Gardens are a reoccurring theme in James Justin Burke's musical life. From his cozy cottage in Folly Beach, South Carolina, the songwriter tends to an ever-growing plot of heartfelt tunes, tilling their verses and melodies with positive energy.
With debut album Southern Son, So Far, Burke has solidified his name as an invigorating new face in Americana music. Recorded at Johns Island, S.C.'s Plowground Productions Studios, the album features Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell singing harmonies on "The Rescue", while fellow Folly Beach favorites Dangermuffin back him on "I Know You Will." "I wanted to find players who would come in and love the music and organically start playing," says Burke. From honest country to soul, the nine-song album showcases Burke's strengths as a solid guitarist, strong vocalist, and songwriting craftsman.
"The songs grew, like a child. I've had all these tunes for about four years, since I've lived on Folly Beach, and I knew this collection would have a combining theme together that I'm very dear to," Burke says. "It was loving at first, then they would piss me off, then they’d make me feel happier than I've ever felt. It was a really emotional experience. It's turned out to be something bigger than I ever thought it would be."
Burke's 'combining theme' attests to his energetic, joyful approach to life. He tells his listeners, "if you feel free, be free," a message and mood that he's sure to set at every performance.
"I just love seeing people get down and have a good time," says Burke. "I've always felt that. Even if I'm working or sitting down, I'm always trying to create positive energy around me. If I can make people see their lives in a better way, than I think I've done my purpose."
A native of rural, Chesapeake Bay-area Virginia, Burke grew up with the sounds of his mother's church choir and his father's classic rock records. In high school and in college, he led funk bands, but always wrote bluegrass and Americana music on the side. He calls Southern Son, So Far "non-traditional folk music."
"It's very rootsy; very warm, and story-oriented, which I think is something that a lot of people can be emotionally attached to," says Burke. "I'm deeply in love with these songs. It will always be what drives me — songs that have stories and emotional feelings in them."
Joining Burke in James Justin & Co. are two long-time collaborators and childhood friends. Bailey Horsley's banjo playing is heard throughout Southern Son, So Far, adding bluegrass flavor to JJB classics like "Turn This Thing Around." Rounding out the trio, Tom Propst offers both his steady upright bass lines and the third in a trio of impeccable vocal harmonies. Special guests are a staple at JJ&Co shows, from musicians like violinist Jesse Pritchard to drummer Jim Donnelly (Southern Son's producer) — you never know what their performance will bring you, but it's always captivating.
2010 has proved pivotal for the group, highlighted by performances at Virginia's presigious FloydFest, Camp Barefoot (WV), and a summer tour that reached Burlington, VT. They're enjoying airplay on Americana stations nationwide, and have been featured in Relix and Blue Ridge Outdoors magazines.
"If I could be a rose in the garden, I would be burning red," Burke sings on opening track, "In the Garden." Like a flower opening to the morning sun, when James Justin & Co. take the stage, it's a palpable celebration of life.