Published on September 19th, 2012 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Burke and Co. Aim for High Places
James Justin Burke is in a mighty fine mood these days. His accelerating music career is revving up more than ever before, and he still makes time for his family and his farm in Beaver Dam, Virginia. Over the last year and a half, the singer/songwriter and bandleader has split his downtime between the Charleston area and his rural home a few miles outside of Richmond.
Metronome caught up with the singer/songwriter last week while he was still mounted on his tractor after a hay load session. “I’m getting all the hay for the cows today,” he tells us. “We’ve been in a slight drought up here, but it’s been much less severe than in South Carolina. Things are looking good.”
Tending cows and bailing hay is merely an occasional treat for Burke these days. He and his two bandmates from James Justin & Co. — banjo player Bailey Horsley and upright bassist Tom Propst — tour consistently every season. This fall, they’ll hit the road in support of their latest album, a 10-song collection titled Places.
Breezy and pastoral, Places is a gentle, acoustic-based piece of work that follows last year’s more aggressive Dark Country and 2010’s folksy, twangy Southern Son, So Far.
“The tone on Places is very warm,” Burke says. “Dark Country had a lot of fear and angst, which was where I was at the time. Places is much more warm and uplifting. It’s a very positive album.”
“I feel like the songwriting has become more successful for James Justin & Co.,” he adds. “It’s more collaborative now. Places kind of resembles the first record, whereas the last two records were more like me leading musicians. We’ve downsized quite a bit, too. The previous records were much more produced, and the songs averaged 20 [individual instrumental or vocal] tracks. On Places, we averaged about 10 tracks per song. It was simplified, but somehow it seems bigger than the others. We knew we had something special when we were done.”
Burke left his home in Virginia for new adventures in Charleston in 2006. Eager to dive into the city’s music scene with his song ideas, he hooked up friends and formed a jam-rock band called Jupiter’s Garden. But he took a rootsy musical detour when he formed James Justin & Co., stepping away from the traditional rock format and into a more flexible blend of old-time folk, vintage mountain music, and neo-traditional country styles.
“I don’t know if anyone really knows what they want to do when they get thrown into the real world, so to speak,” Burke says. “The same thing goes with playing music. When you pick up a guitar and start playing and singing, you’re not really too sure of where you want to take it. You just have to follow the path that you’re on. My path led me to roots-rock and Americana, and I’m thankful for that.”
After Burke released Southern Son, So Far, he tightened up and focused more intensely on his songwriting skills and musical technique. He put more effort into his bandleader duties, too, and developed a serious approach to managing his band and aiming for long-term artistic and commercial goals.
“When I first started, I was young and naive to idea of being a professional musician,” Burke says. “I used to just love performing on stage for people, and that was only thing I cared about. As I got older, I realized that I could actually be a job where I could make a living. It’s hard to do, and the hands of the clock seem to click faster, but when you start feeling those pressures, you put effort into making the right decisions.”
James Justin & Co. recorded Places at Plowground Productions on Johns Island with engineer Jim Donnelly (of Sara Cole and the Hawkes), and they mastered the songs at Truphonic Studios in West Ashley with engineer Majeed Fick.
Burke recalls seeking advice from friends and fellow musicians on how to move ahead and achieve the right goals as the recordings came together. “I remember speaking with Dan Lotti of Dangermuffin, and he basically told me that no one can tell him what to do to find success; it’s something I have to discover on my own,” Burke says. “It’s something you define on your own. So, I just went to work and wrote song after song after song. I threw some away. I have triple the amount of throw-aways than keepers.”
The songs Burke and his bandmates saved for Places are solid and beautiful. Nudged by bits of piano and light drum work, Burke’s throaty voice sings about the renewal of the spirit and a rekindled appreciation for life. It’s perhaps the strongest and most fluid collection they’ve produced thus far.
Places will be released nationally on Oct. 11. James Justin & Co. headline the Pour House on Thurs. Sept. 20 with support from the South Carolina Broadcasters at 8 p.m. Admission is $12 ($10 in advance). Visit jamesjustinandco.com for more.
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