While BJ Barham’s songs for American Aquarium are always personal, genuine, and connect with the listener, those traits have never been felt more strongly than on his solo effort Rockingham, which was released on August 19th. Written in the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks in France (except for three previous AA songs), when Barham and American Aquarium were only a couple of hours away in Belgium, Rockingham paints a picture of home - North Carolina - in substantive snapshots of the lives of those who reside there.
Beginning with “American Tobacco Company” Barham’s unmistakable voice, that delivers weariness and sadness so well, conveys the story of his grandfather who worked in a tobacco factory and the difficulty of making ends meet and achieving the American dream, “…. Now I sit here on a line and watch these big machines crush my dreams…I work my fingers to the bone just to have a little something I can call my own.”
In “Rockingham,” Barham reflects on the town where he was raised, on “broken promises and glory days,” and the undeniable pull to return while in “Reidsville,” he narrates with bleak resignation the story of a young couple whose life may not have turned out the way they planned, remaining in a small town that sealed their fate.
Supported by a beautifully understated piano, “Madeline” the stirring story of a father speaking to a young daughter, will leave anyone that has a child in a swirl of emotions. “I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place, but I have seen the darkest side of people/but when the day they put u in my arms my arms got lost in yours, I learned that we are taught not born with evil.” But it’s on “Unfortunate Kind” – a contender for song of the year if there ever was – where that impact is felt ten-fold. With Barham, who almost whispers the lyrics, and a guitar, the song tells the story of a marriage, 39 years, that (perhaps initially surprisingly) goes the distance until one slips away through dementia.
Detailing the plight of a farmer who is having difficulties as nothing grows, “O Lover” narrates how he takes matters into his own hands to support his family. “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.” Building on that theme is the closer, “Water In The Well,” a stark look at the life of a farmer, his concerns, fear of failure and worries for the future. “The bottom doesn’t look so bad when the bottoms all you know/So what will I do when all else fails…only time will tell.”
Teeming with the dark realism of lost hope, small towns and shattered dreams, Rockingham’s authentic stories are absolutely felt by the listener (whether or not you are a farmer, parent or elder), cementing Barham’s place as a songwriter with an ability to capture depth and emotion that is on par with few others.