A year ago, BJ Barham set out to do a summer tour that would land, for at least one show, in all 48 continental U.S. states. He ended playing 56 shows in 58 days– but that’s only one feat that earned him the title, in my book, of The Hardest Workin’ Man in Americana. See, he’s always been like that: capable, driven, possessed of a need to take it on the road and to the people. I met BJ and American Aquarium eleven years ago, and believe me when I tell you that he wore his determination like a birthmark. I admired his style and ability then, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching BJ grow and succeed as a songwriter– and as a person. He was always humble, the kind of guy that actually watched your band if you happened to share a bill. Or listened to your CD while driving down one of America’s highways. Lots and lots of highways under those wheels, kids. As a writer, BJ has allowed himself to evolve. He gave up drinking, found the “right” girl. If there were critics that saw those choices as anathema, BJ found them to be natural– and now, as a father, he’s traveled to the next verse. In the course of this interview, BJ explains why Jason Isbell is the measuring stick for success in Americana– but for me, BJ Barham and American Aquarium have always been the greatest example of what true dedication and hard work can accomplish. He’s the same cat he was a decade ago, but he’s also better. BJ Barham is the Iron Man of alt-country, The Hardest Workin’ Man in Americana, and one of the most important songwriters in the genre today.
AI- Let’s talk about Things Change. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that, as a songwriter, you have been political in the past– but like the title says, things do change. These days you have a wife, a daughter. It would have been very easy for you to just continue to please your base and not overtly criticize Donald Trump, but that’s not exactly what you did. Are you taking a stand? Creating a dialogue? And how do you see this changing American Aquarium shows?
BJ- I’ve never come out and talked about politics straight forward– but if anybody’s ever been following me on social media, I’m pretty strong about where I stand. Pretty strong about what I believe in– and my fanbase knows that. People that got on board after they heard “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” or after they heard “Losing Side of 25”– they might not get that. But my true fans know exactly who I am as a person. So I’m sure it didn’t surprise any of them when I stood up for what I believe. I’m asked, on a regular basis, to be open and raw and honest about my relationships, about touring, about my family. But then some people have been telling me to be quiet when it comes to talking about something else that I see wrong in the world? I tell those people that if they don’t want to be fans of my music, I don’t really need ’em to be fans of my music.
I don’t know what kind of precedent I would set for my daughter if I was just quiet. I’ve been very, very lucky that a lot of the times when I sit back and I put things into my own words, other people relate to them. I’ve been very, very fortunate for that– and this is no different. A lot of people call this my political record. When we first started putting out some of the singles, people called this my career suicide record! This has been the most successful record American Aquarium’s ever put out critically, and this has been the most successful record American Aquarium has ever put out commercially. It’s just fun on a daily basis to watch people be proven wrong. I think people want an honest songwriter. I think people want somebody who comes out and speaks– whether or not you agree with what I say. Most of my fanbase has really supported my right to say how I feel, and the way that I said it. I didn’t come out and tell anybody they were stupid, or idiots, or “fuck ’em”, you know? I came out and just wanted to start a dialogue. I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to ask questions.
We used to be really great, as a country, at having discussions and disagreeing with each other– and still be able to sit down and have a beer and be friends. We have lost that as a country. We don’t have discussions anymore. We have arguments, and the only difference between an argument and a discussion is respect. When you have a discussion with someone, you respect their opinion, you respect them as a person. When you have an argument with somebody, you have no respect for them. I’m trying to get back to having discussions with people. I’m not going to sit there and tell anybody they’re wrong for who they voted for, call ’em stupid for who they voted for… I just always wonder why people voted for people. If you’ve got good reasons, if you could stand behind those reasons and justify ’em to me– I respect your opinion. But if you come out, and you start using hashtags and trigger words that you heard on the news it’s hard for me to respect those things.
Have you always done that with your songwriting? Asking questions and waiting to see what the answer is going to be?
