BJ Barham on the American Dream and Solo Debut 'Rockingham'

Explores Real Small Town Life Through Fiction

For the price of a ticket to see American Aquarium’s BJ Barham live, fans will get an incredible night of songs and stories starting with the embarrassing tale of his conception.

“Parents,” he said onstage Wednesday (Aug. 31) at Nashville’s City Winery. “If you you really want to screw up a son and turn him into an emotionally-disturbed songwriter, at least twice every summer, tell him where he was conceived.”

Ground zero for Barham was on Labor Day weekend in 1983 at the Blue Parrot Inn in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“The only reason I know that,” he said, “is because twice a summer, every year for my entire life, every time we rode by the Blue Parrot Inn on family vacation, my dad would just point and say, ‘That’s where you were made.’”

And then there was that one time he lived in a storage unit while he worked at an Olive Garden.

“Twenty-five was the age goal I gave myself to be a professional musician,” he said introducing the American Aquarium song “Losing Side of Twenty-Five.” “I was like, ‘Mom, I promise, if I’m 25 and I’m not huge, I’ll totally quit and go back to school. … Twenty-five came and passed. So did 26, 27 and 28. My mom probably thought, ‘He’s either going to be successful or homeless for the rest of his life.’”

Growing up, his mother also had a poetic way of turning harmless nouns into violent verbs. One of the last times he asked for a cookie before dinner, she said, “Ask for a cookie one more time, and I’ll cookie your ass.” That kind of candid storytelling endears Barham to everyone who comes across his art.

At the start of Wednesday’s show, he promised all is well with American Aquarium and added that new music from the group is in the works. But he believes the new music on his striking solo debut Rockingham didn’t fit the arc of what the band has worked hard for the last decade to build. “It was a completely different branch off of me,” he said on a call from the road in Bozeman, Montana. “I felt that it was kind of important that it needed to be a completely different project. That’s why I decided to make it a solo record.”

Available now, Rockingham gets its audience as close to the source of pure song inspiration as possible. With little editing, most of the music just poured out of him in the days following the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, 2015. That night, American Aquarium was onstage headlining a concert in Belgium, and after the show, everyone in the band and crew had phones blowing up with messages and missed calls from family and friends concerned for their safety.

“They immediately put us back on the van and drove us back across to Holland 45 minutes before they shut the border down,” he said. “It was a super reflective time. For me, the one thing that I was thinking about that entire time was just home and the people that I really cared about. Very rarely do I have entire songs just completely fall out. I would sit down for 20 minutes and then I’d look up and I’d have an entire song written. It usually takes me a year or a year and a half to write a record or write something that I’m happy enough with to call a record.”

CMT: How many edits did you do on some of the songs?

Barham: You’re hearing the songs exactly how I wrote them. I have never sat down and just wrote stories, like fictional narrative character-based songs. This is the first time I’ve ever done that. American Aquarium serves as almost a chronological snapshot of our lives. Our first record was ages 21 to 23, and second record was ages 23-25, and so on and so forth. It’s kind interesting is that the band is where I write most of my autobiographical songs, and my solo material is where I just make up stories.

I wanted to kind of tell this story of the broken American dream story, but I wanted to tell it through the eyes of characters that I grew up with. So ultimately, this is a fictional record, but the characters are very real people. The time and place are very real things.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Rockingham county so I wanted to use that setting to tell the story of where we are as a country. We’ve made so much progress in a lot of places. But there’s still people who work super hard, 60 hours a week and can’t keep their head above the water. This kind of record is for those people.

Both of my parents worked 50 hour weeks and it was paycheck to paycheck. That’s not the American dream. The American dream teaches us that if you want something bad enough and you work hard enough for it then it can be yours and that’s just not true. It takes a lot of luck to make that true.

How much did writing these songs make you aware of how precious time is?

I use time a lot throughout the record to explain things. “Madeline” is a father’s letter to a daughter explaining what he’s learned in his time on Earth. I wanted to tell the opposite of a love story, but keep it a love story. In the “Unfortunate Kind,” we meet this couple who are head over heels for each other and nothing can come between them. Then we’re just watching how time can completely rip that relationship apart. No matter how much two people love each other, time gets us all in the end. It’s not always our friend.

“Reidsville” was written about my parents, and the struggle they went through. It watches these wide-eyed kids with dreams hit 18 and take on the world. But the minute they had me, it kind of ended everything, because in a small town if you had a kid, you don’t think about getting rid of that kid. If you get pregnant, you have the kid, get married and you raise the kid. There’s no questions asked, especially where I’m from.

So my dad has literally been selling auto parts for the last 40 years. He did what he did to take care of his family. At 18 I don’t think my dad wanted to sell auto parts his entire life. But he did because he had to raise us. I’m so appreciative of him for it.

What were your options in life growing up in Reidsville, North Carolina?

So Reidsville is a very small tobacco farming town. You either join the military, go to jail or you do what your parents did. I’d say that 80-percent of the people in Reidsville fall into the latter category. If your dad’s a pharmacist, you go to school and become a pharmacist. You come back home and you take over the pharmacy. If your dad’s a farmer, you learn how to farm, and when he gets too old to farm, you take over the farm. It’s just kind of what you did. My grandfather was a tobacco farmer and my dad sells auto parts, and neither one of those things sounded promising to me.

So I went to North Carolina State University, and I was going to be a lawyer. I was double majoring in political science and history. Then I fell in love with songwriting.

What should fans be listening for on this album?

The reason this record is relatable is because we’re not all from big cities. We all weren’t born into these cultural epicenters of the country. We all understand a small town mentality because I’d say 90-percent of the country is made up of small towns. You can go 40 miles outside of L.A., Nashville, Chicago or New York, and you’re in the middle of nowhere with working class Americans surrounding you.

What small towns really bring to the table is they teach you how important community is. What it has in those advantages it also has disadvantages like a lack of culture, lack of a willingness to change with the times. That was one of the things I wanted to run from. I wanted to be as open minded as I could.

I’ve told American Aquarium fans to not go into this expecting an American Aquarium record. American Aquarium records are a good mix of kind of bombastic rock 'n' roll meets country ballads. This is the closest thing to a folk record I’ve ever made. I want people to be able to fall into this world. I think that more people will have a better knowledge of me as a person, me as a songwriter listening to these songs, knowing it’s a place where they came from. I think that’s the biggest thing.

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