Dear Rockingham


 

“What if that had been me? What if I never got to see these people again? Would I have something to say about the people I grew up with? Would I have something to say to a future daughter?” Those thoughts raced through BJ Barham’s mind as the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris unfolded. Though safe in Belgium, where he was touring with Raleigh-based roots rock outfit American Aquarium, Barham couldn’t shake thoughts of home. In the days following the attack, he began writing in response to the questions the tragedy raised during a couple of the band’s off days in The Netherlands. The songs from those sessions became the bulk of his new solo debut, Rockingham.

As the album’s title suggests, the eight song LP is largely about the Piedmont county where Barham was born and raised. It's about Barham’s family and their native hometown Reidsville, in particular, though also about home in a greater sense. Sense of place has informed Barham’s songwriting over seven American Aquarium albums, though with increasing frequency as he's grown more introspective and is now exploring the demons that chase him instead of the women he once chased. On Rockingham, Barham explores his relationship with his hometown as he both pines for and acknowledges the potential pitfalls of an upbringing in rural North Carolina.

“I never thought I’d write a record about that town, but the blueprint for who I am as a human being was made in that place,” says Barham. “And I appreciate it for that.”

Over the album’s first two tracks — “American Tobacco Company” and “Rockingham”—Barham narrates the parallels of his grandfather and father’s stories. Both connect familiar elements of life in Reidsville to a larger world where tough manual labor may be the only option to make ends meet, often with seemingly no escape. In the opener, Barham recounts his grandfather returning from the Navy and immediately taking a job at the American Tobacco plant, where two more of his grandparents also worked. “You're talking about forty-plus years that each of them went into a non-air conditioned factory where they'd sit for 12 hours and make sure something doesn’t fuck up. It’s thankless work. It’s tireless work. It’s boring work,” he says. “But my grandpa had three kids and a wife, so what else was he going to do? There was no other work in Reidsville; you either worked at the factory or you worked in the field, and the factory was a lot better than the field.”

At its peak, American Tobacco Company’s Reidsville plant employed over a thousand workers and produced two of America’s top-selling cigarette brands — Lucky Strike and Pall Mall. It even appeared on town postcards. “American Tobacco was so much the identity of that town from the ‘40s through ‘70s, so this is kind of my homage,” Barham says. But he’s careful to explain that much of the tale’s meaning isn't confined to Reidsville. “You can replace American Tobacco Company with the name of the shitty place where you work and it resonates. It's for the folks in the oil fields in Texas or the paper mills in South Carolina,” he continues. “It's for every person sitting on their lunch break wondering what the fuck they're doing with their life until it hits them that they have a family to take care of and that's why they do the shitty work.”
 
That same fate manifests itself in a different manner for Barham’s father, the title track’s narrator, who gives up working in tobacco fields to sell auto parts for NAPA and ACDelco. “He thought he was paving his own way because he wasn’t working in tobacco but was just doing his own thing,” Barham reflects. “Then he came to this realization, ‘I’m 28, I have two kids and I’m working 50 hours a week. I hate it.’ He was in a different trap with the same outcome.” Barham acknowledges his father’s dilemma, “There's so much of the world to see, but your priorities change.”

 
 

“Reidsville is very insular,” Barham says, acknowledging how difficult it can be to leave a small town. “You’re born into it and you have to make a conscious choice — which is a very hard choice — to leave, because if you stay in that town, you usually do what your parents did and live kind of the same life they did.” 

For him, the itch to get out started early, and was driven by music. Raised in a Southern Baptist Church and on a healthy diet of his parents’ outlaw country, Motown, and Stax records, music was an outlet for self-expression. “From a very early age I learned that music was a way to emote. It was a way to get rid of feeling,” he adds, claiming this holds true in his own songwriting. “It’s obvious; I wear it on my sleeve. If I have a problem, instead of just talking it out with friends, I’m going to write it in a song.”
 