I think so. I think every record has been just a guy trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world around him, and this record is no different. This record is about working yourself out of a bad situation. This record is about changing if you see something wrong in the world, working hard to change it into something you want it to be. As far as people criticizing this record, I don’t think they’re listening to it. When I think of his record I think of hope, perseverance, hard work. And if that’s not the most American record you can put out at this time, I don’t know what is!
I’ve put out 107 songs in 12 years. If people want to ride my behind about putting out two songs that stand up for something politically? I’d say my average is pretty good about staying out of the things you ain’t supposed to talk about at the dinner table! I usually stick to relationships and a lot of messed up parts about being a touring musician. But this is the first time in my entire life where I felt like it was appropriate for me to say something, where it was a time for me to say something. Like I said, I’m trying to set an example for my daughter. She’ll be four months tomorrow. And I do not want her to ever grow up and look back at the history of this country, and be like, “Dad why didn’t you say it? You had a platform to say something. You kept quiet. You played it safe. You kept with the status quo. Why didn’t you come out and say anything?”I don’t ever want my daughter to question if Dad is afraid. ‘Cause I’m not afraid of losing fans.
I write what I know, and I write what I believe in– and I’ve been extremely fortunate to keep fans, especially through this record. I think if you’re a true American Aquarium fan, and you’ve been there since the beginning, one, this doesn’t come as a surprise– at all– to you about how I feel. Two, a lot of these folks are just being really supportive of their favorite songwriter coming out saying what he thinks. That’s what I get paid to do. I get paid to observe, and write what I think– and true fans aren’t going to leave when you don’t agree with everything they say, you know? A lot of people who scream “shut up”, and say “stay out of politics” to their favorite singers? The only time a fan hates the platform that you have is when they don’t agree with it. If I was coming out praising what they believed in, they’d be supporting this record just as much as they hate it. I don’t think that’s a true fan. I think that’s a fair-weather fan.
It’s the same way with sports. I’ve been a fan of NC State basketball since I can remember, and we’ve had 34 years of just utter mediocrity! But every year, every year… We won the national championship in ’83. I was born in ’84. I’ve never seen that team be good. And yet every year I bought my tickets, I buy my shirt, and show up at every game ’cause I believe in ’em. That’s what being a true fan’s about. The same thing goes for music. Whether or not I’m preaching everything you want me to, the fact that you support what I’m doing proves that you’re a fan. And that’s what I’ve told people, the people that have showed up. There’s good ol’ boys that show up, and they’re, “Man, I don’t agree with everything you said on this record. But I still love you.” That’s what bein’ a fan is about! This record, like I said, critically, commercially, we’ve never had anything this successful. If a lot of fans left, they must’ve gotten replaced by a lot of other fans– ’cause this record has pretty much been the highlight of my career.
You mentioned your daughter’s about to be four months old. I know, from fairly recent experience, how truly amazing that is. When I heard that you were going to be a father, I was like, ” Man, this cat is going to fall in love with it. It’s going to totally redefine what he does.” And has it? You’ve already mentioned that you don’t want her to look back one day and say, “Dad why didn’t you?” But in other ways, how have you seen that affect the way you look at music and performing?
My worldview changed immediately. Everybody told me all the cliche dad things: “You’re going to have love redefined,” and “You’ve never loved somethin’ as much as,” and I was like, “Bullshit, whatever. That’s just what dads say.” It’s like TV sitcom dialogue. But the minute I put my hands on her in the emergency room, I was just like, “Whoa… this is…. I’m responsible for another human being that looks a lot like me!” It was wild. And I fully embraced it. My wife has been amazing. It’s almost as if she was born to be a mom, you know? She’s so good at it. She picks up all the slack. She’s a bartender, and so she’s… We’re very fortunate that she doesn’t have to go back to work for a while. She can be home, and make sure the kid’s fed, put to bed, and bathed– and let me go out and play music, and earn a livin’. I’ve been very fortunate. They got to be here the first ten days of the tour. Bein’ in the bus, they got to come out and kind of experience the road for a little bit. And that’s what I hope to do with her. I hope to raise her on the road.
