It's a big leap for a musician to switch from juggling a regular day job with sporadic gigs to leaving the job place altogether to become a full-timer. Local songsmith and bandleader James Justin Burke gave it a go a year ago, striking out as a full-timer after the independent release of his album Southern Son, So Far.
This weekend, he and his band, James Justin & Co., celebrate the release of a fine follow-up collection titled Dark Country. Burke recorded the new album just as he did Southern Son, So Far — at Plowground Productions, which is run by drummer/engineer Jim Donnelly.
"We released Southern Son, So Far independently because we had to," says Burke. "Now, I can't imagine doing it any other way. We're going to hit the road harder now that this new record is coming out. We can't wait."
Over the last year, Burke has enjoyed the musical and moral support of a solid three-piece backing band, featuring banjo player Bailey Horsley, upright bassist Tom Propst, and mandolinist David Vaughan.
"Not everyone in the local seven-piece ensemble are able to tour, and we understand that," says Burke. "So we have the core four and the big band. It works well.
"These guys are the core four who are able to make the road their life," he adds. "On these long, eight-week tours, it's just the quartet, and we're really excited about that," says Burke. "We all love to pop out of the van and perform, no matter whether it's on the street or at a big festival."
Donnelly will be on hand to keep time at a CD release show this week at the Pour House, as will pianist Howard Dlugasch and trumpeter Zach Hood.
Musically, Dark Country pays homage to the same classic rock, Americana, and soul styles featured on Southern Son, So Far. A similar sense of backwoods nostalgia comes through as well.
"There is a theme that runs together between the albums," says Burke. "Dark Country is the next stage in my life. Whereas Southern Son, So Far was a present record about where I was at the time, which was a more melancholy stage. This new one is more of a reminder — one I'll always have to look back at. I can remember all the preparation, heart, and effort I'd put in to succeed and move on to a new phase. It's also a continuation of the sound that this band has developed. It has evolved into something more mature."
While the production quality and instrumentation between the albums are similar, there's more of a silvery, whispy, chilly sound and vibe to the songs on Dark Country. It's more atmospheric and aired out, creating an odd kind of rural romanticism.
"We spent half the amount of time in the studio this time and tried to keep things simple, but I think it came out twice as big," says Burke. "It still has that lo-fi deal, but we went into it knowing better what to do and what not to do. We hope it hits everyone hard within the light that they need."