 
 

Music was also an outlet to a bigger world. “When I was 15 or 16, there was a kid, Chris Stanfield, that played me [Bruce Springsteen’s] Born To Run and [Bob Dylan’s] Blonde on Blonde and Blood On The Tracks,” Barham continues, “I was hearing people say things in a way that I had never heard them said before.” His musical education continued after a driver’s license connected him to Turtles Music Store in Greensboro. “It was the first time I could go somewhere and say ‘I like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. What should I listen to?’ That led to Uncle Tupelo, which led to Ryan Adams, which led to Whiskeytown, which led to ‘Raleigh seems to be the place to do this.’”
 
Armed with an acceptance letter to North Carolina State University, Barham indeed headed off to Raleigh in the fall of 2002 with dreams of forming a band that'd share the stage with the Triangle’s triumvirate of alt-country icons — Whiskeytown, The Backsliders, and Six String Drag. By the time he got there, though, the movement had fizzled. “I was just an 18-year old kid that wanted to play some kind of country music in a market that had just crashed.” 

Undeterred, Barham established American Aquarium — his first and only band — in 2005. It took a few years for the group to gel, thanks to grueling tours that led to a revolving door of short-lived members. Eventually, Barham dropped out of school — where he'd been studying communications — to pursue music full-time, an opportunity that he acknowledges was made possible by his family. “My grandpa literally sat there and watched cigarettes roll off a machine for 40 years to make way for my dad, who made way for me to go ‘Oh nah, college isn’t for me. I’m gonna go play music and travel the country.’”
 
“Everybody else [in the band] was going to get a master’s or get a real job and I’m like ‘OK cool, I’m going to sell everything I own and live in a storage unit’ because I really believed I could write songs,” he remembers. Since 2008, the group — with a stable lineup — has stayed on the road almost constantly, honing its live performances and slowly cultivating a diehard fan base. “It’s just funny because all of [those former members] are extremely successful now, and I’ve finally found success in music. We all kind of found our paths.”

 
 

Though heroes like Springsteen and Adams still inform his work, Barham’s grown into his own identity as a songwriter, particularly on American Aquarium’s two most recent albums — 2012’s rousing but road-weary Burn.Flicker.Die and 2015’s mature, introspective Wolves. Praised by critics and fans alike, the success of those records convinced Barham to make a solo album. “Wolves gave me the confidence that my songs do stand up,” says Barham who garnered nationwide acclaim for his honest confessions and clever turns of phrase. 
 
Despite that national attention, Barham gives Raleigh plenty of credit for its continual support of the band. “Since day one, Raleigh has been the place where I know I can get on a stage and play in front of people that care,” he says. “It’s the one place where I know I can come and play a show and have people go apeshit crazy.”
 
For the past two years, the band’s annual two-night stand at the Lincoln Theatre — dubbed “Roadtrip to Raleigh” — has drawn packs of rabid American Aquarium followers from around the world to its hometown. This year, that legion included folks hailing from 34 states and three countries. “They could see us anywhere — we come to their town, we come near everyone — but it’s like this rite of passage for American Aquarium fans to see us in Raleigh, drink at Slim’s, and eat at places where I tell them to eat,” Barham explains. “It’s the coolest thing that people are falling in love with Raleigh from all over the world.”
 
Barham credits Raleigh for helping him grow up. “As a kid, you are what your family shapes you to be, so Raleigh became home when I started finding my own an identity,” he reflects. “From 18 on, I found out who I was. I made a shit-ton of mistakes. I found out the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things and I went from being a very insecure, sad person to being an extremely happy person. I’ll always give Reidsville credit for shaping me and my values, but as far as the growth, that all happened in Raleigh.”

“When I moved to Raleigh, I was a rock ‘n’ roller, man. I could drink more than you, I could take your girlfriend home, and I could do a shit-ton of drugs, so that’s what I did and it was fun,” Barham continues. “We wanted to do the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll thing, but then we realized one, that road ends very quickly, and two, it’s not the reputation you want to build. It may be cool when you’re 22, but it's not when you’re 30.” 