I was raised in a really tiny, little town in North Carolina– zero culture, zero diversity. So when I went to college when I was 18-years-old, it was a shock! It was culture shock! A lot of the stuff that my parents told me were bad or evil? You get out in the real world and you realize that’s closed-minded people talkin’ to you. I never want my daughter to feel that shock– movin’ to a bigger city and realizing maybe your parents were wrong about everything. I want to teach my daughter that there’s so much awesome, amazing stuff in this country. I want to show it to her, and I want to introduce her to all the amazing people that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in my 34 years on the earth. I want to give her every opportunity my parents gave me– plus some. And I’m very fortunate that my job allows me to travel, and it allows me to do pretty cool things with pretty cool people.
The goal is to raise her and teach her that she can do anything she wants to. You know a lot of people told Dad that he couldn’t be a songwriter, that he wasn’t good enough, that he didn’t have what it takes. Proving to her that as long as you put your head down and you work hard, and you keep taking steps forward instead of backward… you’re gonna make it! You can do whatever you want to do. I want to teach her that Dad got told “no” a lot– but didn’t listen to ’em. I want her to be stubborn, I want her to be hard workin’– but I also want her to be realistic. I want her to know her limitations. But you know as long as I don’t raise a shithead person! That’s my biggest goal as a father. You see so many parents who just don’t care, who abandoned their kids, who are selfish, who focus on their own goals. I want to make sure that I’m the lamest dad, once she’s about 13 or 14. I do not wanna be the cool dad. I wanna be the dad that says, “No, you are not going out with that guy. No, you are not leaving the house after 10pm. No, you are not wearin’ that out of my house.” I want to be the lamest dad in the world. Up until 13, though, I want to be her friend. After that, I’m just worried about raising a good person.
I want to talk about the album Rockingham, which is, to me, when you really embraced the songwriting as a craft. Initially, you considered that a side project, you called it an exercise. So I want to know– what is the difference between BJ Barham, the singer/songwriter and BJ Barham, the frontman for American Aquarium?
The Rockingham record, that was an exercise in fictional narratives. That’s the stories I made up about my hometown. Some nonfictional aspects in it, and it’s based in a very real town, a very real place. Basically, the place I grew up– but all those songs are fictional. And I think it’s confusing to some people because the album that I decided to put my real name on is just a bunch of made-up stuff. But all the stuff that’s autobiographical and personal in my life, I play under the name American Aquarium. All the stuff you hear in American Aquarium is really just honest-to-God stuff that’s happened in my life or happened in some of my friend’s lives. I sit down and write about it, it’s very real. The BJ Barham side project record, though, the Rockingham record was me tryin’ to write these rambling fictional narratives in the vein of my favorite songwriters. You know, the Springsteens, the Pettys, the John Prines, Guy Clarks.
Sitting down and having a central character, and then having a narrator tell you a story about the central character. Or lettin’ that central character be the narrator. A lot of the songs are just stuff I made up off the cuff. Ideas. And maybe the situation was real, or maybe the person was real, but I would change everything else around about it just so it fit that narrative theme, that story of a small town record. When people come to an American Aquarium show, they’re getting BJ Barham– raw and uncensored. When you listen to that solo record, you’re hearing a kid really tryin’ to redefine his place in the world. A lot of people considered me a one-trick pony. Like, “All he does is write about ex-girlfriends and drinkin’!” And then when I got sober and I got married, I stopped writin’ about a lot of that stuff. I started focusing on bein’ a songwriter because I didn’t want be a guy who just wrote about that stuff, you know? ‘Cause you can only write about that stuff, really, when you’re in you’re 20s! ‘Cause if you’re sitting there writing about one-night-stands and drinkin’ all the time in your 30s and 40s– you just become the sad guy! If you’re doin’ it in your 20s, it’s cool, it’s what you’re supposed to do. But everybody grows up. Lucky for me, I met the right woman that made me grow up pretty quick. I didn’t want to be known as that songwriter that just wrote party songs about the road. And I wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter. Rockingham was definitely a step [towards] sitting down and trying to write and be a songwriter, not just be a storyteller but be a real songwriter!
