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Perpetual Grass: A Story of Kindred Souls

To understand what an amazing band Perpetual Grass already is you have to start at the beginning, or maybe before the beginning, or maybe before before the beginning. “In 2001 I bought an EP from Loose Lucy’s in Charleston. It blew my mind,” says James Justin Burke, guitarist and vocalist for the group. “I had never heard a band with such a unique sound. My wife and I followed them like Phish fans for 5 years.” That band was Perpetual Groove, and the singer and guitar player who caused Burke and his wife to become nomads was Brock Butler. Butler is well known to the readers of these pages, but James Justin Burke, frontman for James Justin and Company (or JJ & Co.) is perhaps not so well known. He used to be a farmer: “I got up everyday at 4:00 to start milking and feeding the herd. After breakfast we tended to the crops. Hay, corn, beans, you name it. Then at 3:00 it was milking time again. Get home around 7:00. Play with my son till 9:00, sleep, get up, and start all over again.”

The steps from farmer/nomad to forming Perpetual Grass include collaborating with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses, Taj Mahal, Sam Bush, Larry Keel, Yarn, and Dangermuffin. The steps include recording Places, a damn fine Americana record, and reducing JJ & Co. to a trio. As Burke notes, “We have a musical connection that doesn’t happen that often. We can make three individuals sound like six. It is the best feeling when we all know where we are about to take the next movement in a song, or when to release the tension, or whose ready to take the lead. And we communicate this with no words, no signals. We could do it blindfolded. That would actually be an awesome show. We are all blindfolded, even the crowd.”

When I speak to Butler he tells me “A lot is different in my life after pgroove. I’m in drug court in Virginia and not allowed to leave the Commonwealth without a major bit of blah blah blah. I knew I needed to reevaluate and make changes before being legally obligated, of course.” With recovery underway Butler says “I’m really inspired and enjoying playing music in such a great way. Unadulterated. I feel really good about my current path.” Those who follow him on social media are aware of his frequent YouTube videos. When I ask him how he chooses what songs he plays he says “I’ll go with what I’m feeling a lot. There’s so many great things about doing it. If someone sends me a message with a request or suggestion, I note it. Sometimes it’s such the right call I’ll do it right then. Other times I’ll know when it’s the right time. I’ve done “Easy like Sunday Morning” on a Sunday. I like how it keeps the conversation going with friends/fans.”

In late September of 2014 Bailey Horsley, who plays banjo for JJ and Co., suggested Burke ask “Brock to join us solo for a couple shows. My first thought was like Wayne and Garth’s, ‘We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!’ But then the idea of Perpetual Grass exploded in my head, so I confidently pitched Brock the idea of giving new life to his songs and writing new originals. He was in. We met, we played, and couldn’t stop. I was banking on Brock saying yes, so I learned a few harmonies to his lead vocal before we got to the first rehearsal. When I started singing 4th and 7th harmonies, he was so stoked; he had never had that before I guess. In one night, we had a 10 song setlist, including a brand new original. It was magic.”

Butler echoes the sentiment: “I’ve always enjoyed playing acoustic. I’m really inspired by how fresh this process is for my part. It’s stimulating my mind in a lot of new ways. Though it’s acoustic bluegrass Americana style, it feels “big” to me. Bailey and Justin’s vocal talent was already in place between them, so I can work out a song I had where I would have to loop my own vocals to hear the parts together. Beyond a delight! Tom Propst using the bow? Such the sounds for me, man. It’s such a breath of fresh air meeting the guys and their wives and families. All just top notch all around. The fact that my extended time in Virginia is what, to a degree, brought about meeting them. . .It’s always nice to make music with kindred souls.”

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