You often hear about artists mining the past for inspiration. Richmond-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Justin Golden has been there, both literally and figuratively. En route to becoming a sought-after blues performer, Golden spent time working as an archaeologist, excavating in and around Central Virginia when projects arose. While he would eventually change jobs in favor of a work schedule that allowed for more predictability when booking gigs, he’s continued to unearth old sounds, studying early blues by the likes of Leroy Carr, Robert Petway, and Sleepy John Estes, and going so far as to transcribe lesser-known songs so that he, and others, might make them part of the current vernacular.
I had the good fortune of seeing Golden perform as the supporting act for Australian blues traditionalist C.W. Stoneking at Richmond Music Hall in September, and we sat down for an interview a month or so later, chatting about what it’s been like to play opening sets, his path as a songwriter, and his efforts to bring new relevance to a genre that sits at the core of America’s varied musical landscape.
What was a typical archeological dig like?
The company I worked for was mostly phase ones, which [means] I’m hiking in the woods, digging holes every 50 feet in a straight line in whatever weather there is, so it was pretty rough. I actually had a lot of fun. I think if it wasn’t for the schedules, I’d still be doing fieldwork. Because sometimes we would drive up to Loudon and back in one day, and we’d go up there and dig four, five hours in a row, and then sit in the car and ride down 95 again. And that was a good day, because we’d get to sleep at home. Sometimes we were up in a hotel for weeks at a time. I spent six weeks in a Hilton, and we’d work 10 straight days, 10 hours a day, and then we’d have a few days off. Those are the digs you’d want to be on, because you make overtime, all this per diem.. but who knows when that would pop up.
When did you start getting into writing songs?
I started writing songs a few years after I started playing, basically once I had enough chords. Somewhere in college there was an original song competition, and that’s what really got me motivated to start writing. But the progression is you play a little bit, and then you’re like “Oh, I’ve got some ideas. Let’s write some stuff down” and then all those are probably trash. And then you keep going. That’s the cycle of music.
What grabbed you about blues music?
My parents never really listened to blues, but somewhere along the way, I guess through movies or something, I had this idea about the blues. When I really started getting focused, around five or six years ago, I was listening to, and I still listen to, old acoustic blues from the 1930s and 1920s probably about 10 hours a week. A lot of my ideas come from back then, before there was a 12-bar blues. They’re just playing songs.
Do you enjoy playing opening slots like the Stoneking one?
I’ve gotten really lucky this year to open for people I actually listen to on a regular basis, which I think is the coolest. Especially him. He’s so heralded in the blues world. That was a next-level show.
In the past three years, I’ve gotten some fans that I never would have met from these cool opening sets. It’s funny when I see them at shows that I didn’t know they were going to, and I’m opening and they [say] “Hey, we didn’t know you were going to be here! Great to see you!” I’m building these relationships with what would have been strangers, but I only see them at shows. They’re my fans now, but I don’t know them personally. That was the first step for that to happen — play in front of someone else’s crowd and steal their fans [laughs].
You’re playing traditional blues, but there’s an unmistakable freshness to your music. Does it feel like you’re actually going against the grain by looking to the past?
In this region, there’s not a lot of people playing the style that I play. Especially doing it finger-style. A lot of people will play blues strumming it out. So I think that sets me apart, a little bit. It feels exciting to me because I don’t hear people doing that very often. As I’m digging back through these old blues in the 1930s, it’s all new to me, so I’m excited about it all the time. That’s how it feels to me, and I hope it feels like that to people listening…
I’m transcribing a lot of music as I’m going along because I’m trying to revive some stuff that people aren’t playing, because it’s been 80 years since it came out and for some reason no one’s chosen to do this song. So I’m really digging in, and I know enough about the finger positions, the left hand positions [to say] “Alright, this is probably where these licks are coming from. I’m going to recreate it.” So I’ve been listening over and over, trying to get it just right.
What motivated you to start transcribing?
Documentation and performance. I’m not really worried about recording it for me to put out to make money. I just want to have it in my repertoire, and be able to show it. In the blues community, some people are considered culture-bearers, or torch-bearers, and I think I’m starting to be one of those people. I feel the charge to actually get out there and do it, because that’s what I like to listen to, and another 100 years goes by and no one’s going to know how to do this…
In the bluegrass community, the culture around it is very different. People actually sit at home and play this with their kids. They grow up playing this. With the blues, that’s gone. All the people that did that have switched to jazz, or soul, or hip hop. There are a few of us out here. Andrew Alli, [who is] a harmonica player, and a lot of guys in the blues community are intentionally spending time learning and teaching this music, and I really want to have it so I can teach it to other people.
To hear Justin Golden’s music, visit justingolden.bandcamp.com. And keep an eye out for his in-school blues education initiative, the Rhapsody Project, launching this fall.