The opening of “Forever and a Day,” the first track on James Justin and Company’s latest album Places, starts off with a somber tone through the harmonized opening, “We hit the road; it began some time in May.” It’s a simple line but it sets a scene—independent touring musicians packing the van for yet another long stretch on the road, leaving loved ones behind. The song soon turns into a sunny bluegrass romp and bandleader and main songwriter James Justin Burke starts recounting the euphoric town-by-town affair that comes with engaging audiences in each new location.
It’s a musician’s catch-22, leaving home to chase the dream, and the theme sets up the rest of the album, which unravels like a road diary. Burke sings of navigating scary switchbacks on “Wolf Creek Pass,” mixing it up with fellow Americana artists in “Metal City,” and observing beauty in the mundane “Midwestern Sounds.”
Places is the third proper album for the acoustic trio that continues to find its footing after some geographical transition. Burke and his bandmates (Bailey Horsley on banjo and Tom Propst on upright bass) became established local favorites in the eccentric party town of Folly Beach, S.C., near Charleston. It’s where they recorded the bold 2010 debut Southern Son, So Far, a diverse batch of rootsy tunes with indie rock leanings and an affinity for the high lonesome sound. The effort featured assistance from notable friends: jam rockers Dangermuffin and Band of Horses front man Ben Bridwell, who jumped aboard after a night of tequila-fueled bonding.
But soon after Burke’s native Virginia came calling, so he gave up his “dream life” at the beach and moved the band to Richmond. He started juggling shows with work on a family farm just north of the Capital City. As the rocky transition coincided with the death of his grandfather it lead to the stormy alt-country set Dark Country.
“We change phases with every album,” Burke explained. “I have to write about what I’m experiencing at the time, so we’ll never make the same album twice.”
That’s apparent on Places, which is the effort closest to the trio’s limited live-show arrangement. What it lacks in extra instrumentation it recovers in the rich melodies and engaging storytelling, delivered through Burke’s casual, rustic tenor. “We only have three people in the band, so we can’t get away with 20-minute jams,” Burke added. “But with Places we’ve realized we have a special thing happening. Writing a good song is the root of everything that we do, and in this case less is more.”
Despite the struggle to leave Folly and an embedded place in the nearby Charleston music scene, Burke said the band has found a dedicated fan base in Richmond. As festival favorites, the band has been steadily gaining momentum on national stages and with a varying sound, they’ve been able to share bills with a wide range of acts, including bluegrass legend Sam Bush, the Infamous Stringdusters, and the Black Lillies. Early this month the group is opening for piano innovator Bruce Hornsby and his band the Noisemakers on August 2 in Wilmington, N.C.
Back on the home front, Burke is now winding down his duties on the farm. He’s moving his family just a smidge east on the map to a house on the Chesapeake Bay. It will be a good place to recapture his relaxed life on the water—when he’s not on the road.
“I wouldn’t say it deterred us from any success, but I would often find myself worrying about the farm when we were on the road,” Burke said. “Now we have a lot more focus.”
Pick & Fish
If casting for bass and picking bluegrass tunes sounds like your idea of a perfect weekend, head down to the Green Bell Bed and Barn in Perry, Ga., near Macon, October 24 to 27. Bass and Grass 6 will feature long days of fishing on the private 100-acre Goose Lake, along with informal concerts and workshops with some of the region’s best string musicians, including Larry Keel, Jeff Mosier, Ralph Roddenberry, Donna Hopkins, and more. It’s a chance for aspiring musicians to learn tricks of the trade from seasoned pros, while soaking in 60 acres of beautiful Georgia countryside during the crisp peak of fall.