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Justin Trawick’s journey to Americana

Justin Trawick, who grew up in Loudoun County, Va., was inspired by his father’s guitar at a young age and has dabbled in bluegrass, rock, reggae, hip-hop and more. (Casey Gill)

As a kid, Justin Trawick thought he knew every nook, cranny and creaking floorboard of his childhood home in rural Loudoun County, Va. He was an only child — his "closest friends were chickens and cows" — and he spent plenty of time exploring the pre-Civil War home. But it wasn't until the summer before he started high school that he made a discovery that would change the course of his life.

Trawick had always been superstitious about the closet under the stairs, but as a teenager about to start a new chapter in his life, he was feeling adventurous. One trip under the stairs yielded a cardboard guitar case, which his father used as a "conversation starter" during his college days. He recalls sitting down on the wraparound porch and pulling out not just a nylon-string guitar from the case, but a pair of women's black satin panties. Apparently, his father had acquired them, used them as a guitar rag and unintentionally created a time capsule for his future son. "That's how I discovered the guitar."

The young Trawick ditched the underwear but stuck with the guitar, teaching himself the instrument (previously, he had taken some piano and saxophone lessons). Like scores of R&B and gospel singers before him, he started in the church, strumming along with an acoustic folk group at 9 a.m. Mass. (That guitar from the closet couldn't hold a tune, so he bought a $99 Yamaha acoustic that he plays to this day.) Then he started playing with the Loudoun Bluegrass Association, a casual group of older guys who picked and strummed at an "old folks' home" in Leesburg; Trawick was "the youngest by more than half."

After graduating from Longwood University in Farmville, Va., Trawick moved to Northern Virginia, and the singer-songwriter has been performing in the Washington area and along the East Coast ever since. For a few years, Trawick would switch his style from song to song, dabbling in bluegrass, rock-and-roll, reggae, hip-hop and more. A few years ago, he started narrowing his approach, settling on an Americana style that lets his personal storytelling and songwriting shine through. "I've always described myself as not being very fun at parties," he explains. "I can't play that song off the radio, but I can play this song about my ex-girlfriend."

The "Riverwash" EP, his new release, is his first as Justin Trawick and the Common Good and features Josh Himmelsbach on mandolin, Jean Finstad on upright bass, Matvei Sigalov on violin, and Jacob Briggs on percussion and production. (Bobby Birdsong plays pedal steel guitar live.) The record is both personal and relatable: There are songs that are buoyant ("This Is Love," "The Bright Side"), confessional ("All That I Lack"), nostalgic ("Ten Long Years"), and — perhaps in an effort to be more fun at parties — there is a gentle cover of Oasis's "Wonderwall." "I never wanted to be in a cover band," he says, "but if people discover me by a cover, that's fine with me."

While the "Wonderwall" cover might be the easiest song to latch onto, "All the Places That I've Been" is the most memorable one. Inspired by his 98-year-old grandmother and the "amazing" stories she told him, it's a snapshot of the Greatest Generation, telling a fictional story of a man's life via the historic moments of the 20th century. What begins as a personal narrative broadens out to tell an American one, coming back together and crescendoing around 9/11. "I'd be happy to be a one-hit wonder if I could get that song out there," Trawick admits. "There's a place in the world for that song."

The EP is also the first record Trawick has released that is representative of what his band sounds like. Trawick plays live 15 to 20 times a month, in various configurations, but his previous CDs reflected his genre-agnostic approach, not his Americana one. He admits that "The Riverwash" EP, which was recorded in Richmond, sounds home-recorded, but he thinks it sounds better than the ones he did in "real" studios. "The fact that it sounds like me is a big deal."

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