Washington, D.C.-based musician Justin Trawick’s career can be traced back to the day he found a guitar under the steps of his parents’ pre-Civil War Virginia home. “Neither of my parents were musicians, but sometime in college, my dad bought a guitar and played it maybe three times. Probably to impress women,” he laughed. By the time Justin found it, the strings were broken and it was covered in dust.
But Justin was smitten. With his newfound guitar, he started hanging out wherever he could find working musicians to teach him how to play and perform. In Leesburg, Virginia, this meant spending every week with a group called The Loudoun Bluegrass Association. “They had a deal with a local old-folks home. They could play each week in the common area, as long as the residents were allowed to hang out and listen. So I was this 14-year-old kid, hanging out with these musicians who ranged in age from 49 to 89, at a senior citizens’ residence.”
Justin also found opportunities to play music at his local church, which had a weekly folk mass. “Two or three weeks into playing with them, some guys from the church band said to my dad: ‘We love your son, your son is great… but you need to buy him a much better guitar.”
Justin has since upgraded to a “Little Martin” (the same guitar Ed Sheeran plays). It’s a noticeably small instrument, and looks (but never sounds) almost comical in Justin’s hands. “I bought it to mess around with in my apartment, but I took it to Iota (the defunct live-music venue in Arlington, VA), plugged it in and it sounded really good,” he shrugged.
These days, Trawick is a regular fixture on the DC music scene, where he’s made his living exclusively through music since 2008. No side hustles necessary. His new album – The Riverwash EP – will be released this week with a series of album release concerts starting on January 26th at Pearl Street Warehouse in DC’s Wharf District. It is Justin’s sixth album but the first to be released under the band name Justin Trawick and the Common Good.
I was familiar with Justin and his music long before he and I sat down for this interview. What impressed me, in addition to making music that appeals to my folksy sensibilities, was that he seemed to be a savvy self-promoter. The stellar pictures and stories he regularly posts on social media present him as an eminently likable guy who is also a take charge entrepreneur, able to straddle the line between business and music in a way few creative types can.
Take the Little Martin guitar, for example: “You need to find as many ways as possible to differentiate yourself in this market. I have far nicer, much more expensive guitars in my apartment that I, weirdly, do not play,” he explained. “Also, it’s a conversation starter. Kind of like if you walk into a place and you’re wearing a funky hat. People want to talk to you, you know what I mean? Me looking like a giant onstage because I have this tiny instrument seemed to work to separate me in an age when everyone is doing the same thing.”
Throughout Justin’s career, he has never been one to wait around for someone else to make things happen. “I wanted to be a part of other people’s bands in college,” he said, “but no one ever invited me so I just created my own.”
And he hasn’t stopped creating since. One of Justin’s favorite projects is The 9 Songwriter Series. Justin developed this performance concept ten years ago to get himself and his friends into better venues and in front of bigger audiences. The idea is simple: Whereas nine local artists couldn’t fill larger venues themselves, if those same nine performers perform together, and each brings in 15 or 20 people, they can – and do – fill a space like Pearl Street Warehouse or the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage without difficulty.
It’s been several years since Justin released an album and I was curious why. “I consider myself more a performer than a recording artist,” he told me. “It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything in that time, but my primary focus has always been on performing and marketing myself so that I can be a full time working musician.”
But the time seemed right, and the stars all aligned for The Riverwash EP to become a reality. Justin is excited to be releasing an album that he describes as the only album that is close to what he sounds like when playing live.
The Riverwash EP features lively Americana melodies, heartfelt ballads, and a few hip hop verses instrumentalized withacoustic guitar, upright bass, fiddle, mandolin, and pedal steel. It is a collection of five originals and one cover that can best be described as Americana in feel. While the instrumentation on the album trends towards bluegrass (cue the mandolin), Justin is hesitant to use that label. “If a real bluegrass musician heard me say that, he would laugh at me forever, but we had a lot of fun playing around with those instrumentations.”
I mentioned to Justin that my personal favorite on the album is the upbeat tune “The Bright Side.” His eyes lit up. “When I wrote ‘The Bright Side,’ in my mind, Ed Asner was the narrator of the song, this older gentleman sitting at a bar giving advice. My goal in life is to somehow get Ed Asner’s attention so I can invite him to play the protagonist in the video.”
So, Ed Asner, if you are reading this… Give Justin a call.
Justin Trawick and the Common Good perform their album-release concert on Friday, January 26th at Pearl Street Warehouse – 33 Pearl Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 380-9620 or go online.
Justin performs his original song “This is Love” at a SoFar event in Washington D.C.: