There is a choice musicians have now that really decides the route they will take in their climb to selling records and touring to an endless mass of fans. They can make a catchy pop song (and watch it go viral on YouTube or Vimeo); they can get on one of those competitive music shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice;” or they somehow can land a major record label to blast them into a fading cloud of pop-star ephemera. The other option is to pack it all up and take the road less traveled. This particular rocky path was trekked by original ramblers like Hank Williams Sr., Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings. Seldom few walk it today, but seldom few are BJ Barham. His Raleigh, NC, band American Aquarium (named after the Wilco song, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”) work by a “live and let die” school of thought.
“All of the original country music stars were hitting the road 300 hundred days a year, and winning people over one at a time at every show,” Barham tells encore. “I really try to live by that same old-school mentality. That is the way you build a fan base for the rest of your life. I don’t want to have one group of fans for one good record for five years; I want to have a fan base that is wanting to come to every show we ever play.”
Though Barham didn’t really start getting into music until he was 18, he was quick to realize if he succumbed to bar-hopping and playing local open mics, he may get stuck to one town with only a small group of friends as weekend fans. Instead, he abandoned everything to go for it.
“Unless you are willing to give up everything you own to do what you love, [you’re better off to] just work at a bank or something,” Barham suggests. “Get a job that has two-weeks paid vacation and just enjoy your fucking life. I mean, after I made my decision to chase this dream of music, I lived in a storage unit for three years. It is one of those things where you have to be willing to sacrifice everything for your art, and if you aren’t willing to, it is not for you. Hell, play on the weekends and do open mics; still pursue it, but don’t quit your day job to get in a van to travel and play music if you aren’t totally invested. It shows, and people can see through the bullshit. Honesty shines, and if you are half-assing it, people will see. A lot of stuff out there these days gets half-assed.”
For an up-and-coming songwriter to start late and dive head first into the music scene is not an easy task, but Barham was lucky. All of his friends that comprise American Aquarium were a crew of face-melting instrumentalists. From the metallic twang of their pedal-steel player, Whit Wright, and the steady clean beats from their drummer Kevin McClain, all the way to the deep Southern Johnny Cash grizzle that echoes from Barham’s voice, stories illuminate heart break, drunk love, and a life on the road.
“Everybody else in the band had been playing music their entire lives, so I got to the party a little late, but I’m trying to catch up,” he says. “I started taking songwriting extremely serious when I was about 20, and the reason I decided to learn an instrument was to facilitate songwriting. I didn’t pick up a guitar saying, ‘Damn, I want to play guitar,’ I picked up guitar thinking, ‘Damn, I want to put together some songs.’ I kind of stumbled upon playing guitar. Sometimes you meet guys that are just like, ‘I love playing guitar; it is what I was born to do.’ For me it is more of an ends to a mean. Playing guitar lets me be the songwriter I have always wanted to be.”
Putting heart into every aspect of music isn’t easy. Touring musicians spend day after day in a van, living off fast food and cheap beer, practicing, and giving every show every single night every ounce of blood, sweat and tears they can muster. And that is how American Aquarium took off.
They have released seven records since 2006, and have been driving cross country, notoriously playing over 250 shows a year. After struggling a few years together on the road, the boys planned for their 2013 Last Chance Records realease, “Burn. Flicker. Die.,” to be the last they’d create together. Serendiptiously, they finally got the recognition they deserved. “Burn. Flicker. Die.” was nominated for Best Americana/Roots Album in 2013.
“Ever since very early on, the mentality of the band has been to hit the road as hard as we can and just watch it grow,” Barham says. “But everyone can’t handle that kind of stress all the time, so we have really come close to calling it quits and trying to figure out something else.”
With the massive variety of music being released into the modern world, it isn’t easy to define exactly what genre a band falls into. There is a difference in punk rock and grunge rock, and bluegrass and folk, and there is also a big difference in the underground battle between real classic country, and the music dripping from the CMT channel on TV. American Aquarium throw aside Taylor Swift and Blake Shelton, and push away all of the dirt-road, beer-drinking anthems to bring back authentic stories and ballads.
“We consider ourselves part of this new country movement,” Barham states with pride. “It is definitely about going back to the basics: live performances and writing songs that actually mean something. [It’s not this] processed garbage coming out of Nashville. Country music right now is in a really sad state, but that being said, I think there is a legion of country music fans out there still looking for the music they grew up on. For all the kids that grew up on the legends, it is a breath of fresh air to hear bands like Drive By Truckers and Jason Isbell—musicians that really take pride in writing songs with a meaning.”
American Aquarium is among the realm of warriors fighting to bring back classic country music, despite its daunting task. “I don’t have the jaw line it takes to be a country music singer in Nashville these days,” Barham says with a laugh. “None of us are pretty enough to be on the front of a magazine, but we take what we do very seriously. We take the art of songwriting very serious, and like I said, I have a fucking crack band behind me that makes these songs the best they can possibly be. We make gritty, real, honest, American music. It doesn’t have that polish that Nashville has nowadays. It is raw.”
Thursday, July 31st • $10-$12
Bourgie Nights • 127 Princess St.