"I've been playing music for a long time, but I'd never even recorded a demo," says local songwriter Justin Burke of the beginning stages of his new album, Southern Son, So Far. Released under the band moniker Justin James & Co., the lush, nine-song collection resembles the work of a seasoned veteran more than that of an amateur studio rookie.
Last spring, Burke found a few free hours between his full-time day job and his gig with groove-rock band Jupiter's Garden, and tracked the entire album on Johns Island at Plowground Productions, the home studio facility of Jim Donnelly (of The Hawkes).
"This whole album really started out as a five-song demo session last spring, but the songs turned out really well with just guitar and vocals," Burke says. "It took shape after being in the studio with Jim for a while. I'd been writing a bunch of songs during the process. We thought, 'Heck, this is going so great, why don't we take our time and go for a full album.' He was loving the material. Jim played the songs for his friends and bandmates, and they all encouraged us to keep on pushing and go for it."
Banjo player and guitarist Bailey Horsley and upright bassist Tom Propst fill out the official James Justin & Co. lineup. At the CD release gig at the Pour House this week, Burke performs his new songs with backing from members of Dangermuffin, Blue Plantation, The Freeloaders, Jupiter's Garden, Howard Dlugasch, and other guests.
"Bailey and Tom are in the touring band, but they'll actually not be a part of this local show," explains Burke. "Jupiter's Garden will play as well. Given the instrumentation on the album, I think the three-piece folk/acoustic setting will be easily translated. I think we'll be able to switch instruments at shows more easily than I first anticipated."
A 27-year-old native of rural Virginia, Burke's been quite active in the local scene for the last four years. His work with Jupiter's Garden fits nicely within the local jam scene (the band grooves on a mix of rock, Americana, and funk styles), while the tunes on Southern Son, So Far lean more toward a rootsy, Americana/country vein with his heartfelt vocal delivery at the forefront. Lead-off track "In the Garden" follows a slow-swinging rhythm with subtle overdubs of piano and distorted guitar accents in the background. "The Rescue" is an even more drowsy, harmony-driven, mid-tempo ballad with Ben Bridwell (of Band of Horses) adding backing vocals. On the more upbeat side, "Count on Me" taps along like a bluegrass-tinged, mandolin/banjo country-pop number in 2/4 time.
There's a running lyrical theme, too. Burke seems to have written from an autobiographical approach, with lines and verses about looking back on childhood, going back to the family roots, and confronting demons and angels along the way. The album's closer, "Chaser Boy," finds him singing "Hallelujah, hallelujah!" in four-part harmony.
"The album is a sonic portrait with personal stories of life, death, and everything between ... a ghostly reminder of a new era in American music," Burke says. "Every show I have played, pain I could not trade, and friend I have gained has gotten me to where I am today, and Southern Son, So Far is its testament. I've been here in Charleston for four years, and those years have involved some serious reflection time. Each of these new songs is a true story in a metaphorical sense. Some of them are extremely broad, and some of them get right down to the point — to the actual thing that happened. But it's a record of me at this point in my life."