Dear Hard Times may be the debut offering from singer-songwriter Nick Gusman, but there's a lot of history on the album. Take the cover, for example, which features a portrait of Gusman cradling a 1943 Martin guitar that belonged to his grandfather, a musician who played up and down Cherokee Street and along South Broadway in his day. The album's artwork is dotted with pressed flowers that belonged to a friend's grandmother; they date back about 100 years, Gusman says.
And certainly there is history and tradition in the folk songs that populate the album, which serve as a showcase for Gusman's flinty guitar playing and strong voice. But across its fourteen songs and hour-long run time, he and his bandmates work through several strands of Americana and rock styles. On his official first outing, Gusman is an apt student of an old style, but keeps a keen eye on modern times.
When reached by phone on a recent afternoon, Gusman had just wrapped up installing windows and storm doors in his day job as a carpenter and contractor. It's one of his last projects before his November 9 release show at Off Broadway, for which he's been busy rehearsing.
"All that is coming to a slow as I try to transition to full-time music," Gusman says of his contracting work. "Putting this record together, the release date is sort of a marker of mental preparedness for me."
This isn't Gusman's first time fronting a band — he was in a rock combo called the Moon Glampers that broke up before it could release its first album — but a few years of steady gigging and near-constant songwriting helped fill in some of the blanks for a musician who was, by his own admission, a later bloomer.
"I'm 33 now, and I started playing at age 19, sort of late in the game, after high school," Gusman says. "My first instrument was from a neighbor down the street — this old guitar was always sitting out in his basement. I got sucked into it even though it was a shitty three-string guitar."
And while the thumbprints of Bob Dylan are easy to hear on almost any folk-indebted singer-songwriter, his imprint is strong on several Dear Hard Times tracks — he even gives a little shout-out to "When I Paint My Masterpiece" early on.
"One of my biggest musical inspirations was Bob Dylan," Gusman says. "It's kind of cliché but that's how it goes." His road to Dylan was somewhat idiomatic, however. Rather than getting hipped to him at an impressionable age, as many do, Gusman traipsed across an anthology for sale at a Starbucks. Gusman recalls almost being talked out of the purchase.
"I asked my friend who was with me, 'You ever heard of this Bob Dylan dude?'" Gusman explains. "He was like, 'Yeah, people like him but I don't think you'd like him. He's not that good of a singer.'"
Dylan's well-known trajectory, from studious folky to protest singer to rock iconoclast, gives a useful foothold to Gusman's work, which does shy away from ragged electric twang.
"I didn't want to put a lot of love songs on it, and I didn't want to put a lot of songs that sound very similar on it," Gusman says. "I wanted to showcase my writing ability — there's a soul ballad, there's some really deep folk stuff. The general sound is that Americana vibe. That's what I like and what I like to listen to."
The record's most Spartan and striking track, "The Ballad of Jon Wilson #1156889," takes the form of a folk-song archetype — the missive from prison — and uses both generous empathy and a slightly shocking finale to transmit a message of humanity for the incarcerated. "When you hear people talk about criminals, they often don't see value in their lives," Gusman says. "There's so much gray that goes into that that no one wants to think about sometimes. This character was brought up without a lot of love, and he didn't see the value in his life or a lot of other lives."
The story is fictional, but enough of the detail is wrought from the experiences of those close to Gusman.
"I guess I get a soft spot for people who talk that way about criminals," he says. "My brother is in prison for bank robbery; it was drug related. When people dig on criminals and not go into the real reason [behind the circumstances], it gets under my skin a little bit."
Gusman will release Dear Hard Times with a show at Off Broadway on Friday, November 9. He has a few tours, both as a solo artist and with his band, lined up, but in the meantime he's happy to have a home for his still-growing songbook.
"Without sounding like an asshole, I write a ton and I feel like I put out a lot," he says. "That sort of gave me the confidence — songs were getting written. I'd write a song and then throw it away, and I realized that I need to make something now: I should put them into a physical thing and make a big deal out of it." 0x006E
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