With Kelly’s advice to pay attention to the lyrics, I wait for Barham to walk onstage. He does so modestly. Scattered tattoos on his strumming arm and what seems a more organized collection on his fretting side. His Gibson J-45 is sharp. A 1968 reissue with a cherry finish, unnamed. He fingerpicks a two-note alternation and throws a 2/4 measure in to give space to digest the lyric. Kelly warned me. Barham is weaving a tale of devout love and heartbreak. I recognize the hook from when I was looking his album over at the merchandise table. I commit to purchasing the record before the first verse is through. His approach of playing a solemn singer-songwriter tune to kick the evening off is a ballsy move, establishing his performance values. It’s gradual but by the end of the final “ain’t it funny how every now and then, the unfortunate kind get lucky sometimes” a crowd is in Barham’s control.
He takes advantage of the tone he’s set and exposes vulnerability and strength announcing two years sobriety. I connect with his decision and applaud with the room. As it dissipates a Tennesseean displays his ignorance and denounces that nobody likes a quitter. Barham takes stand and is shaming.
“There always has to be that guy.”
I find justice in the deserved scolding of an elder. Barham is abrupt. Smart asses and hecklers are useless. The arrogance of throwing the flow of a performance isn’t only disrespectful to everyone engaged in the moment, it displays a lack of confidence. A heckler has been overlooked their entire lives, from birth to adolescence to adulthood. Quipping in with an unintelligent disruption perversely gives them the spotlight they need and the most pathetic amount of control. Barham plays honky tonks and shows that he’s dealt with these aloof shitheads since the get-go. It’s in his eyes. He plays “Wolves”.
As recorded by American Aquarium, the grit of the guitars is replaced by the grit in Barham’s voice. His rendition is sang along to by the Revelry crowd. Through the course of the song I begin to recognize the intensity that Kelly spoke of. Barham eyes up the center of his microphone as he pulls away between lines. Moving back in to deliver. Retaliate.
The Spirit of Real Country Music is rooted in Truth. Barham’s grandfather served his country and returned home uneducated, spending the remainder of his working life with the American Tobacco Company. The subject is dear to Barham’s heart and he expresses his disgust.
Politically charged, “Nobody gave a fuck about veteran’s back then and they don’t give a fuck about them now. The American Dream failed my grandfather, he worked his ass off everyday and couldn’t barely keep his head about water.”
Another hook I recognize from the backside of his newest release. A track listing in what I assumed was Barham’s handwriting overtop a picture of his younger self staring at the camera. What looks like a load of foliage being pulled down the dirt road behind him; corn or hay. Barham’s a rural North Carolinian, he understands his calling to represent and does well in metaphor. A folk song:
“you can’t call yourself a farmer just because you plant a seed,
you must bargain with the dirt, your hands must blister, they must bleed
only then will you find beauty not in the bloom but in the weeds
O Lover, love is not the only thing from you I need…”
I’m grateful this is my first experience to BJ Barham’s craft. I find themes that crossover in our work and parallels to style. When Barham digs in he means it. His face contorts and his shoulders raise. But just when you think he’s the lion, he’s the lamb.
American Aquarium was touring Europe last November when Paris was attacked. Performing in Brussels, they completed their show to texts and calls worried for their safety. Beating the closing of the borders, the band was rushed into Holland and held up in a hotel for two days. Barham wrote his Rockingham record. He wrote songs of home and the people he loved. He wrote songs for his unborn. He’s soft and delivers advice as if his blood is before him. I’m still enthralled by the Southern Accent and appreciate his pride in a lyric to “Madeline”.
“Those long vowels oh they’re a beautiful thing…”
Barham has charm in his self-deprecation. He humours the crowd by calling Olive Garden a fancy Italian restaurant he worked at while living in a storage container. His comment hits me in the gut thinking of how I moved my life into the same type of space before leaving. A little more passive of an interaction, a girl in the crowds lets him know it’s better than sleeping in his vehicle. Now I’m really feeling it. He agrees, sleeping your vehicle is worse than a storage container. There you go.
“Losing Side of 25” is followed by Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”. Barham’s version sits somewhere between the Boss’ and Johnny Cash’s. It’s haunting and sold.
Barham ends with a final Aquarium song. “Casualties” once again plays out my anxieties before me. A couple solid screams to peak the microphone and the set concludes. I’m immediately summoned by my Corbin, KY state trooper, Kelly. He asks me if I’ve ever seen anything like it. He affirms the passion. He asks me if I saw Barham’s death stare. Who didn’t?
Kelly and Julie love what BJ does. They remind me they drove three hours for the show, I take the opportunity to tell them I drove almost thirty.
I’m slapped on the back of my arm asking if I’m an agent or manager or something. Or from Texas or something. The rude koozie buyer from earlier at the merchandise table has quickly gone from sober and boisterous to slurry and social. She introduces herself as Mary and let’s me know I’m distinguished. I’m appreciative but sure she could have used a more suitable adjective. Her husband mean-mugs me as I shake his drunken wife’s hand.
I make my way to the back of the venue and purchase Barham’s new record. Open it and thumb through the inserts. There’s a familiarity to the pictures opposite lyrics. Barham and his younger brother. One slender, the other catching up. Matching outfits. Two buddies. Reminds me of Jarid and I.
I find Kelly and he picks up where we left off.
“I’m telling you, BJ Barham, Hayes Carll and Tyler Childers – that’s where it’s at.”