september 2011

James Justin Burke: finding a new challenge in his music and a fresh approach to expressing his feelings and his conscience

Burke’s Law

On his second album, James Justin Burke will not be denied

By David McGee

James Justin & Co.
James Justin & Co.

The second communiqué from Folly Beach, SC’s James Justin Burke (billed with his band as James Justin & Co.), Dark Country only enhances the impression Burke made on last year’s debut album, Southern Son So Far, of being a songwriter scarily in tune with his own feelings and the turning of the earth. Working in a rootsy style informed by traditional country, bluegrass, folk and straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, Burke and his mates are generally lumped in with a new generation of similarly focused Americana bands, with some scribes finding the most likely comparison to their work in the music of the more celebrated Avett Brothers. Though well intentioned, said comparison is way off the mark--James Justin & Co. are immeasurably better than the Avetts on every level, but it’s Burke’s writing and soulful singing that, if all other things were equal (but they’re not), elevate James Justin & Co. onto a whole other plane. A more apt comparison would be with another young band of looming greatness, Dawes, from Los Angeles by way of America. Burke is the southern/east coast counterpart to Dawes’s immensely gifted songwriter/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith; like Goldsmith, Burke is heavily invested in understanding his own heart and learning how to connect, but Burke evinces a more pronounced sense of our common investment in the fate of the land under our feet. As he writes in a sleeve note here: “Dark Country is a sonic reminder to always be able to know the person in the mirror. To make your path, but preserve the land.” If, as your truly opined in the first in-depth feature on Dawes, published in our March 2009 issue, Taylor Goldsmith may well be the Paul Simon of his generation, then it’s entirely possible James Justin Burke could be the same generation’s Robbie Robertson. Dark Country offers every reason to believe in Burke’s promise, as its great ambition, restless energy, inspired performances, coupled to Burke’s ongoing existential quest, mark it as a bold step forward from Southern Son So Far. To those open to its possibilities, Dark Country is both touching and moving; played live, its songs surely must hit an audience where it lives.

James Justin & Co., live performance of ‘Love Me Too,’ from the album Dark Country

By Burke’s own testimony, the nine-track Southern Son So Far was “about my wife and how she changed my life.” This may not be the animating impulse of Dark Country but it’s not inconsequential to the artist’s expanded songwriting turf. The gentle, swinging rhythms of “Simple Love,” a song that would have been right at home on the previous album, propel a direct, unambiguous expression of the song’s title--the little things that add up to so much over time, when commitments are sealed and duly honored from thence forward: “It’s best when it’s just you and me/no TV/making circles as the vinyl shapes our hearts/listen endlessly…” is Burke’s opening statement, and a refrain he returns to as the song winds down, sung with straightforward affection, unembellished and sincere, the slightest of quavers in his husky tenor voice giving it added heft, with the support of Dave Vaughan’s spare mandolin punctuations and Burke’s own moody electric guitar musings. With a bit of a stomp, a bit of a strut, he offers “Love Me Too,” letting Vaughan cut loose on mandolin at the start ahead of a clever narrative arc that equates music making with the game of love in its first half (“all those strings I broke for you/I’d break my heart if you love me too…”/”I’d bend my note to find a key/that opens the door to you and me…”) before Burke's affections rise to a more exalted level: “All those mountains I climbed with you/I’d cut ‘em down if I could for you/and all those days out at sea/I’d trade for winds if you’d sail away with me…”

James Justin & Co., music video for ‘Dark Country’: addressing the malaise sweeping the country

Elsewhere, though, Burke ponders other, equally weighty matters beyond love. No song better illustrates or defines the album’s focus--and Burke’s growth--than the title track. It begins with a crack of thunder--literally, the real thing--before Burke’s chiming guitar enters with a repeating, foreboding, circular figure. Over this Burke begins singing, in haunted, halting tones, “Well I guess…they know…what’s next…for us to…forget me and you…--his voice rises--“NO one…gets off scot-free/it’s a cold and…dark…countreee….” Then things rush forward, propelled by producer/drummer Jim Donnelly’s jittery, percussive thrusts behind the still chiming guitar. The arrangement sustains, with pulsating bursts of keyboards breaking in periodically. The more Burke sings, the more cryptic the story becomes--it’s not about two people anymore. It’s about the malaise sweeping over an entire dark country, where lunatics are trying to turn back the clock on workers’ rights, womens’ rights, voting rights, are getting away with it (no, he does not name these things; they're all in the song's wind, if you will) and we are all complicit in the ensuing horror--“no place to run and hide/X marks the spot where you’ll sign/no one gets out clean/it’s a cold and…dark…countreee…” Who knows if this is interpretation even comes close to Burke’s intentions in writing the song, but it makes sense given that in the “Dark Country” video he is seen in a closing shot running down a street holding aloft a flag of the original 13 colonies of the United States--a reminder, perhaps, of the principles on which the country was founded and which now seem under daily assault? Works for me.

