Last May, BJ Barham hit the road for a cross-country solo tour. The American Aquarium frontman was used to spending his springtime months on the road, traveling alone. These solo tours had become a yearly tradition, allowing him the chance to shine a light not on the hard-hitting Southern stomp of his band – whose five members had become like family, regularly joining him for more than 200 gigs annually – but on the songwriting chops that have always rooted American Aquarium's material.
This time, though, things were different. Barham's entire band had quit several weeks earlier, pulling the plug on the momentum generated by a more than a decade's worth of steady touring. To make matters worse, he hadn't written a new song in two years. It was time to reflect and regrow. Alone on the road for nearly two months, Barham pieced together a different lineup, steadily accumulating ideas for new songs at the same time.
"I don't have a side trade," he says from his home in North Carolina, where he's taking a rare break from the road in anticipation of his baby daughter's birth. "I write songs, I travel around, and I play them for people. Those are the only things I'm good at. When you have a mass exodus, like five of your best friends leaving the band at the same time, you don't have time to throw yourself a pity party. My wife didn't let me do that, at least. She gave me a couple days of thinking, 'Woe is me,' and then I was back at the grind, figuring out how to put another band together. I found a group of guys who were inspired to be on the road, and that inspired me as a songwriter."
When Barham wrapped up his solo tour and returned to North Carolina on the Fourth of July, a new lineup awaited him, along with a new muse. Things Change, his first record featuring the revised American Aquarium arrives June 1st and dives into the political rift that's split the country into warring factions – particularly in the American South, where Barham has lived his entire life.
On the record's kickoff single, "Tough Folks," he traces his family's history through years of tobacco farming, economic depression, perseverance and rebirth. Along the way, he tackles President Trump's election, neither condemning nor condoning the people — including the 2,362,631 North Carolinians who helped vote him into office — whose views differ from his own. Like the rest of Things Change, "Tough Folks" offers hope and positivity, positioning both as antidotes for the modern-day blues.
"The whole purpose of that song is perseverance," he explains. "Growing up, most of my town was based on agriculture. When agriculture was taken away, some people bitched about it, but some people found alternate ways of making a living and feeding their family. You've gotta find a way to get through it. The line I'm particularly proud of is, 'Last November, I saw first-hand what desperation makes good people do.' Don't get me wrong – there are some pieces of shit that voted for [Trump] – but there's a lot of good, working people that voted for him. 22-year-old BJ would've written a 'Fuck you' song, but I took some months to reflect, and instead of writing face-to-face with it, I tried to hover above it a bit, and write a song that looked at both sides."
Rooted in bar-band rock & roll and articulate alt-country, "Tough Folks" sets the tone for an album that's cathartic and confident. In many ways, this is an entirely new band. Barham's writing has rarely seemed so poised, and his lyrics – which take a hard look at current events, using them as launching pads for songs about the human condition – have never been as universal.
When it came time to film a video for "Tough Folks," American Aquarium headed to the North Wilkesboro Speedway, which opened its doors one year after NASCAR's founding in 1948. A major racetrack for half a century, the speedway brought fans and funds to an area that had previously been known for its moonshine operations. It put Wilkesboro on the map. When it closed in 1996, the town took an irreparable hit.
"The closed the track and replaced it with a new speedway in Texas," Barham explains, "and they didn't think about what it would do to the communities that relied on those races to survive. I thought it would be such a good setting for the video. But, man, that place is eerie."
In the clip premiering today, Barham and company (drummer Joey Bybee, bass player Ben Hussey, guitarist Shane Boeker and guitarist/pedal-steel player Adam Kurtz) perform the song beneath bleachers that used to house 40,000 people at a time. At one point, Barham flips through a 20-year-old newspaper in a long-shuttered office, while a calendar on the wall reads "October 2, 1996." The message? Time moves on, and those who want to survive – the titular "Tough Folks" – should move on, too.