I think there’s a couple of moments on Rockingham that I nailed it, that I proved to a lot of people that, “OK, this kid’s a songwriter no matter what anybody else says.” Songs like “The Unfortunate Kind”, and “Rockingham”, and “O’ Lover”? I’ll stand behind those songs ten years from now. I’ll argue anybody blue in the face that some of those songs matter still. But I think my turn as a songwriter was Burn. Flicker. Die. We recorded that with Jason Isbell. That record was the record, for me, that it took a turn from party songwriting to real songwriting. Burn. Flicker. Die., Wolves, Rockingham, and our newest record, Things Change, are the four records that I… Everything before that has their moments. There are certain records that have songs that we still play live, and I still love– but there’s also a lot of missteps. There’s also a kid trying to find his voice. He’s also a kid trying to be something he’s not. There’s also a kid trying to learn about the craft of songwriting and trying a lot of things– and failing miserably at some of ’em! But slowly learning how to get it right on a few others.
I got to watch you go through a lot of that. I got to hear it on the records, and I got to see it in person. There was always this sense of upward mobility with American Aquarium. There was no stopping what you were doing– or what you wanted to do.
I think that’s true. I think that was the drive that showed through. It was the stubbornness that we talked about earlier. I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me “no”, and a lot of folks have echoed your sentiment. As in, “I saw you in 2007 and knew you’d still be doin’ this ten years later!” Every songwriter critiques all their old stuff. We as songwriters are egotistical people in the fact that we think our newest stuff is our best stuff, and everything we put out before that was just error to get to the brilliance that is our new stuff. And I fall in that category too. I think my new stuff is a lot better than my old stuff– but I also embrace the old stuff. We still play at least one or two songs off every record, every night. Because we know that there’s fans out there that didn’t get on board in 2018. They got on board in 2007, or 2008 or 2009. And some of those songs back then are what won them over as America Aquarium fans.
Some of those songs are the reason they’ve been coming to the shows for ten years, and I don’t ever want anybody to come to the show thinking I forgot about that, that I forgot about the hard work and the sacrifice that people have put into coming and seeing us. There’s people that drive 300, 400 miles to see us play a show! Last night we played in the middle of Montana– Bozeman, Montana– and we had people drive from Canada, from Idaho, from Wyoming to see us play a rock show! To see us play for 90 minutes! Don’t ever think that’s lost on me. Don’t ever think that I don’t appreciate that. I still go out at the end of every show, and I shake hands, and I sign stuff at the merch table– and that was easy to do when we only had 15 people comin’ to see us every night. Now, there’s some nights when we play in front of a couple thousand people! I’ll stand out there for two hours and take pictures and sign stuff because I don’t ever want to lose that. I don’t ever want people to think that I don’t care that they spend money and spend time coming to see my band! The boys always joke that there’s going to be a certain point in time when I can’t stand out in front of 10,000 people all night and sign stuff. But we haven’t got there yet. So I’ll cross it when I get there!
You mentioned working with Jason Isbell. He chose sobriety and went that direction. And I have to say that his ability and his songwriting really exploded. I feel like you did the same thing. You’ve spoken quite a bit about your recovery. Choosing sobriety. Were you surprised to find that you were still able to write? In fact, write and produce at a superior standard?
Yeah. I mean, a lot of kids– I say kids, I mean adults as well– were taught that the booze, and the drugs, and the gals are all part of the rock n’ roll.
It’s a myth.
