Hardscrabble North Carolinians Inspire BJ Barham's Latest Collection

Aug 22, 2016

Fans of Raleigh-based American Aquarium are in for a treat as lead singer and songwriter BJ Barham embarks on a tour to promote his solo-recording "Rockingham."

That's the title song from a collection about hardscrabble, blue-collar North Carolinians who live out their lives working on farms, in auto-parts stores in small towns and in tobacco factories.

Morning Edition Host Eric Hodge spoke with Barham about his latest endeavor:

You wrote all of these songs about home while on the road in Europe with American Aquarium.  When did you realize this was going to be a collection that didn't quite fit the band?
 
“We were in Europe last fall and actually in Belgium the night the Paris attacks happened and they stopped our show a little early, drove across the Holland and I wrote the record there. I was missing home, I was missing the people at home. I had my wife, I had my family, and they just poured out and they were too personal. Don’t get me wrong, American Aquarium songs are extremely personal, kind of autobiographical songs. But this was about a place that only I had. Usually the band songs, the boys remember the stories that I’m telling from the nights that I’m telling. But this is very much a personal thing.”

"Unfortunate Kind" is a pretty and heartbreaking love story. Is it difficult to find the silver lining in some of these lives/stories? 

"For sure. "Unfortunate Kind" is an example of me getting a song right. As a songwriter, you try to tell the most honest, transparent story you can. And "Unfortunate Kind," I’ve been playing that for the last few months and I’ve watched grown men cry. I’ve watched women cry. I’ve watched teenagers, adults. It’s a song that resonates. And as a songwriter that’s your ultimate goal. Your ultimate goal is to  write a story, whether it be fictional or autobiographical, that relates to other people and their lives. And "Unfortunate Kind" is really a stark look at the reality that time doesn’t wait for us. Time waits for nobody and the older we get, no matter how much you’re in love, something’s going to go wrong and in this case, it’s a wife who start forgetting who her husband is. And he’s there everyday for her to try to remind her, but the older we get, bad things start to happen. And this is just an example of a guy and a girl that when they first started, wide-eyed, had the whole world at their hands and 40 years later, she can’t remember who he is."

There's a Bonnie and Clyde feeling to "O'Lover" where things have gotten so bad, robbing a store seems like the only option.
 
"That’s a song about desperation. That’s a song about a man who has literally worked his entire life to keep his head above water. And it’s about getting to that point in life where you can’t keep your head above water and you have to do something that’s morally questionable."

Is "American Tobacco Company" about your Dad or Grandpa?
 
"That was an easy one to write. I wanted to write something that was very much Reidsville. Anyone who grew up in that town, you know the Lucky Strike smokestack. I guarantee you that every single person that grew up there, someone in their family either worked the fields that sent the tobacco to be manufactured at the American Tobacco Company or they actually worked the factory. Two of my grandparents retired from the American Tobacco Company. So 45 plus years each, sitting at a machine watching cigarettes roll off. It’s a rough way to make a living, there was no air conditioning, it was hot. And this was before workplace safety was a concern. It was one of those things where if you saw a cigarette go in and you reached into it, you might lose your hand And they were like, ‘Okay, we expect you to be back tomorrow or there’s another guy waiting to work your job.'

And so I wanted to write these songs, especially this one about my grandfather. My grandfather served our country in WWII, he was in the Navy and came back from war and there was this moment of praise, and everybody was so happy that they were back, but then reality kicks back in, it’s like 'Okay, you’re back in Reidsville, you have three kids, you have a wife, we patted you on the back, thanks for stopping the world from coming to an end, but business as usual.' So for the next 40 years, that guy sat there. And I wanted to write a song about coming home and being disillusioned. Being promised this American Dream we all grow up knowing.

There’s a certain point in everyone’s life when you come to the realization it’s like they just tell you that. It’s one part luck, one part hard work, and then even if you have both, sometimes it doesn’t work out the want you it to."