From a sea of empty seats to a standing ovation in one hour flat. That was the 2021 Richmond Folk Festival experience for Justin Golden in a nutshell.
The Richmond-based, blues singer-songwriter and fingerstyle guitar practitioner performed on a damp Saturday afternoon last October with his stacked backing band, The Come Up, and a set list full of songs he’d been waiting for just the right moment to bust out. What a moment it was. After watching the previous act’s crowd clear out, Golden made the Virginia Folklife Stage come alive.
“It was unreal,” Golden says. “We’re setting up to a completely empty tent. And then suddenly I look up and there’s not a seat in the house and people standing as far back as I could see. I felt like that was a proper debut.”
Several of the songs he shared at the Folk Fest will debut in studio form on Golden’s album, “Hard Times and a Woman,” due out April 15. It’s not his first collection; dedicated fans have been spinning the CD-only “Hard Times” EP since 2019. But with his upcoming full-length, Golden is taking a powerful personal step forward into the spotlight.
“I’m excited that it sounds like me,” he says. “This is 100% how I want to be remembered, because it shows everything I’m about.”
For help with painting such an authentic portrait, Golden turned to longtime collaborator and bassist for The Come Up, Chip Hale. The two met as students at Longwood University about a decade ago, which is when Golden began writing and performing. “He’s been there since probably my first gig ever,” Golden says of Hale.
That complete view of Golden’s creative arc came in handy during the pre-recording process for “Hard Times and a Woman.” Over three months in late 2020, before heading to Lance Kohler’s Minimum Wage Recording facility for the official tracking, Golden and Hale cut extensive demos at Hale’s home studio, balancing experimentation with excavation of Golden’s established styles and sources of inspiration.
“We really worked hard on the sounds,” Golden recounts. “[Hale] has all the pedals, he knows all the sounds, and we could try things. We were self-aware – not changing my sound too much, but making a logical step forward.”
A big part of moving forward was ensuring the diversity of his influences didn’t get left behind. Golden has made a name for himself as a standard-bearer for traditional blues: mastering fingerpicking patterns, transcribing old songs that might otherwise be forgotten, helping kickstart the Rhapsody Project roots music education program in Richmond and studying to be a mentor – both within the U.S. and abroad – via the Ethno music programs sponsored by Jeunesses Musicales International. But Golden’s outlook isn’t retrospective.
“I’ve been really deep in the acoustic blues world for a long time,” he explains, “and I don’t always write songs like that… Sometimes it comes out [in the style of a] singer-songwriter. Sometimes it comes out kind of jazzy. I was like, ‘So what do I do with this? I’m not just trying to cultivate this whole image of being this hardcore blues person. I want to be my own writer.’”
He’s also pushing back against the assumption that making it as a blues musician means making waves as a lead guitarist.
“It’s hard to fit into that world where everyone wants you to rip leads all the time,” he points out. “I just want to sing the song, and build it with the people around me.”
Golden is forging an individualized pathway by leaning into the abilities his bandmates bring to the table. He tapped Chip Hale as producer for “Hard Times and a Woman,” a move Golden says lifted a weight off his shoulders. Vocal arrangements for the album were provided by Come Up keyboardist and accomplished singer-songwriter Tyler Meacham. (Meacham just released her own standout LP entitled “Into the Fray.”) By amplifying what others have to offer, Golden has more to offer as well.
“It gives me so much more room as a vocalist,” Golden says. “I think when I play solo, having to do all the work really takes a little bit away from both things – playing guitar and singing… Having the whole band there gives me so much room to spread out.”
Golden has embraced a similarly roomy view of the genre he’s known for working within. In fact, it’s written into his new album’s title. “I watched an interview with an elder bluesman, and he said, ‘The blues ain’t nothin’ but bad luck and a woman.’” That definition stuck with Golden, and it provided a renewed sense of creative freedom.
“The blues doesn’t have to be twelve bars or eight bars,” he notes. “It can be something with the blues as the emotion that makes it a blues song.”
The textural variety on “Hard Times and a Woman” ranges from the country blues picking in “Moon Far Away” to the fuzzy, pop-inflected catchiness of “If I Keep It Together.” Yet the songs are woven together by an ever-present longing. Sometimes it’s for love: “There’s just something about your soul / and I just keep craving more,” he sings in “Lightning When She Smiles.” Other times it’s for stability: “I can’t get right / but honey I hope you know I’m trying,” he confesses in the chorus of “Can’t Get Right,” released as the album’s second single.
The search for balance is at the heart of the album’s first single as well. “Ain’t Just Luck” invokes dealing with the devil, and while the metaphor may scan as standard blues fare to a casual listener, it has a real and wrenching place in Golden’s creative life.
Golden has spent years carving out the right-sized space in his life for music. He left behind fulfilling post-college work as an archeologist so his schedule could be more predictable and allow for booking gigs. In his current job in the mortgage industry, he can work from home – a mode Golden prizes for the flexibility it affords. In between, he was in a nine-to-five office environment. The exchanges involved weighed especially heavily on him then.
“In that moment,” he remembers, “I was like, ‘I’m selling my soul in order to do this the best I can later on.’ Because financially, it’s very expensive to do this type of record for sure. And then to be able to have the flexibility to go tour and take time off, you have to make those sacrifices somewhere.”
As much as he’s wondered about the road not taken while watching friends and other local acts advance their careers in recent years, “Hard Times and a Woman” is an indication he’s headed in the right direction.
“I really had to take every day as a new step to build all of this in order to put it out the way it’s coming out,” he says. “I think I made the right move, but I also feel like I’ve lost years… If I’d struggled more on the road, maybe I could have gotten here still, but it’s a trade-off. It’s definitely a compromise every day.”
“Hard Times and a Woman” will be released on April 15. The second single, “Can’t Get Right,” is out now. Justin Golden and The Come Up will perform with Devil’s Coattails on April 9 at Fuzzy Cactus. For tickets, visit Eventbrite.