You know, it’s totally a myth! I’ve watched some of my favorite artists get sober– and I didn’t get their new stuff. I’ve seen it work both ways. I’ve seen people get sober, put out the best stuff of their careers– and I’ve seen people get sober and almost lose that touch. That was the biggest fear for me… gettin’ sober. Am I still gonna be able to write music that matters to the people that care about my music? Every writer writes for himself, so I didn’t care about that. I knew I was going to write music that I liked. I was just hoping that as “sober me”, it would still transcend with people that weren’t sober. Because we still make a living goin’ into the honky tonks and bars every night playing these songs! I was so worried I was going to be the one square at the bar who had a couple of songs about sobriety that nobody understood. But my fanbase has been extremely supportive. And like you said, I think Isbell hit…
Isbell’s always been a top notch songwriter. He’s always been a Top 5, Top 10 songwriter in anybody’s book– but once he got sober and started focusing more on just songwriting as a craft? There’s no touching him. I always joke with people about it. I’ve said it in a few interviews: It was like he was running a race with his shoestrings tied together! And then somebody told him that he didn’t have to run the race with his shoestrings tied together. He could just run as fast as he could! Nobody could keep up with him after he untied his shoes! Him “drinkin’ writin’” let us all kind of stay in the same realm. When he figured out that he was handicapping himself? And then fixed it? That’s why the kid’s got four Grammys sittin’ on his mantle– and probably gonna have two more!
I’m lucky to call Jason a friend. We get to play a couple of shows with him coming up at the end of September. So we’re lucky that we’re a piece of his past that he still lets stick around every now and then. I’ve said it in plenty of interviews: He’s the model for what you want to do in the Americana world because he didn’t lose a bit of his bite. He didn’t lose a bit of his orneriness. He shoots from the hip, he says what he feels, doesn’t give a shit who he offends. He knows at the end of the day, he’s being real with himself. And I think that’s what any real songwriter should want to do! You should want to never be able to compromise. You should never compromise your craft to sell a record or to gain a fan. I think Isbell has proven to all of us that you can still be a Southern boy and still have an opinion– and still have people respect your opinion. Even if it’s not their opinion. If anybody who’s doing this Americana thing or doing this whole alt-country thing– or whatever we’re calling it these days, whatever umbrella it falls under– to be a great songwriter who plays an acoustic guitar that’s not on mainstream country radio? He’s the bar, you know?
And there’s plenty of other guys! Don’t get me wrong, Sturgill [Simpson] is right up there with him– but I don’t know Sturgill. I’ve known Jason for a decade, so that’s the only one I feel comfortable talking about because I know who he is as a person. And I know who he is as a songwriter. He’s a role model in both of those areas– not just for me but for many people. Getting sober was a personal decision, but it also was very easy to watch somebody like Jason get sober and start doing very well in his songwriting. I’m just glad my songwriting got better when I got sober instead of the opposite. Or else I’d be one of those guys everybody talks about “lost it” when he stopped hittin’ the sauce.
Usually, when I speak to somebody, I feel compelled to ask “What’s next?” But with you, I feel like I already know the answer. You make records, you write– but you don’t really feel at home unless you’re actually barnstormin’ across the country, taking stage after stage after stage… Is that what’s next for BJ Barham and American Aquarium?
Yeah, I’ve had the same answer for the last 12 years! Anybody asked that question? It’s gonna be touring a lot more on this record, making the new record, and tourin’ more on that record. I have no intentions to stop. I have a new band. I am rejuvenated. I am re-inspired. I’m in a really good place as an artist, as a human being. I’ve got a kid. I got a wife that loves me. I’ve got a career doing something I absolutely love doing. I have a platform to do said career I absolutely love doing–and I’ve got a band behind me of shit-hot players that support the songs that I write. You know, in this line of work, 12 years in? I ain’t complainin’ about that, man. This story could’ve had a much darker end.