"When the race ended there in October 1996, they just locked it up and left," the singer says. "Time stopped! The paper in the office has Kobe Bryant on the front of the sports page – not because he was a star, but because he was a high-school kid who'd declared for the NBA draft. Kobe wasn't even in the NBA yet. It's weird to see a speedway with grass and weeds growing up through the track, and old calendars on the table. It's kind of scary, like walking into a ghost town. Time just left that place to rot."
For American Aquarium, though, the time has come to live again. The band hits the road in late May, barely one year after the previous lineup called it quits. Barham says he's a man reborn, flush with ideas spawned by a new crop of eager, road-ready friends.
"Music is fun again," he says. "When these new guys showed up, it's like a switch got flipped and the power came back on. It's been fun relearning how to write songs again. I can chalk it up to something as simple as surrounding myself with positive people. The floodgates have opened up."
Here are American Aquarium's upcoming tour dates:
May 24 - Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom
May 25 – Oklahoma City, OK @ Tower Theatre
May 26 - Little Rock, AR @ The Rev Room
May 27 - Kansas City, MO @ Knuckleheads
May 28 - Chicago, IL @ City Winery
May 29 - Omaha, NE @ The Waiting Room
May 30 - Des Moines, IL @ Wooly’s
May 31 - St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
June 1 - Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue
June 2 - St. Louis, MO @ Off Broadway
June 4 - Louisville, KY @ Zanzabar
June 5 - Nashville, TN @ The Basement East
June 6 - Columbus, OH @ Rumba Cafe
June 7 - Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
June 8 - Pittsburgh, PA @ Mr Smalls Theater
June 9 - Asbury Park, NJ @ The Saint
June 10 - New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre
June 12 - Boston, MA @ City Winery
June 13 - Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
June 14 - Rocky Mount, VA @ Harvester Performance Center
June 15 - Washington D.C. @ 9:30 Club
June 16 - Richmond, VA @ The National
June 17 - Louisville, KY @ The Burl
June 19 - Newport, KY @ Southgate House
June 20 - Asheville, NC @ The Grey Eagle
June 21 - Charlotte, NC @ Visulite Theatre
June 22 - Greensboro, NC @ The Blind Tiger
June 23 - Raleigh, NC @ Lincoln Theatre
June 25 - Orlando, FL @ Will’s Pub
June 26 - Charleston, SC @ The Pour House
June 27 - Jacksonville, FL @ Jack Rabbits
June 28 -Greenville, SC @ The Radio Room
June 29 - Birmingham, AL @ Saturn
June 30 - Athens, GA @ Georgia Theatre
July 26 - Houston, TX @ Heights Theatre
July 27 - New Braunfels, TX @ Gruene Hall
July 28 - Dallas, TX @ Statler Ballroom
July 29 - Lubbock, TX @ Cactus Theatre
August 2 - Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
August 3 - Laramie, WY @ Cowboy Saloon
August 4 - Miles City, MT @ Rock’n MC Brew Fest
August 5 - Helena, MT @ Lewis & Clark Brewery
August 6 - Bozeman, MT @ Lewis & Clark Brewery
August 9 - Challis, ID @ Braun Brothers Reunion
August 10 - Post Falls, ID @ Nashville North
August 11 - Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
August 13 - Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
August 14 - San Francisco, CA @ Slim's
August 15 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Troubadour
August 16 - San Diego, CA @ The Casbah
August 18 - Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge
August 25 - Fayetteville, AR @ Fayetteville Roots Festival
October 19 – Drachten, Netherland @ Iduna
October 20 – Utrect, Netherlands @ Ramblin’ Roots
October 21 – Arnhem, Netherlands @ Luxor Live
October 22 - Amen, Netherlands @ Cafe de Amer
October 23 – Esbjerg, Denmark @ Tobakken
October 26 - Odense, Denmark @ Posten Live
October 27 – Altlandsberg, Germany @ The Buchholz Saloon
October 30 – Bristol, England @ Louisiana
October 31 – Manchester, England @ Night and Day
November 1 – London, England @ Borderline
November 2 – Vlaardingen, Netherlands @ Kroepoekfabriek