James Justin & Co., joined by members of the Brooklyn roots band Yarn, perform ‘Johnny Roslyn,’ from the new Dark Country album, at FloydFest X, July 30, 2011

At a couple of points in “Dark Country” the soundscape opens up into a surging, rising orchestral howl. Throughout the album the arrangements indicate a grander vision of the music than was presented on Southern Son So Far. In addition to his trusty trio of ever-reliable Bailey Horsley on banjo, steady-as-she-goes Tim Propst on bass and the aforementioned Dave Vaughan, master of the succinct, perfect mandolin squelch, Burke here has fleshed out the lineup to include, in addition to Donnelly on drums, Howard Dlugasch on organ and keyboards, John Kennedy on bass, Jamie Holmes and Jesse Pritchard as a two-person string section (on viola and violin, respectively) plus a horn section comprised of Zach Hood (trumpet) and Ward Buckheister (trombone). In concert Burke works in both quartet and big band formulations, so one suspects Dark Country is a reasonable simulation of a James Justin & Co. show, right down to the Donnelly soundscape, which is vibrant and alive, in a “live” way--the vocal and instrumental presence throughout is potent and immediate. That the choices he made were right and proper is evident from the start, on the album opening “City Light Strings.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom of beginning an album with an uptempo tune (a remnant of a bygone time when artists had to catch a radio programmer’s attention within the first few seconds of the first cut or be banished to a Skid Row of discarded discs deemed unsuitable for airplay for lack of a suitably catchy opening few seconds), Dark Country begins on a solemn, introspective note, with a dirge-like cautionary advisory to all the troubadours out there to keep their mission in perspective: “throw down you heart you wear on your sleeve/fame and fortune is all that you’ll have/you’ll lose the ones who helped your lips laugh/shoot a line, sign an autograph/city lights strings/no rivers or streams,” Burke advises with a stern mien, in what constitutes a slightly acidic appraisal of the “show” part of show business. After this opening salvo, though, the strings enter, ascending in a lovely, affecting arc that gives the entire enterprise the feel of an epic statement. “Dark Country” is sandwiched between “City Light Strings” and “Give You My Heart,” the latter being not a love song but a statement of purpose from the performing artist to his audience. The arrangement crunches along, flecked by Horsley’s minimalist banjo plunking and Burke’s gritty, comping electric guitar, before the organ, rich and powerful, comes rumbling in and the whole track starts to sound like something off Blonde On Blonde. Organist Dlugasch has a major role in setting the tone for the spooky, Beatles-ish “Gone Daddy Gone,” which has a playful arrangement but also something malevolent at work in it, a tenebrous hue enhanced by the recondite lyrics referencing a “ticket to ride,” “stained-glass eyes” and people waving good-bye. The bluegrass barnburner that might have made a good album opener were this a bluegrass album is the penultimate tune, “Tied To The Tracks,” which roars out of the gate behind Horsley’s energetic banjo work, then soars into new worlds when Burke’s frazzled, fuzzed-out electric guitar slashes and burns through the proceedings.

Electronic press kit for James Justin &Co.’s Dark Country album, filmed and edited by David Keller of Charleston Video Service

Such are the many pleasures (and others untold here) to be found on Dark Country--music for the mind and body alike. In avoiding the well-chronicled sophomore slump, James Justin Burke justifies the glowing appraisals of his potential in the wake of Southern Son So Far. Burke’s law, if you will, mandates always finding a new challenge in his music and a fresh approach to expressing his feelings and his conscience, each and every telling movement of both. His voice will not be denied.

James Justin & Co.’s Dark Country is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024