BJ Barham on politics, country music and his favorite Austin taco spot
BJ Barham is bringing his band American Aquarium to Texas starting this week. They’ll play in Houston on Thursday and in New Braunfels at Gruene Hall on Friday. Before that, Barham will play a free solo acoustic show at Waterloo records in Austin on Wednesday.
Before Barham sings a note at Waterloo, though, he has to make a stop on Manor Road to grab some tacos.
“Man, I love Taco-Mex,” he told me over the phone last week.
Barham was introduced to the taco restaurant several years and a couple guitarists ago, and at first said he didn’t understand the hype.
“My old guitar player, the first time we were in Austin, he was like, ‘Let’s go to Taco-Mex.’ So he drove us out to what felt like the middle of nowhere, there’s just a hole in the windows and a little spot where you order your tacos,” Barham recalled. “And then 10 minutes later you get these little delicious slices of heaven. And now, there’s not been a time since where I’ve been to Austin that I haven’t been to Taco-Mex.”
Barham’s been back to Austin a lot, whether it be with his country/rock/Americana band American Aquarium or as a solo artist. He passed through town on his 2016 “Great 48” tour, where he played a solo show in every contiguous state in 59 days.
“That tour was a really great chance for me and my wife to go out and have a summer to ourselves before we jumped into parenthood and building a family,” Barham said. “We got to see 30 state parks, played in every contiguous state, that’s been a dream of mine ever since I started touring.”
The tour also acted as a tour of America’s psyche at an unpredictable time.
“It was also good for me to go out and be reminded of why our country doesn’t need to be made great again, it’s already pretty (expletive) fantastic,” Barham said.
“And it was fun because after shows I would talk to people, would get real personal. Started talking about politics, religion, everything, just me trying to see what’s going on. I learned very early on in my life that telling someone they’re wrong and you’re right gets you nowhere, but trying to explain why you believe what you believe and talking about it is always something that connects people. Right now everything's all ‘right/left,’ but in my experience, that’s the only dividing factor for a lot of people. We’re so much more similar than we are different.
“It reminded me that the American spirit is alive and well.”
If Barham sounds hopeful, that attitude translates to the songs on American Aquarium’s latest album, “Things Change.” The album is Barham simultaneously at his most angry and his most hopeful. The opening track, “The World Is On Fire,” was written right after Donald Trump was elected president, and it starts off dejected and frustrated. But it ends on an uplift, something that Barham said he didn’t come to until months later.
“(‘The World Is On Fire’) started off as a very angry song. I started writing it right after the 2016 election, and I got through the first verse and realized I couldn’t continue writing it in that moment, it would just be too pissed off. It was just going to become a Trump version of ‘I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.’ And once we realized we were having a kid, it hit me. I’ve got to remain hopeful, at least for my daughter. If she’s looking to me for hope, I have to be that hope for her. So the song became a rally call. Go be the change you complain about. So it’s positive rage. I finally wrote a positive anger song (laughs).”
While “The World Is On Fire” and a few other songs on the album focus on politics, Barham said he isn’t out to attack anyone’s beliefs. He’s just observing what he sees in the world and writing it down, a tradition he sees as a lost art in much of today’s country music scene that focuses on beer, trucks, girls and parties.
“Somewhere along the way, country music just wanted to talk about the good stuff and shied away from the deep, dark (stuff) in the corner. So it’s nice to see the Americana world getting back to saying what we wanna say. I’m writing songs to make sense of all the nonsense I see.”
He’s aided on that quest to make sense with some new Texas musicians. In 2017, the old iteration of American Aquarium dissolved, leaving only Barham. He found a majority of his new band here in Austin.
“(New drummer) Joey (Bybee) came up after a show in Austin and asked me if I had put a band together yet. I told him no, but that I was looking, and he says ‘Let me put a band together for you,’” Barham said. “So he went out and got a group that ended up being Shane Boeker (guitar) and Ben Hussey (bass). And I knew that to continue with that American Aquarium sound we’ve grown over the years, we needed a pedal steel player. I ended up finding Adam Kurtz through my old steel player. We toured for about a year before recording the album, and now we’ve got Rhett Huffman playing key and the B3 organ with us on the road.
From the archive: ACL Fest 2015 review: American Aquarium
“They’re all just so wildly talented. It takes a lot ... to walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m the new guy in the band,’ but these guys were ready to go right out of the gate. I look around out there on stage now and I see smiles. They’re having fun, which is not something that was there with the previous iteration of the band. This is a band that is ready to put on a fun show.”
BJ Barham will be playing Waterloo Records in Austin at 5 p.m. Wednesday, July 25. Admission is free. American Aquarium will be playing at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels at 8 p.m. Friday, July 27. Tickets are sold out.