Barham got sober in August 2014 shortly after recording Wolves. Despite warnings from some that he might “lose his edge” if he gave up alcohol, he saw and was inspired by the impact sobriety had on friends like fellow musician and Burn.Flicker.Die. producer Jason Isbell. “It was proof that you don't need the substance to be creative and artistic. Drinking was a cycle:  Wake up. Drink. Play. Drink. Pass out. Repeat,” he remembers. “I just got tired of that cycle.” He's since traded the bottles of Jameson that almost always greeted him in green rooms for healthier pre-show rituals like running or antique shopping while, as Wolves demonstrated, his songwriting has become more focused and reflective. 

Long-time listeners will notice this in Rockingham’s heart-wrenching sparse ballad “Unfortunate Kind,” an emotional song Barham cut on the first studio take. “This is about a guy watching the love of his life, who he’s spent his entire life with, just forget who he is,” says Barham. “It’s about learning that lesson that time does not wait for anybody and that every single year that you get older, you’re going to lose somebody that you know, and if you make it far enough, you just start forgetting everything,” he explains. “It all falls apart eventually.”

 
 

Barham’s noticed audiences from all over respond to the ballad. “Watching people be affected by your songs in an entirely different country is a very powerful thing,” he offered after returning from a brief solo tour of the U.K. in July. “That’s the song that someone can relate to even if they’ve spent their entire life in New York City and doesn’t know anything about these tobacco towns. It’s a reality that we’ve all been affected by, either directly or indirectly.”

 
 

Finally with a collection of cohesive songs, Barham decided to give the solo route a shot. “One day, I said to my wife, ‘I’m gonna put out a solo record,’ and she’s like ‘Sure you are. I’ve heard this before.’ I set up a Pledge Music page late one night, launched it at 8 a.m. the next morning, and was like ‘there’s no turning back now.’” The crowdfunding project was fully funded within four days.
 
“The rule going into the record was that if you could plug it in, we didn't want it, so it’s guitar, dobro, banjo, fiddle, piano, and accordion,” Barham explains. “It’s stuff we can do in somebody’s living room or we can do on a stage, which is something I’ve always wanted to do.” The album also gave him the opportunity to revisit and rearrange a trio of American Aquarium tunes — “Water in the Well,” “Road To Nowhere,” and “Reidsville” — that fit in thematically with the rest of Rockingham.
 
Reidsville shaped Rockingham’s stripped-back, acoustic sound and the album’s stories. While “American Tobacco Company” and “Reidsville” are rooted in family history, Barham admits that others are more of an amalgamation of characters from his home town. “O’ Lover,” he says, is more about a back-against-the-wall feeling of desperation that causes “good people to do shitty things to keep their head above water” than a specific person. “There’s a tiny little gas station off of Highway 14 in Reidsville called Stadler’s that I remember seeing in the paper when I was growing up because it got robbed all the time because someone needed money,” he explains. “You started seeing these people and then as you get older, you realize it’s kids you went to highschool with or it’s friends of your parents.” Recognizing those faces and names gave the older Barham a new perspective. “I wanted to write a song about being so hard up that you have to do something that you know is wrong. It’s about a guy hitting rock bottom and still trying to dig his way out, calling his girlfriend to say ‘Don’t judge me on this and don’t tell anybody about this, but I’m doing this so that we can live to see another day,’”
 

 
 

A song like “O’ Lover” could rankle locals by portraying Reidsville negatively, but Barham insists he's just trying to show all facets of the town. “I want to paint a picture of this place where I grew up in a positive light but also show that nowhere’s perfect. If I wrote a record about Raleigh, it’d be the same way,” he says. Thus far, it seems as if Rockingham has resonated:  Barham says he's received a phone call of support from the town’s mayor.
 
