One of the first public performances ever given by Justin Trawick was for an assignment in his ninth-grade English class. The class was tasked to write their own take on Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
“It was about a guy who sold his soul to the devil to get something that he wants, and of course, there’s a time limit on that and when the time limit is up, the devil gets his soul,” said Trawick, “which is the literary version of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia.’ I remember asking my teacher if I could write something that was a song instead of a story.”
The positive reaction from his teacher and classmates set Trawick on a career path he’s still following. He taught himself to play guitar after finding an old instrument in his family’s pre-Civil War farmhouse in Leesburg, and he continued writing songs as a creative outlet throughout high school and while he attended Longwood University.
“For me, writing songs has always been that I have to tell a story,” said Trawick. “Something traumatic just happened, or something great just happened. I have to put it down on paper. For me, instead of journaling, I put it in songwriting form. When you’re a young kid and you’re an only child and live in the country where your closest neighbors are cows and sheep, writing songs became a really great outlet for me.”
These days Trawick lives in Arlington and is preparing to release his sixth album, “The Riverwash EP,” with his band The Commonwealth. The new record shows a shift in his recording method and in the instrumentation of his band. His first five albums going back to 2007 were mostly in a modern-rock style with drums and electric instruments, but for the last four years, Trawick has been moving in a more Americana direction, with acoustic instruments and sparse use of drums.
“At shows, people would come up and buy my CD, but this CD has electric guitar, drums and a rapper on it,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Unfortunately, this doesn’t sound like what we’re doing.’ I think this new album is a very good representation of what we do now and also just sounds like what we do live.”
One of his earliest influences was Austin singer-songwriter Bob Schneider. Trawick was introduced to Schneider’s music from a compilation CD that his cousin, who lived in Austin, sent him with a variety of local acts.
“I remember hearing in my freshman year of college this song called ‘Big Blue Sea,’ ” said Trawick. “It was a really cool song and I’d never heard anything like it before. It was acoustic guitars, but it had word play, kind of rap sounding but still in an Americana kind of way. It seemed like the guy was mixing genres in a pretty cool format.”
Trawick got to see Bob Schneider live, and realized that, along with his original songs, he put on an entertaining show. It was a lesson Trawick applied to his own presentation on stage.
“I realized with Bob Schneider that it’s not just about playing songs but it’s about being a performer and an entertainer,” said Trawick. “It’s connecting with an audience beyond just singing and playing a guitar, like what you say in between. They talk about banter. Those are things that I’ve really kind of worked on over the last 10 or 11 years.”
The emotional centerpiece of “The Riverwash EP” is “All The Places I’ve Been.” The song is both a personal story of an older gentleman whose son was one of the first responders in 9/11 and a journey through the history of the United States in the last 80 years. The idea of going through the history someone had seen during those years was inspired by Trawick’s 98-year-old grandmother.
“The song was inspired by all the amazing stories my grandmother told me about her and her friends—about the World War II generation of people,” said Trawick. “As you know, no one’s getting younger, and all these really important people from that generation are going to be gone. Writing that song for me was a testament to remembering these people.”
The song also has a cameo appearance by super session guitarist Adam Levy. Levy has played on studio sessions with many musicians including Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman and Rosanne Cash. Trawick considers Levy one of his musical heroes and was able to play with him at a songwriting showcase that Trawick hosted at City Winery in New York in 2012. Trawick had recently written “All The Places I’ve Been” and at the last minute asked Levy to sit in. The results were so successful (and fortunately, captured in a video which can be seen on YouTube), that six years later, when Trawick decided to record a full-band version of the song, he asked Levy to lay down a guitar solo.
“It is the coolest thing,” said Trawick. “We may not have jetpacks yet in 2018, but we can record on multiple coasts with our musical heroes. To be able to get as a featured artist, someone I grew up listening to, on this record really makes it that much more special.”