James Justin Burke:a voice arising from the very earth he stands on and revealing a heart full of soul (Photo by Andy Lassiter)
Of Souls Bound In Holy Communion
By David McGee
SOUTHERN SON, SO FAR
James Justin Burke
A little bluegrass, a smidgen of traditional country, a dash of folk, the tiniest sprinkling of rock ‘n’ roll, a voice arising from the very earth he stands on and revealing a heart full of soul—thus James Justin Burke, native Virginian transplanted to Folly Beach, SC, one of those places known and celebrated (not least of all in these pages) for its energizing, historic beach music scene, and in whose environs Burke performs as James Justin & Co. with Bailey Horsley on banjo and Tom Propst on bass. Burke and his contemporaries, however, represent a new era in South Carolina music, advancing as they do a more literary and introspective style of writing built on a roots music foundation and rife with knowing nods to the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Band, and such. In fact, Burke’s reedy, plaintive tenor often sounds much like that of the late, great Richard Manuel’s amazing instrument as heard on innumerable Band classics.
James Justin & Co., ‘Count On Me’ from Southern Son, So Far
In the case of Southern Son, So Far, Burke revealed in a short online interview with www.follybeach.now.com that his nine-song debut is “about my wife and how she changed my life.” Those who are now rolling their eyes at that statement need to listen up: this is not a collection of simplistic, Hallmark greeting card ditties but a critical, poetic examination of how accumulated experiences add up to something more than the sum of the parts that bind the participants in, well, holy communion. Which is to say Burke views the affection he shares with his significant other as something as natural as the turning of the earth, inseparable from the seasons. Within this context he feels free to admit to insecurities, even failings, yet resolves to work with his partner on restoring their unique harmonic convergence (“One by one, we’re gonna get up off the ground/two by two, we’re gonna make each other proud/three by three, we’re gonna try to turn this thing around”—“Turn This Thing Around,” which begins as an eerie, chilling dirge on the strength of Jesse Pritchard’s mournful violin, Bailey Horsley’s spare, lonely banjo and Dave Vaughan’s tear-stained mandolin lines, before breaking into a joyous, celebratory bluegrass lope as Burke anticipates the healing moment’s arrival); within this context he acknowledges the strength of love as a kind of fountain of youth enabling him to recapture all the possibilities of the world he knew as a lad (“Take me back to the good old days/when the sun and the rain shine and fall on me/and spends time with me…take me back to the good old days, when I was young/I know you will…”—“I Know You Will,” a bluesy, shambling, infectious hoot, with Burke drawling the verses like he’s had one too many hits of moonshine, his loosey-goosey vocal shadowed by that of fellow Folly Beach music icon Dan Lotti of Dangermuffin, as Lotti’s Dangermuffin mate Mike Sivilli punctuates the proceedings with spikey electric guitar and Howard Dlugasch adds to the blend with a taste of honky tonk piano); within this context he feels secure in expressing his unconditional devotion (“Count on me, and I will be your grace/try and save your face/true love can you see/think of me/count on me/to be your best good friend/stay until the end/true love can you see/think of me…”—“Count On Me,” a jubilant, hard driving bluegrass workout fueled by Horsley’s exuberant banjo and Vaughan’s rollicking mandolin support). Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is invoked (in the lyrics and in the chorus) and evoked (in mood) in the somber, gospel-tinged album closer, "Chaser Boy"—heavy on the ominous organ hum supplied by Dlugasch—a curiously downbeat choice as a sign-off, in which Burke seeks to underscore the fallacy of money as constituting the road to happiness. But we knew that. He made sure at the start that we understand our fate is inseparable from and intrinsically tied to the earth beneath our feet: In the plaintive, rustic album opener, “In The Garden,” the scene plays out thusly: “You plant your seeds in my back yard/we sit and talk about our days/my rose bush is burning red…”; in the dreamy, soaring “The Rescue” (with a resonant vocal assist from Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, and added atmospherics from an electric guitar divesting itself of a banshee howl and a far-off, solemn trumpet), he shrugs off Mother Nature’s oncoming fury as but a passing phenomenon—“Winds are getting strong…it’s okay, hurricanes never last too long.”—easily overcome by shared love, expressed in the fanciful lyric, “Comment allez-vous? How are you?/You reach for me, and I you/lost out at sea/it’s okay/’cause I know you’ll rescue me…”
An introduction to James Justin & Co.: ‘It’s basically my entire life rolled up into a record. I’ve had my entire life to make it and I finally did.’ (Shot and edited by David Keller of Charleston Video Service)
In the wake of Dangermuffin’s Moonscapes release, Burke’s Southern Son, So Far bespeaks a most intriguing roots music scene blooming among a young generation of musicians in Folly Beach. Apart from that, however, it marks Burke himself as an artist to be reckoned with, both as a writer and as a singer. His ideas here are fresh and invigorating, an intriguing mix of pragmatic observations and metaphysical musings; the supporting musicianship is impeccable and inspired; the production (by Jim Donnelly, who also plays drums and whose Plowground Productions studio was the recording site) clean, uncluttered and sonically resonant, with Burke’s arresting voice dominant in the center channel and the various instruments subtly delineated all around him. Mark you well this James Justin Burke. He is bound to rise up and be heard.