When asked how he was introduced to the musical genre with which he has become synonymous, Reidsville native BJ Barham says he owes it all to the burgeoning music scene of Raleigh in the late ’90s and a now-defunct chain of music stores.
“The first thing I did when I got my driver’s license was to drive into Greensboro every weekend to a Turtle’s Records & Tapes, which is completely gone now, and I’d walk in and ask the clerk behind the counter what they would recommend for me to listen to if I liked Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen,” Barham said. “They recommended Ryan Adams’ ‘Heartbreaker,’ and I jumped into that and wanted more. They asked if I had ever heard of Adams’ old band Whiskeytown, which led into all of the other bands that opened up a whole other world of music to me.”
Barham and the rest of American Aquarium, his Raleigh-based Americana band, will showcase those Southern singer-songwriter influences on stage at the Lincoln Theatre this weekend. The two-night concert event, an album release party for the band’s newest release, “Wolves,” is just the latest in a nine-year odyssey of tour dates that has grown faster than Barham could have ever imagined.
The Raleigh influence
“I started writing songs in high school,” he said. “When I moved to Raleigh to attend North Carolina State University, music began to play a role more and more in my life. I started a band to play a show a month, mostly just for free beer, and that led to a friend getting us a show in Charlotte or Charleston. One show turned into 10, which turned into 300 a year.”
During Barham’s time at N.C. State, he took advantage of the music scene that was just a few blocks from his dorm room.
“I moved there in 2002, so I was coming in just at the heels of the alt-country movement of the late ’90s,” Barham said. “The love that I had for that type of music got me really involved in the scene, and I was probably going to five or six shows a week. When I started the band, we started booking shows where we opened up for some of my favorite bands.”
Despite the band’s efforts to expand its fan base early on, it took years to finally make a dent on a national level. Their 2012 album, “Burn. Flicker. Die.,” was intended as the group’s possible swansong – except it was a success.
“We had been playing together for seven years, and it was seven years of just spinning our wheels ... and basically making just enough money to pay expenses for traveling from gig to gig. It was just a pretty low point, because we were really coming to the conclusion that maybe we weren’t good enough to make a go of this,” Barham said. “We had tried and really busted our ass, but maybe we just weren’t cut out for it. We put that album out as a last ditch effort, basically saying, ‘If we’re gonna go out, we’re going out with the best thing we have’ – and ironically, a record about failure became our biggest success.”
While the album gave the band the critical success they needed, commercial success is still missing. Barham said he has stopped waiting for the average country fan to embrace Aquarium’s music.
Barham doesn’t hesitate to express his opinions about modern commercial country music.
“I think most of the American public that listens to mainstream country music doesn’t want to think, doesn’t want to be challenged,” he said. “It’s targeted toward the lowest common denominator, and it’s basically a musical beer commercial. There is nothing honest about what you hear on the radio. You can break it down and it’s just a commercial, whether they are trying to sell Craftsman wrenches or Bud Light, they are trying to sell a product. I think the average listener doesn’t want to be challenged that much. Music to them shouldn’t be hard, it just has to be something catchy they can sing along to in the car, and basically forget about after the first chorus.”
Stars ‘selling out’
Two acts that have famously come under fire from the frontman have been country superstar duo Florida Georgia Line and up-and-coming country star (and former UNC-Chapel Hill football player) Chase Rice. In a series of audio recordings that went viral online, Barham pointed at the success of these modern country stars, and former opening acts for American Aquarium, as a sign of declining quality in country music.
Barham said he doesn’t regret those recordings.
“Not at all. It’s just one of those things where both of those acts have opened for American Aquarium, and they have both gone on to have pretty good careers, but I just personally don’t dig what they are doing. What they are doing is, in my mind, the definition of selling out. Letting someone else walk into a room with six other Nashville songwriters is not writing your own songs. If you look at the hit songs coming out of Nashville, they’re all written by the same five or six guys, so it’s not a surprise that everything sounds the same. These guys walk into a room for an hour, talk about beer, trucks and girls, and then they basically have a new hit song.
“That’s not the way that I write songs, and it’s not the way I expect songs to be written. I guess that’s more of a personal preference than anything, but that’s where I stand on it.”