Taking time out from fronting American Aquarium, Barnham’s solo debut, Rockingham, draws on his observations of people and places, from growing up in hometown Reidsville to his current life in Raleigh, small town stories that may not be autobiographical but still feel very real.
Working with a basic format of guitar, banjo, bass and drum, musically, this is dusty Americana, infused with such notable influences as Springsteen and Prine, the latter notably evident in the midtempo chugging opening number ‘American Tobacco Company’ (Reidsville was once a thriving tobacco producing community before the depression), a song about a WWII veteran returning home to the only work he can get, but accepting the reality rather than being crushed by dreams of what might have been.
Introducing harmonica, another song about the hard scrabble blue collar life and settling for what you have, the slow strummed title track is a nostalgic homage for his home country that comes with another tobacco reference and a salute to the town where, “raised on broken promises and glory days”, he became a man. But, again, while there may be regret, there’s no sense of bitterness.
BJ and wife Rachael, who he married in 2014, don’t yet have kids, but ‘Madeline’ is a tender letter to his daughter-to-be, that of a father offering such “sound advice and Southern attitude” as “pride is as dangerous as it is essential”, “never trust a man who does hard drugs in his 30s”, and that the “most valuable thing you can give someone is you time”.
But, if that is a song suffused with hope, the spare, simply strummed ‘Unfortunate Kind’, the most obvious Springsteen influence, is heartbreakingly wracked with loss, as, two years after her death, the narrator reflects on his wife falling ill to a terminal illness (“there were days I’d come to visit, you didn’t even know my name”) and gradually fading way (“until the nurses pulled me away and said ‘there’s nothing you can do’”), but, while heavy in grief, taking to heart Mickey Newbury’s advice to remember the good.
The tempo may pick up with ‘O’ Lover’, but the mood remains sober as the harmonica-blowing narrative tells of a farmer whom, when the crops fail, drawing up a plan for him and his lover to hold up a one-man store two counties over in order to keep his family from going under. There are obvious to the stories on ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’, but the chorus of “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” puts me more in mind of John Mellencamp and Neil Young’s work for Farm Aid.
The album’s final stretch kick off with the softly shuffling ‘Road To Nowhere’, calling to mind Kristofferson’s brand of roots-country in its tale of a guy whose lover walks out on him, looking for a better life and commitment (“like Judas, she rebuked my name for jewels and silver pieces, a wedding ring”). As you might surmise, accompanied by dobro, ‘Reidsville’ is about his hometown and those who, doomed souls, stuck in love and with no road out, live out their broken dreams (“now her eyes are darker than funeral serenade”) in such decaying small towns (“when it comes my day to die, I want to look God in the eyes and ask him why he gave up on this place”).
The album closes with its longest track, the near six-minute, piano and pedal steel-accompanied, hymnal-like ‘Water In The Well’ and a dirt farmer’s suicidal despair and desperate prayer as “a hundred years of sweat and blood” end in foreclosure as he asks “what will I do when all else fails, what will I do when no water’s in the well and what will I do when there’s nothing left to sell?” Faced with the choice of leaving behind everything he’s known for the vague chance of finding work somewhere else in “a world I’ve never seen”, it offers the bittersweet wisdom that “the bottom doesn’t look so bad when the bottom’s all you know”.
It may not be the most uplifting album you’ll ever hear, but, heartfelt and heartbreaking, it’s one of the best that Americana has produced this decade.
Artist’s website: https://www.facebook.com/BJBarhamNC/
‘The American Tobacco Company’:
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