BJ Barham would never have dreamed of putting himself in the same category as Jason Isbell or Cory Branan ten years ago. Now, when I put him in the same breath he acknowledges a seat at the table. “Those are two of my favorite songwriters. Today I am very happy and I can stand behind being in the same room with those guys. But it only comes from working.”
Barham was selling tickets to shows as the frontman for American Aquarium ten years ago: but he did not yet occupy rarified air as an Americana songwriter. How does one go from a good, fun, but very unpolished rock n’ roll frontman to the kind of talent who gets invited to play a Guy Clark tribute show alongside Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Rodney Crowell?
Doing good, hard work becomes the focus of our conversation.
Barham is playing 53 shows in 59 days, including at least one in each of the 48 contiguous United States. We caught up while he, his wife, and their adorable dog were driving through Iowa on the way to a gig in Des Moines. As is so often the case with BJ, from his band’s reputation as one of the hardest working in the business, to the characters in his gorgeous poetry, effort and perseverance are the centerpoint of our talk.
I think we are starting to see a huge movement in our country. A lot of people call it the hipster movement. A hipster is just somebody who appreciates a better way of doing things. What makes hipsters, hipsters is they judge people for not liking their better way of doing things, that’s where the pretension comes in. That’s where hipsters are shitheads.”
“The thing I appreciate is people learning trades and being really good at them. One of my dear friends, Victor, lives in Raleigh (NC). He has a company called Raleigh Denim. Their jeans are in all the major department stores across the country. But when I need to get my wife a new pair of jeans he hand stitches them and they are guaranteed pretty much forever. He is going to make it right, which is worth the extra cost for me.”
The ultimate payoff of playing 53 shows in 59 days is a stop in each of the 48 contiguous United States and a trip to 31 national parks.
When the topic of conversation is a stock question about stories from the road, Barham is professional and engaged. When talk veers to the importance and majesty of our national parks, the inferno of his zest for observing and creating is unleashed.
“Everybody puts their bullshit on hold when they walk into those places. No matter how fucked up the world is, you oughta be able to walk into these sanctuaries and go,
Alright, it’s not that bad. This can still be here. It’s not that bad yet.”
BJ Barham’s mind is razor sharp.
When you hit his funny bone he lets out an enormous laugh. When you start talking sports, national parks, or 1990s country music, his inflection takes on a different quality. He punctuates his long vowels like a kick to the chin. Barham can wax with as much authority about the glory days of the Charlotte Hornets as he can the lead singer of one-hit country wonders, The Tractors.
I still believe if you work your ass off, and focus on something you love doing, eventually the break has to happen.”
I mention he is speaking from experience. Few musicians in rock n’ roll have worked as hard as BJ Barham over the last decade or more.
“100%. I am living proof that you don’t have to be the best to be successful. I realize my voice is not the best voice. I do not write the best songs. But I will outwork anybody I stare eye to eye with. With any craft – leather worker, cabinet maker, songwriter – you start off shitty and you get better. If you don’t put in the work, you don’t get better.”
BJ, the Mrs., and their trusty companion still have a couple weeks of dates left on the Great 48 Tour. They are hitting much of the Midwest and east part of the U.S. If they are coming to your town, go to the show, ask them about their experiences, and buy some music.
BJ Barham Interview by Jason Earle.
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