Stop What You’re Doing And Go Listen To American Aquarium Frontman BJ Barham’s First Solo Record ‘Rockingham’

A man playing a guitar

If you’re not already a fan of American Aquarium, stop reading this now and go check out our list of some of their best songs. You’ll thank me later, I promise.

But, if you’re already familiar with their music, then you definitely know and love the band’s founder and frontman, BJ Barham.

He formed the band in 2005 in his college dorm room at North Carolina State University, and since then, has put out 13 records with an-ever evolving cast of band members, including live albums and their recent ’90s country cover album.

But, BJ’s first solo album, Rockingham, is a piece of art that deserves more credit. It’s just so damn good and ages like a fine wine.

Last week, BJ posted a photo on Instagram to commemorate the five year anniversary of the 2016 record:

In the caption, he posed the question:

“Curious to hear what your favorite track off this record is?”

And I’m here with an answer.

Somehow, he tackled a wide array of huge topics and themes that many people face everyday, and moreover, did it as if it were a dissertation he had to present at a masterclass on songwriting as the only lesson of the day.

It’s why he’s one of the best in the business. He gets into the deepest, darkest crevices of reality in towns like his that exist all over the country, and exposes everything with honesty and grit.

Though I’m tempted to just list every single song from the 2016, eight-track record, I’ve managed to pick my top four you should start with… though I highly recommend just playing the entire thing if you want some stellar new music to add to your playlist.

If sad country songs make you really happy, prepare to be absolutely overjoyed when you get done listening to these, fair warning.

Here we go:

“Rockingham”

This track absolutely stops me in my tracks every time I hear it. Though, like many of us, BJ has complex feelings about where he’s from and the opportunities that do (or, more likely, don’t) exist there. On the flip side, it’s the place that made him the person he is today.

As a fellow North Carolinian who grew up not too far from where BJ did, it seems almost impossible to me that one could sum up the experience in a single song.

Somehow though, he managed to do exactly that in a poetic manner while weighing all the complexities and nuances that should be taken into account with fairness… at times romanticizing the idea and beauty of it, and at other points in the song, pointing directly to the worst, most broken parts of that experience.

Check out these lyrics and prepare to fall in love:

“Won’t you take me back to where I’m from
Where the air’s as thick as tobacco gum?
Where I was born, where I was raised
On broken promises and glory days

It’s the town where I became a man
It’s the place that made me who I am
Right there on the River Dan
Rockingham, Rockingham”

“American Tobacco Company”

In North Carolina for many years, tobacco was king. Especially in the eastern parts of the state, but really all over… that’s what people did. They grew it, harvested it, built the factories that made the cigarettes and other tobacco products, and finally, sold it to Americans and people all over the world.

With a lot of that industry leaving or shutting down over the last few decades, hundreds of small towns have been left empty with no jobs or ways for people to make a decent living.

That’s not to say I’m defending these companies and the lies they told people for decades about how addictive and harmful cigarettes really are, but with less and less people investing in the industry, it did take away thousands of jobs from otherwise booming tobacco towns with no other lucrative alternatives. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that fact.

As far as BJ’s relation to this sad reality, it’s extremely personal. His family farmed tobacco in the state since they came to this country:

“My family’s been in the tobacco industry pretty much my entire life…since we got to this country basically. If I would have stuck around town I would have been a sixth-generation tobacco farmer.

I know for us in the early ’90s the tobacco industry took a huge hit just because the anti-tobacco campaign…enough to where they shut down the American Tobacco Company.

Seventy percent of my hometown lost their jobs. So with the agricultural industry being shut down like that just doesn’t affect farmers, it affects anyone manufacturing any of the products the farmers are growing.”

“Reidsville”

This might be my other favorite from this record. Similar to the aforementioned “Rockingham,” it also covers a lot of the good, bad, and ugly that comes along with living in a small town. If Rockingham is the more balanced, fair ballad about where BJ grew up, this one takes a more cynical, no holds barred perspective on the matter.

Reidsville is the town he was raised in (in Rockingham county), and the song details how young love and pressure from family and friends to stay there forever eventually caused the narrator to feel trapped in his hometown after taking their advice.

When they first started dating, the girl he loved could’ve hung the moon. Of course, as usually happens, life got in the way and their entire relationship changed as they faced all sorts of trials and tribulations over time:

“That girl of mine, how her eyes they used to shine,
like two rare stones set out on display
We were wild and we were young and we could take on anyone
Now her eyes are darker than a funeral serenade
And I’d burn it down, every square inch of this town

Just to see one more smile on her face
When it comes my day to die,
I wanna look God in the eyes,
And ask Him why He gave up on this place
Cause we were too young to know, what this town had in store
And we were too much in love to give a goddamn
With expectations high it’s always do or die
It seems like our fate’s already been sealed in…Reidsville”

“Water in the Well”

This song is a stripped-down, soul-crushing ballad about the realities of people in the small southern towns BJ sings so much about actually face. It’s a somber way to close out the project, but it drives home the point that, no matter where you’re actually from, we all have a little bit of Rockingham somewhere inside of us.

The narrator on this track has a decision to make: leave the only place he’s ever known to find work elsewhere since the state of Georgia took his farm away, or figure out a way to make a living in the town he loves so much, yet where other opportunities are scarce, if not completely nonexistent.

As is typical for Barham, and exemplified incredibly well on his most recent studio album Lamentationsreligion and faith play as much of a role in this story as the land he talks about and the characters he creates. Certainly, that has a lot of influence from the place in the title track itself, Rockingham county.

Check out some of the gut-wrenching lyrics:

“The paper say that the times are tough
And money’s running low
But the bottom doesn’t look so bad
When the bottom’s all you know

So 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
Oh, what will I do? Only time will tell”

Like I said, if sad songs make you happy, I’d recommend starting here with the saddest one on the whole dang record:

A beer bottle on a dock

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