Barham says his mother can be his toughest critic. “There’s a line in that American Aquarium song ‘Southern Sadness’ that’s ‘don't get above your raisin’,’ which is my mom’s favorite saying and just her way of reminding me not to forget where I came from, because you might be successful but you’re never better than anybody here.” He insists that he's held onto those words. “I’m talking bad about some of the negative aspects of [Reidsville], but I’m not demeaning the whole place. I wouldn’t have wanted to have grown up anywhere else — it taught me a different subset of skills and morals that I would have never learned growing up in a bigger city.”
 
These days, Barham finds himself returning to Reidsville more often to spend time with his parents, eat the food he grew up on, and catch up with friends from high school.  By and large, he sees the town as a “good, solid place” with hard-working folks that seem content with what they have. “There’s a dichotomy in everything and that’s what I’m trying to show about Reidsville: or a place that might be a close-minded small town in the middle of North Carolina’s Piedmont, it’s got heart, it’s got soul, it’s got this cool thing about it, but there’s also a darker side to it.” 

In July alone, the town made headlines after the FBI arrested an accused murderer who'd been living in Reidsville under an alias for over a decade, and when a group with alleged Rockingham County ties was suspected of distributing racially-charged propaganda around Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro. That same month, Reidsville was named one of the “Best Towns to Live in North Carolina” by a national real estate site. In recent years, a number of other online sources have touted the town as one of the state’s prime locations to buy a home, raise a family, or start a business.

 
 


Rockingham coincidentally marks a full-circle moment for Barham who moved with his wife, Rachael, from the middle of Raleigh to nearby Wendell last fall. Though less than a half hour apart, Raleigh’s bustling downtown core seems a world away from Wendell’s small, quiet historic center. For a more grown-up Barham, though, the move feels comfortable. “I realized sometimes I just want to stay at home,” he says. “It’s literally everything I used to hate, but now I love it because I’m turning into some bitter old man who’s in bed by 9 o’clock every night watching Law & Order marathons on USA.” 
 
As Barham saw with his father and grandfather, his own priorities have changed. That, too, manifests itself on Rockingham: described as “part fiction and part reality,” the melancholic “Madeline” — the first tune he began writing after the events in France — is a list of advice and reflections, ranging from simple (“never be ashamed of the fact that you are Southern”) to considerably more complex (“pride is as dangerous as it is essential”), from a father to the daughter he hopes to one day have. “It’s just an open letter of parenting to my future child,” explains the recently married Barham. “It’s a condensed version of my life lessons to a kid that doesn’t exist yet, and if we have a boy first, we’re going to have to explain to him that he didn’t have a sister that died.”

 
 

Of the many positives the Barhams have found in Wendell — which Barham calls “Wake County’s little secret” — it’s the sense of community that they most appreciate: neighbors stopped by with cakes when the couple moved in and promise to keep an eye on the house while they’re away. Barham jokes that Rachael is the youngest member of the town’s gardening club by a couple decades. The couple are now lunchtime regulars at Aubrey's and Peedie's Grill, a longtime Wendell fixture that’s just a short walk away from their house and serves what Barham claims to be “one of the best flat-top hamburgers I’ve had, hands down.”
 
Though he isn’t ready to call it home yet, the Barhams moved to Wendell with an eye on the future. “Raleigh will always be home for me, and I wanted to be somewhere within a stone’s throw of getting downtown to see shows and get to the museums,” he says. “We moved out there because of [financial] value, but now I’m falling in love with everything I moved away from — all the good things I left in Reidsville,” he continues, mentioning the histories that both towns share with the state’s tobacco industry. For all the reservations he explores about his upbringing on Rockingham, it seems he's largely ended up back where he started, finding the value in small town North Carolina. “I’ve moved back to a smaller version of the town I left — just in eastern North Carolina instead — and I fell back in love with it.”