear, and heads are bobbing. It’s one of those cliche moments in a movie when a band is formed.”

The instant chemistry inspired Golden to pitch an idea: “Would you guys be down for, in a couple of months, putting together eight to 10 songs with minimal rehearsal and just banging out an album in two days?”

That’s exactly what they did, convening at Rabid Ears Recording on Richmond’s Southside with engineer Allen Bergendahl engineering and the following lightning-in-a-bottle mandate from Golden: “I want it to be good, I want to have a good time recording it, and I don’t want to be precious with it.”

Picking a new path forward 

Golden’s desire to work quickly was rooted in more than studio aesthetics. His previous full-length, 2022’s “Hard Times and a Woman,” was both costly and labor-intensive. It required three months of pre-production, month of rehearsals and dozen days in the studio, and that doesn’t even account for the year of promotion. “That album was done in spring of 2021,” he says. “I was like, ‘It kind of sucks having this in the bank and all the things that will come from it are gonna be over a year after it comes out.’”

The care put into that album paid off it multiple ways. It’s fully realized to a degree that few debut LPs are, with lush, layered production from Chip Hale, who played bass in Golden’s previous backing ensemble, The Come Up. And those 12 original songs have served as a calling card, contributing to the busy schedule Golden maintained throughout 2023. He cites an upcoming live stream with the American Folk Art Museum in New York as representative of the gigs he’s landed as a result of his doted-over debut. “Having something that people can listen to, and that I’m also proud of,” he says, “is something I’m so, so appreciative of and thankful I was able to get done.”

Still, he’s relishing this turn toward carefree music-making. Even deciding what to record feels less burdensome now that he’s got a full album’s worth of his own compositions circulating. “I don’t have the pressure of worrying about putting out covers and people [saying], ‘Oh, he just puts out covers or traditional songs.’”

The inclusion of “Volume 1” in the album’s title is a nod to the fact that Golden has a long list of songs that he’d like to extract from obscurity. While album does include one Golden original, “Riverboat Blues,” the rest are reinterpretations. “It’s like I’m releasing a single,” he says, “so it’s one original song and seven other old-school songs that can help contextualize it.”

Song selection started with the two covers Golden and Devil’s Coattails practiced for Vocal Rest Fest, “Creole Belle” and “When I Lay My Burden Down,” and continued with Golden sending Trey Burnart Hall a list of candidates. “I wanted to get ones that he was excited to play,” Golden says. “You give [musicians] the opportunity to play over something they love, and it really comes across.”

The group’s enjoyment of the material is evident on both singles that landed in December, “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” and “Downtown Blues.” The former is well-traveled; it’s become a standard since its initial release in the mid-20th century, and this new version borrows from both Amos Milburn’s original rendering and Snooks Eaglin’s, which followed Milburn’s by less than a decade. “The instrumentation is super-cool,” Golden notes. “Piano and mandolin and trumpet — and I’m not even playing guitar on that.”

“We tried to fuse a bunch of musical sonic spaces that might not be together otherwise,” says Hall, who produced the project, and whose label is partnering on the release.

“Downtown Blues” is less renowned, though it’s illustrative of how music travels differently through time depending on who’s listening — and who’s playing. The song had a renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to a reworked version by folk singer Geoff Muldaur, but Golden’s approach reaches back to the 1920s, to what’s known as the “Take 1” version by Frank Stokes. “One of the things I really love about old blues like this is you can hear one take to another and the vibe and the lyrics are totally different,” Golden says. “I wanted to play around with that.”

Setting the record straight

He’s hoping to stretch listeners’ perception of his own musical trajectory, as well. While Golden’s blues chops are well documented, his repertoire is more varied than is often acknowledged, and linking up with Devil’s Coattails was one way to resist being pigeonholed. “So much of what I do is not blues and would be considered country or bluegrass by a lot of other people — if other folks were performing it,” he notes. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to force people to put me in another box, or at least reexamine what they think of as blues.’”

“Part of our goal [was] spotlighting the roots of blues, and how country music and bluegrass really grew out of the blues,” Hall affirms. “Country” being part of the album’s title is one way of bringing those connections to the forefront, and of ensuring those who head to Golden’s shows don’t arrive expecting electric blues in the vein of B.B. King or Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. “He’s really trying to go beyond genre binary,” Hall says, “which is so exciting.”

A shared interest in rectifying musical misconceptions has brought Hall and Golden closer. In 2022, the former asked the latter to join him on a guest speaking engagement for a VCU class on race and identity in American music. While they’d known one another for nearly a decade, had shared many gigs and had already partnered on one Vocal Rest release — Golden’s 2021 EP, “Idle Hands” — an impromptu classroom performance ensued, marking the first time they played together as instrumentalists. Students responded enthusiastically. Some even took videos. “It was beautiful,” Golden says of Hall’s classroom mandolin work. “I felt a connection with him then.”

Photo by Scott Elmquist

“Beautiful” is also how Golden describes Hall’s playing on “Golden Country,” and Golden is just as effusive about the Devil’s Coattails rhythm section — about the way Chris Gatens finds bass notes that complement fingerpicked guitar without crowding it, and how having been a member of The Come Up means Drew Barnocky can anticipate Golden’s next move before it happens. “He gets my little idiosyncrasies,” Golden says of Barnocky.

Being in the moment as a musician is no small feat; it requires dedication to one’s instrument, trust in those around you and an openness to whatever may come next. With “Golden Country, Volume 1,” listeners will find an invitation to join Golden in an expansive present tense — one where the past and future can unfold simultaneously.

“A conservative understanding of tradition means preservation,” Hall says. “But I think Justin is reminding us that tradition is growth. It’s longevity. It’s passing things on to new generations for them to sprout new wings within it.”

“Golden Country, Volume 1” will be released on Friday, Jan. 12 via Vocal Rest Records. “Downtown Blues” and “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” can be streamed via Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube. Justin Golden has two shows at Gallery5 coming up in January: on Sunday, Jan. 7 and on Sunday, Jan. 28. For details and tickets, visit gallery5arts.org


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