BJ Barham is currently in the middle of one of the biggest road trips of his life. As the frontman of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Americana/country/rock band American Aquarium, he’s seen his share of the road. At one point, the band was doing, by his count, “at least” 300 shows a year.
But this summer, the only one hitting the road is Barham. Accompanied by his wife, Rachael, he is embarking on a solo tour that will see him play 53 shows in 59 days in all 48 of the contiguous United States. On Saturday, Barham will bring his brand of stripped-down songwriting to The Parish, the 13th stop on “The Great 48” Tour.
“This is the dumbest thing I’ve done in my entire life, but it’s going to be rewarding,” Barham said during a phone interview last week. “I’m excited now, but ask me on Day 60 how I’m doing. Right now I’m really excited.”
Barham’s show will focus on his first solo record, “Rockingham,” named for the North Carolina county where Barham was raised. The heartbreaking and deeply personal album consists of five originals and three AA covers. Written in the immediate wake of the Nov. 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the acoustic “Rockingham” is all about reconciling the person you are now with the home that made you that way.
Songs like “The Unfortunate Kind” and “American Tobacco Company” highlight small-town love and work, respectively, while “O’ Lover” and “Water in the Well” represent the dark sides of those emotions.
“I never intended to put out a solo record,” Barham said. “But we were in France at the time of the Nov. 2015 terrorist attacks. And I think, when you’re in that state of mind, whether you’re feeling fear or anxiety, the first thing you think of to comfort yourself is the thought of home. And I think for a few weeks, I just mentally checked out. I just kept thinking of Reidsville, and Rockingham County. And there’s a lot of stuff on that album that I don’t think I ever had the balls to say before. There’s a lot on there that’s critical of my hometown but it’s also very appreciative.”
Read our review: BJ Barham explores his roots in debut solo album
In addition to the songs mentioned above, the title track grasps with the comforts and trappings of Barham’s hometown: “I never thought that I'd end up here/So much of the world to see/But just like people/My plans began to change/And this town became the only place for me.”
And on “Madeline,” a list of proverbs addressed to Barham’s future child (”Part of the reason for the tour is we wanted to see the whole country before my wife and I start a family”) implores pride in where you came from: “And never be ashamed of the fact that you are Southern/Those long vowels, oh, they're a beautiful thing.”
“I’m very proud of where I’m from, but I do understand that it is very easy to get stuck doing what your parents did in Reidsville, North Carolina,” Barham told me. “I made it out, to ‘the big city’— way back when I thought Raleigh was ‘the big city’— and made a name for myself. My dad sold auto parts, and I know some people that still do, and I’m very fortunate to not have to be working those jobs. I’m not putting down people that do do that, but I also knew I wanted to do more than that. My brother is still there, selling cars, and he’s very happy with his life. He doesn’t care if he gets to see every state or other countries. He loves the familiarity of the place. And that’s great, but I was never content with that.”
Barham’s time with AA allowed him to explore that push-and-pull of familiarity and longing for something more, and the band has put out seven studio albums and two live albums, all with different lineups. One of the few constants in the band is Barham himself, and the group just announced another lineup change in advance of a new studio album. The group has had 26 members in the last 10 years, and “every [lineup change] has always been completely amicable,” Barham told me. A new AA record will be recorded this fall, he said, but he’s also excited to use the band’s catalog along with his own work on solo shows. He said the biggest thing he’s realized, whether he’s playing AA songs or his own, is how his very personal experiences are a lot like those of his audience.
“Every time I play songs from ‘Rockingham,’ I get steel workers from Pittsburgh or oil workers in Texas or farmers from down south all telling me the same thing, that they feel like it was written exactly for them. And those songs were written about a specific place and about specific people. It’s amazing to see something that I wrote about impact people in such an intimate way.”
That ability to impact people in an intimate way is a hallmark of country music, something Barham is proud of. The way he sees it, he wants his music to say something but also be a unifier in these highly polarizing times, where some branches of country music have become more socially conscious, including AA producer Jason Isbell, whose upcoming album “The Nashville Sound” is poised to take aim at what it means to be a white Southerner in 2017.
“True country music has always been the voice of the common person. Now, it’s gotten a whole lot more socially conscious. Take The Drive-By Truckers, for instance. There’s no doubt they’re a Southern band, but there’s a different message there. And I guess the way it’s headed now, the best way I can describe it, is that I’m from the South and I love NASCAR and all that, but I don’t hate anybody. So it’s a little bit more about disproving the stereotypes. That’s what I love about playing music, and going to shows, because for 90 minutes, you can connect with people in the crowd. For 90 minutes, you’re not worried about all your differences. You’re all there for the same thing.”
What Barham is most excited for on “The Great 48” tour, though, is all the sightseeing he’ll be able to do. Usually relegated to the square mile around whatever venue AA is playing in, this tour will give him the chance to see American sights like The Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, Carlsbad Cavern, and Yellowstone. And other states he’s never been to, like Maine and North Dakota.
“I’m just excited to see everything. It’s going to be about 50/50 work and play.”
When you think about it, that’s some of the same experience Barham relates on “Rockingham.” About 50/50 work and play.
BJ Barham plays The Parish Saturday, May 20 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.
Author’s note: I received an advance vinyl copy of "Rockingham” as well as a a digital download for contributing to Barham’s PledgeMusic campaign for the album before I was an employee of the Statesman.
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