Like about half the people in the country, BJ Barham and his wife went to bed late on the evening on November 8, 2016 a bit shocked in how the U.S. Presidential Election was trending, but confident the tide would change when the final results came in.
When that didn’t happen, instead of just dropping his jaw, the founder of country/Americana/roots rock band American Aquarium soon after channeled his feelings into lyrics: "The load is heavy and the road is long
And we've only begun to fight/We just can't give in, we just can't give up/We must go boldly into the darkness." And then “This ain't the country my grandfather fought for/But I still see the hate he fought against/Give rest to the tired, give mercy to the poor/Give warmth to the huddled masses/And I'll show you freedom.”
The subsequent completed tune, “The World is on Fire,” became the leadoff track on the band’s recent album, Things Change (New West Records). This begs the question: If Barham thought things were aflame two years ago, are they utterly melted by now?
“Ever since my daughter came into this world seven months ago, I’m forcing myself to be optimistic. I have to be in order to have faith in the world she’s going to grow up in, and I tend to find the silver linings in things,” Barham says from his home in North Carolina the day before starting a fall tour.
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“As much as the press wants to tell us how bad things are, I see the good in humanity rising up. We just had another election, and there was a huge shift. We almost saw Georgia and Tennessee go blue! And a Texas senator winning with a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent is not a landslide for the Republican party. That a [Democrat] came that close to winning, which was huge. I look forward to the time I can tell my daughter ‘remember that time we had a scare in the world and we got back to being the progressive melting pot our forefathers wanted us to be?’”
Still, Barham realizes going in that political direction may have cost him some listeners. “I still pissed a lot of people off. You’re never going to make everybody happy if you take a side. But I tried to take an empathetic stance. Like ‘I think you’re wrong, but I’m trying to understand why you voted like you did,’” he offers. “There is such a divide in this country. We can’t have discussions anymore, they’re arguments. And the only thing that separates a discussion from an argument is respect for the person you’re talking to. I’ve watched people who are lifelong friends turn on each other recently.”
But lest one think that all the tracks on Things Change are as polemic, they’re not. Instead, Barham mines his whole life and history for material, and at times listening to the record almost feels like eavesdropping about his life growing up in a small town in North Carolina (“Crooked + Straight”), the salt of the earth people there (“Tough Folks,” “Work Conquers All”), his own struggles with alcoholism (“One Day at a Time,” “I Gave Up the Drinking [Before She Gave Up on Me]”), new love (“‘Til the Curtain Falls,”) and even the dissolution of the previous lineup of American Aquarium which left him the sole continuing member (“When We Were Younger Men”).
Barham calls this seventh studio record his best yet by far, but insists it’s not just hype for a current project. “Every time you make a record, the goal is to push yourself in a direction you haven’t been before. And in the songwriting here, it’s obvious it’s like nothing I’ve done,” he offers.
“On the first four or five records, it was about me starting a band and living in up on the road with drinking, drugs, and girls. But then I started writing more introspective things. And I turned 30 and then got sober, got married and had a daughter, so they started becoming more universal songs and themes about society.
By his count, Barham says a total of 36 different players have come into the ranks of American Aquarium since their 2006 founding (the band’s name comes from a lyric in a Wilco song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”). Although he clarifies that number is not as head-turning when you consider that more than half that number comes from about the first two years of the group’s existence. The current lineup includes Barham on vocals/rhythm guitar, Ben Hussey (bass), Joey Bybee (drums), Shane Boeker (lead guitar), and Adam Kurtz (pedal steel).
“This is the first time in my career I’ve actually gotten to see a vision fully realized, or as much as possible. And that’s not taking anything away from anybody I’ve played with,” he says, counting himself “extremely lucky” to play with many of his former band mates.
“It always about finding people who had the same mission and purpose to go out and play songs for a living and make a career of it. And that’s the hard way of doing it. Getting in a van with your friends and just going from town to town slinging your wares and learning your craft. It’s building a long career, one brick at a time. Many of those [former band mates] were friends of mine, friends from back in college.”
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Barham talks a lot about growing up in the small town of Reidsville, North Carolina, and how the very geography of that place has infused his music. “It was a lower middle class tobacco farming town, and everyone’s family was involved with that somehow. It’s a poor industry. The people up top make a lot of money, but the guys pulling tobacco and manufacturing it don’t,” he offers. “But I was raised with a strong sense of work ethic and struggle, and that comes out in my songs. That said, you don’t have to grow up in a corn field to be a great songwriter. You can be a trust fund kid and do that as well.”
Finally, when it comes to touring and playing in Texas, Barham says he has a great affinity for Houston – made more so by other Texas acts that have taken his band sort of under their wing and given American Aquarium opening slots like Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, and the Turnpike Troubadours. But he does have one especially vivid memory of being in this town – and finding himself in a situation that at least can make him laugh today.
“Our first time we were going to play Houston, I was so stoked. We played at Dan Electro’s on a Tuesday night. And zero people showed up. Just the band, the sound guy, and the guitar player’s girlfriend who was from Houston and had flown in,” he says. “We got about three songs in and the bartender came up to us and said ‘Hey, if you guys stop playing, I’ll give you a case of beer so I can go home early.’ We knew we weren’t going to get paid, so we took what we could get. And that’s when I knew we’d have to work extra hard to make it in Texas!”
American Aquarium plays at 8 p.m. on November 29 at the House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. For information, call 888-402-5837 or visit HouseofBlues.com/Houston. $25.