American Aquarium's BJ Barham on making art about the 'pretty desperate hole' of economic disaster
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
BJ Barham grew up in North Carolina, but to hear him talk about the economic despair his neighbors are facing, he could have grown up just down the road a piece in the Texas Panhandle.
"Everywhere you go, there's a for sale sign in the windows," Barham said of his home in Reidsville, N.C.
He's talking about the economic blight caused by the departure of textile and tobacco industries in the Rockingham County town, but he could just as easily be talking about the despair felt when the oil jacks stop pumping in towns like Perryton.
"It's not just Reidsville or Rockingham County. It's most of the U.S.," Barham said. "I wanted to write songs about the disenfranchised Americans, kind of almost the Broken American record ... (about) the desperation, the despair, but also about the amount of love and support (people in) those communities have for one another."
The result is Barham's first solo album, Rockingham, due out in August.
The singer stressed that this doesn't mean he's leaving American Aquarium, the Americana band he has fronted since its founding in 2006. He's still fully committed to the band, which will return to Amarillo for a 10 p.m. Sunday show at Hoots Pub, 2424 Hobbs Road. Texas act Blue Water Highway Band will open. Cover is $15 in advance and $20 day of show.
"It's just a branch off the tree," Barham said of the upcoming album. "It's a group of songs that are very, very close to me. ... American Aquarium is a big ol' rock 'n' roll band; these songs just didn't fall into that category.
"The boys have been so supportive of me doing a solo album," he said, and soon, they'll begin work on their latest.
"Rockingham," BJ Barham
Barham has tried before to write a solo project, but either the time constraints on getting a new album for the full band out or his own personal struggles with sobriety (he's been clean and sober for two years now) have robbed him of time.
"I let a lot of my demons get in the way," he said. "It's amazing what being clearheaded for two years will do for your life.
"Now, I wrote all these songs as a group. I have nine, and I want to make sure they get out," Barham said.
The album was written in November, when the band — who was scheduled to play in Belgium — was stuck for a couple of days in Holland after the terrorist attacks on Paris that month.
"We made it across the Dutch border before it shut down, and we had two days off," Barham said.
In late January, he went into the studio for two days with producer Brad Cook, who previously produced the band's album Wolves, and inside a week, he had a finished album.
"It was a very quick process," Barham said.
Rockingham is Barham's "first endeavor into narrative fictional songwriting," he said.
The album will depict "an amalgamation of characters I've met over the years, one character out of the people I grew up with," he said.
And it's a personal project.
"Tobacco has always been the North Carolina crop. ... My great-grandfather was in tobacco. My grandfather, my dad farmed tobacco. As a teenager, I grew up in the fields," he said.
But when American Tobacco Co. packed up and moved out of Reidsville near the turn of the century, the small town was hit hard, Barham said.
"Cigarettes — one of the biggest things in the world — couldn't keep our town alive," he said.
"Losing Side of Twenty-Five," American Aquarium
It's the same situation he sees when American Aquarium crosses the country on tour.
"In Texas, you see it a lot. In Oklahoma, you see it a lot," Barham said. "It's a shi--y situation to be in."
Barham said he's not being overtly political on the album or even posing answers.
"I don't know of a solution. This is just me as a songwriter," he said.
The album "goes from upbeat and having a sense of humor about the situation to being really bleak and despairing and dark," he said. "I want people to be able to laugh at the situation but also take a long, hard look and realize it's facing a lot of Americans.
"It's a pretty desperate hole to be looking down if you're in that situation."
"Southern Sadness," American Aquarium
And he's hoping the album serves as a reminder that folks in such dire straits shouldn't have to go it alone.
"I'm writing the record about what happens when we forget about where we came from, when we forget about taking care of each other, forget about community," he said.
"People bust their a-- for 12 hours a day, and they don't know what they're going to do next week," he said. "That's a shi--y situation. That's the situation I want to write about.
"I'm not saying I'm Springsteen or anything, but this is what I know."
And what he knows, he said, is that "there are some people who work their entire life at minimum wage and can't make it."
"That's bad," he continued. "A lot of people want to paint it over (and say) man, if you work hard, you can do whatever. No, you can't. ... If you work 50 hours a week and can't make it, that's bad.
"That's not the American dream. That's not what my grandfather preached on."
"Man I'm Supposed to Be," American Aquarium