BJ Barham knows his way around a hangover. He partied with Jason Isbell right before the former Drive-By Trucker stopped partying, which is to say he partied pretty damn hard.
But nothing could have prepared him for the headache November 9th, 2016, hath wrought. A handle of Jameson couldn’t have rendered him that woozy; a line of coke the length of a floor-to-ceiling mirror couldn’t have snapped his synapses back into action. And in his twenties, Barham might have tried both methods.
No, the morning of November 9th is when America woke up to the realization that Donald Trump’s election to the highest office in the land was no mere nightmare. Barham, now sober, had sworn off numbing such pain with sundry intoxicants. Instead, the American Aquarium frontman grabbed his guitar, packed up his car and hit the road for what he’d dub the Great 48 Tour, intent on discovering why so many people who grew up in small towns like he did rolled the dice on a New York real-estate mogul whose background couldn’t have been more different.
“Oklahoma [was one of only two states] in the union where every county went red,” says Barham by phone from his Wendell, North Carolina, spread, which he shares with his wife, Rachael, and their infant daughter, Josephine Pearl. “If you’d talked to them about Trump three years ago, they would have told you he was a silver-spoon Yankee. But their answer was, ‘Bush didn’t do anything for my family, Obama didn’t do anything for my family. We’re poor, we have shitty jobs. What do we have to lose?’
“I was mad [about Trump’s election], but me coming out and telling these people how dumb they are is never going to fix it,” he continues. “There’s a fracture in our country, but the only way to fix it is to talk to each other and figure out why they feel that way. I grew up in a 5,000-person town on a tobacco farm, I’m just as redneck as you are. I like fried chicken and Dale Earnhardt and will talk about college football all day long. I just don’t hate people. On this record, I make it very clear where I stand politically, which I don’t think a lot of country or Americana artists are doing these days. Which is a shame, because they have the voice.”
Barham, who’s 34, grew up in Reidsville, North Carolina, which became an economic tomb when its primary employer, the American Tobacco Company, closed up shop in the mid-Nineties.
“From World War II to the late Eighties, our town was thriving,” he explains. “Three of my grandparents retired from the American Tobacco Company with great pensions. In the Nineties, they left, and the whole town fell apart. In my grandfather’s time, if you didn’t work, it was because you didn’t want to work. My grandfather’s era was the last era of the American Dream – where you could go out, pull your bootstraps up and make something of yourself. I know people with master’s degrees who are making $40,000 a year now. I mean, what the fuck?”
Barham admits he doesn’t know how to solve today’s problems, but he’s sure the current approach won’t work. “Hatemongering isn’t going to fix it. I disagreed with Bush, but I didn’t see hate. A lot of people disagreed with Obama, but I didn’t see this kind of hate. Now the floodgates have opened up and people feel like they can spew all kinds of anger,” he says. “This last election, both sides brought out the absolute worst in people. We’ve got to fix ourselves before we can fix the economy.”
Pussy hats and the likes of Robert De Niro attempting to match Trump’s level of vulgarity from the left are righteous expressions, but not so credible as a man who grew up among individuals who comprise the president’s base coming up with a song like “The World Is on Fire,” the lead track off American Aquarium’s new album, Things Change, out June 1st on New West Records. Whereas many artists will throw a few jabs first, “The World Is On Fire” serves as a Howitzer to the chin as Barham and his wife experience the aforementioned Election Day-after hangover.
“When did the land of the free become the home of the afraid? Afraid of the world, afraid of the truth, afraid of each other,” he sings. “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.”
Later, on lead single “Tough Folks,” Barham states, “Last November I saw firsthand what desperation makes good people do,” something he all but predicted on his lone solo album, 2016’s poignant, desolate Rockingham. There, on a tune entitled “Reidsville,” Barham inhabits a fellow native by noting, “When it comes my time to die, I want to look God in the eye, and ask him why he gave up on this place.”
“This place” could just as well be in Oklahoma, where Barham and a new lineup of bandmates (his prior crew of players quit en masse) recorded Things Change. One might assume that the decision to record in the Sooner State was the idea of the album’s producer, John Fullbright, who lives there. But Fullbright, a sensational singer-songwriter in his own right who met Barham through their mutual amigos, Turnpike Troubadours, says the setting was all the American Aquarium singer’s idea.
“He did his homework,” says Fullbright, who learned from Barham that Oklahoma’s state motto is “Work Conquers All,” which wound up being the title of a tune on Things Change. “He goes out and finds it all out and then writes about it. BJ seems to be writing about the everyman in America right now; he’s talking about tough times don’t last, tough folks do. Oklahoma might represent the everyman for him.”
Contemporary country star Blake Shelton is from Oklahoma, but his music rarely gets red dirt in its nails, instead mainly opting to focus on the good times enjoyed in party hits like “Boys ‘Round Here” and “All About Tonight.” To be sure, the topics he sings about in those songs do exist in the region, but it isn’t just that.
“I know plenty of good ol’ boys who, after they get off Friday, pack up the Yeti and go off to their deer camps with their girlfriends and drink,” acknowledges Barham, who nicked his band’s name from a Wilco lyric. “These people wouldn’t sell millions of records if it was a myth. But they’re just writing about the good parts of being a Southerner, not the dark side. [Certain Americana artists] like to write entire records about the poverty, the addiction, the loss of jobs. You’re not going to sell Coors Light singing about pill addiction in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I’ll say it very clearly and loudly to the folks in the back: The reason Americana and country artists don’t talk about politics is they’re afraid of alienating a large portion of their demographic,” Barham sums up. “If you go to a country or Americana show, at least half that crowd, whether they tell you or not, voted for Trump. You can’t come at anyone who has a different view from you and say, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right,’ and change their mind. What I’m doing with this record is trying to figure out why people voted this way.”