Since James Justin & Co.’s last album, 2011’s Dark Country, lead man James Justin Burke has moved from Folly Beach to Richmond, Va., and he and his bandmates — upright bassist Tom Propst and banjo player Bailey Horsley — have also toured all over the country. Their latest, Places, reflects their journeys. Many of the songs were inspired by specific tour stops and written on the road.
Places is a striking release. As a headfirst dive into acoustic bluegrass that manages to capture the feeling of setting out on the open road, it’s a massive departure from Burke’s first two albums. In the past, Burke has had a very lateral sound, going from point A to B in an almost monotone voice. But on Places, his voice sounds completely different. It’s softer yet possesses more authority, and even better, there’s not a whiff of monotone. If I didn’t know it was the same singer, I wouldn’t have realized it. As a result, this record — with little banjo fills and light, sweeping harmonies on damn near all of its 10 songs — bobs, weaves, and bounces its way along.
The first track, “Forever and a Day,” serves as an introduction to this musical trip across the country. Burke takes us through different spots on the journey, singing, “Far from the coast/on a Blue Ridge highway/Wish we could stay/Forever and a day/In June we stood/At 14,000 high/We stood across the great divide/Down into the desert air/It sparked us like a fire.”
The third track, the sweet ditty “Little Island,” tells the intriguing tale of another stop, but the fourth track and first single, “Wolf Creek Pass,” is when I realized these guys had taken a huge step forward. With its absurdly catchy chorus, it is not only the best song Burke has written to date, it is also his most commercially viable. It is not a stretch in the least to imagine it alongside any Avett Brothers hit on the radio. In fact, “Wolf Creek Pass” rises a notch higher than the songs of that celebrated band. As I listened to the track, I immediately wished I was in my truck with the windows down on a stretch of Rocky Mountain highway, pounding on the outside of my driver’s side door and knowing I was not going to stop for a long time. It transported me there, which is just about as much as a song can be asked to do.
Other highlights include “Metal City,” with Yarn’s Blake Christiana helping out on vocals, “Ruedi Reservoir,” and “Old New Mexico.”
As a whole, the songs on Places possess a similar sound, but that seems to be the point. Justin James Burke and his mates have captured a moment and conveyed a feeling very honestly with their simple acoustic songs.