Jack Burg is a Myrtle Beach apologist. Call it Dirty Myrtle or impugn the character of South Carolina's Redneck Riviera, and he'll set you straight.
Having grown up in landlocked Columbia, Burg carries fond memories of visiting his grandparents' house in North Myrtle, back before developers bulldozed the quaintness into the sea and turned the place into a strip of sandy hotels and tchotchke shops. But even in its current incarnation, Myrtle Beach serves as an inspiration for Burg's musical project, a band called Punks&Snakes.
"The million-dollar promised land / Turned out to be a pirates' den / Mobile homes filled the sand / And people paid to be your friend," Burg sings on the doo-wop-inspired "Pirateland," off of Punks&Snakes' debut album No Swagger. The chorus is equal parts nostalgia and disillusionment: "The trash in the treasure chest and sunburn's goin' around / People in the hot white sand and not a shade that can be found."
Really, he says, Myrtle Beach is not that bad. "My mom has a house in Myrtle Beach. It's funny, if I ever want to write a song, I go there," Burg says. "I don't know anybody up there, and she has this really cool house, and I go down in this room with my eight-track, and there's just no distractions."
Burg wrote "Pirateland" eight years ago during one such retreat, after taking a walk through an RV park called Pirateland with his daughter. Like many of the songs on No Swagger (out May 27 on iTunes from Dualtone Records and Shrimp Records), it had been stewing in his brain for years, changing by degrees in a series of one-man-band recordings.
Now, at age 40, Burg has committed half a lifetime's worth of songs to tape with help from a diverse cross section of Holy City musicians. The result is a genre-agnostic collection of rock 'n' roll songs with equal doses of wistfulness and wisdom.
Burg recorded No Swagger in the living room of producer Andy Dixon's West Ashley house that Burg helped Dixon find in his day job as a realtor. The songs have a fidelity and sonic variety that he was never able to achieve alone with his eight-track recorder. The slow song "Timer" fairly weeps with slide guitar and doleful background vocals; "Great News" recalls the piano balladry of his parents' old Elton John records; "Liars Code" churns with an energy reminiscent of Muse's sci-fi epic "Knights of Cydonia."
Burg has been hanging out in the background of the Charleston music scene since moving here in '96, playing drums first for the seven-man ska powerhouse SKWZBXX, then for acts including Slow Runner, Mechanical River, Michael Trent, Cary Ann Hearst's Gun Street Girls, Elise Testone, and the V-Tones. In 2013, after a varied career that included stints at fine dining establishments, Burg made himself two promises: He was getting out of the restaurant business for good, and he was going to record an album as a frontman for once.
"I've played on everybody's records, so I had some favors I got to call in," Burg says.
No Swagger stands out as much for its thoughtful pop songwriting as it does for its star-studded cast. Opening track "Day After Day" starts off with a blaring harmonica peal from Michael Trent, one-half of Americana darlings Shovels & Rope. Trent and his wife Cary Ann Hearst also contribute some "ooh la la" backup vocals on "Pirateland."
On the second track "Start to Worry," you'll also hear experimental indie-rocker Joel Hamilton (of Mechanical River) contributing piano playing and a saxophone solo that sounds like a spot-on impression of late Bruce Springsteen band member Clarence Clemons. The personnel list goes on: mixing from Slow Runner member Josh Kaler, slide guitar from Jason Isbell bandmember Sadler Vaden, vocal accompaniment by illustrious folkie and soundtrack composer Bill Carson. Burg's 13-year-old daughter Alice even contributes a keyboard part on "Sons of Acid," a song about Burg's own teenage years.
Until recently, Burg's only attempts at being a frontman were as a one-man band, playing off-kilter covers of '70s mellow gold and occasionally original songs in the corner of tiny Charleston bars.
"All of those songs I've played hundreds of times and had multiple demos of each one," Burg says. "I've always been the guy in the back behind the drums. I learned that it is a lot of work to be up front, and there's nothing to hide behind. I also learned that I probably don't have any interest in doing that anymore," Burg says of his one-man-band stint.
Through one of Burg's myriad music-industry connections, No Swagger ended up on a desk at Nashville-based Dualtone Records (home of blockbuster acts including Shovels & Rope and the Lumineers), who in turn signed him to a digital distribution and licensing deal.
"Cliché as it is, I feel like my life is beginning right now. I really do," Burg says. "There's so many good things going on in my life, and I'm really grateful. I feel like I'm on top of the world."