A lot has changed since rock/country collective American Aquarium hit the road 15 years ago. But, if there’s been one constant during that time, it’s the brutally honest and introspective ballads spun by frontman BJ Barham.
Despite being sidelined for much of 2020, the band had arguably its most successful year to date behind the May release of their eleventh record, Lamentations.
The uplifting collection touches on everything from sobriety (‘Six Years Come September’) to learning the value of hard work (‘The Luckier You Get’), sticking through the tough times in relationships (‘The Long Haul’) and deceptive politics (‘Me + Mine (Lamentations)’).
Now back on the road, Holler recently caught up with Barham at the 20th instalment of the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion to discuss NASCAR, working toward a better south, 90s country, the long road to Lamentations and more.
It’s your fifth time playing here at Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. What does you return to the festival mean to you, given the town’s history as the birthplace of country music?
It feels great to be a part of something that can make it 20 years. Most festivals might last three or four years before they fold or realize that there’s no money in the music industry anymore. The fact that Bristol has been able to keep true to their roots for 20 years is quite an accomplishment.
It’s an honor to be a part of the legacy they’re building, or rather the history that’s been here decades. I feel fortunate that they continue to have us back. The first time here you’re taking it all in, but the fifth time it’s almost like coming to a family reunion.
One a non-music note, I know you’re a pretty big NASCAR fan too, which Bristol has strong ties to as well.
Yeah, I grew up around it in North Carolina, the birthplace of NASCAR. My dad has always loved it, and we all used to go to the races. For me, my fandom really died when Dale Earnhardt died. I still watch the races when they’re on, but my love for the sport faltered a bit when he passed away.
A few years ago, the band and I got a really cool opportunity to record a music video for our song ‘Tough Boys’ at North Wilkesboro Speedway, an old track in western North Carolina that closed in 1996. We got permission to go onto the property and record inside the winner’s circle.
We went into some of the buildings too and it was very eerie - there were still newspapers sitting around from 1996 that had headlines about Kobe Bryan just getting drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. The calendars on the walls were all from the late 1990s too.
It was bizarre, but also great to get in there to record something new in a place that held so much significance to my own childhood.
Speaking of your music, what’s it been like to have to sit on the success of Lamentations for so long?
It’s interesting because it’s been our most critically acclaimed, highest selling record, but it’s also the strangest record that I’ve had. The hardest thing was knowing that you just put out your best record, but not being able to tour on it the way it should have.
The only thing that lets me rest easy about it was that every other band was facing the same thing. It wasn’t like I was hamstrung and everyone else was business as usual. Everyone had to adapt.
One of the songs that I enjoy most from the record, both sonically and lyrically, is ‘A Better South’. Being a modern-day southern protest song of sorts, was there one particular moment that inspired it, or rather an accumulation of many?
It was a bunch of things. It was me wanting to capture that dichotomy of my love/hate relationship with the South; showing people that you can still love where you’re from while also critiquing it - some people think you can’t do both, so I wanted to write a song that did.
I wanted a song that celebrated everything I love about the South while also acknowledging some of it’s skeletons that we like to sweep under the rug, like slavery, that didn’t happen in our lifetimes but still loom over the region to this day.
I’m trying to use my platform to be as vocal as I can about my convictions. If you have a platform it’s important to use it well, and for me that means using it to talk about change in the South. We have some catching up to do with the other regions of the country when it comes to being progressive and being the America that we’ve always talked about.
It’s getting closer to that dream of what America could be, which is a land for everybody, a land of equality where everyone has the same exact opportunities and possibilities of building a future for themselves. As they say, the kids are alright, which has me hopeful for a brighter future.
One thing that I’ve noticed and grown to appreciate with your songwriting is that you don’t hide your convictions and opinions, but at the same time the way you present them doesn’t really come off as condescending or preachy. It still leaves room open to establish a dialogue.
It’s important to create discourse. If you come at somebody with name calling or telling them they’re wrong and you’re right you’re never going to get anywhere. A lot of my songs, especially the ones discussing politics, I try to come at from a non-biased point-of-view or try to write a fictional story from an opposing viewpoint.
For example, ‘Me + Mine (Lamentations)’ is written from the perspective of a 2016 Trump voter, someone that bought into the snake oil and the promise of coal jobs coming back.
It’s about someone living on the Kentucky-West Virginia state line who was promised that his father’s work in the mines wasn’t for nothing, that he could get back to doing the same work, only to find out that it was all a lie to get a vote.
The song is that realization that coal isn’t coming back and that the American Dream he’s been told of for so long is just that: a dream.
Are you mostly writing from fictional experiences or do you still incorporate your own as well?
It’s a good mix. I truly believe that you have to put a little bit of yourself into every song; it’s important to have just enough ‘you’ in it that it feels real every time you play it.
My first three or four records were 100% autobiographical. But when you’re in this game long enough you run out of cool stories about yourself, so you have to start falling back on other stories you’re heard throughout your life.
The last few records have been a big exercise in fictional narratives, but there are still very real moments in them. ‘Six Years Come September’ is fictional. My wife and daughter are still alive and well, but the beginning of that song talks about sobriety. My sobriety date is Aug. 31, 2014, so every September starts a new year of sobriety for me whenever it comes around. That song is definitely about me even though the character in it is fictional.
Another project of yours that I’ve enjoyed is your 1990s country covers album Slappers, Bangers And Certified Twangers, Vol. I. Can you tell me about your inspiration for tackling that project?
I’ve threatened the band for the last 10 years about making that record. We just never had the time. If the pandemic gave us one thing, it was time. It gave me time to start a record label (Losing Side Records). It gave me time to re-issue my entire catalogue of music on vinyl. And it gave me the time to get into the studio with the band to record these songs.
It was also fun because there was no pressure. When you release your own songs there’s always people judging against your older material. There’s always going to be that comparison. But when you put out a record of 1990s country covers nobody can say shit about them because they’re already hits.
Before I started collecting records, my musical education came from country radio in my parent’s car. How to construct a song, how to tell stories, how to convey emotion in less than three minutes, those are all things that country music taught me. So this album is me tipping my cap to 1990s country for teaching me everything that it did.
I couldn’t help but notice that Slappers and Bangers is labeled Vol. I. Can we expect another batch of 1990s country tunes soon?
Yes! Volume II is already done. I can’t tell ya anything about the songs though. All I’ll say is that it’s gonna be out later this year, and there’s not much of this year left.
Haha, fair enough. I also read recently that you’re about to go and record some new originals too?
We’re recording our next album of originals in November down at Sonic Ranch just outside of El Paso, Texas. Keep an eye out for it next summer.
American Aquarium's Lamentations is available to purchase from Holler's selected partners below: