Country music was the voice of the people. It wasn’t always the prettiest voice, but it was an honest voice,” says American Aquarium founder and frontman BJ Barham. “I think that’s where country music has lost its way.” He pauses, then adds, North Carolina accent thick and voice steady: “I operate in the dark shadows of what we don’t want to talk about in the South.”
These days, those shadows are tall and wide, making it hard to recognize a neighbor, family–– even yourself. On American Aquarium’s new album Lamentations, Barham shines light on dark American corners with heartbreaking conversations, long looks in the mirror, and empathetic questions, all through songwriting that is clear without sacrificing its poetry, and direct without losing its humanity. “As a songwriter, my number one job is to observe and then translate what I observe into a song, a story, a lesson,” Barham says. “I’d be doing myself and the listener a huge disservice if I didn’t talk about the things I see, which is a country, divided.”
As much as Barham appreciates an indignant protest song or one-sided anthem, he isn’t writing them. Instead, on Lamentations he’s making the political personal, reaching out to humanize folks with opposing viewpoints, and offering dignity instead of demonizing. The result is the strongest writing of Barham’s already stout career. “I’m still very much standing up for what I believe in––I don’t think anyone can question what side of the aisle I stand on,” he says. “But hopefully people listen and at least try to understand why their Sunday School teacher wears a Trump hat.”
Barham has built a fiercely devoted fanbase hundreds of thousands strong, fortified with 15 years of sold-out American Aquarium shows across the country and Europe. The band’s 2018 release Things Change strode confidently into that distinct territory where rock-and-roll and politics meet, prompting Rolling Stone to announce Barham “earns every bit of his Southern Springsteen cred.” In 2019, the American Aquarium lineup also shifted again: Shane Boeker remains on guitar, and bassist Alden Hedges, keys player Rhett Huffman, pedal steel ace Neil Jones, and drummer Ryan Van Fleet joined the group.
A beloved live band known for consistently playing at least 200-250 dates a year, American Aquarium chose to be more selective in 2019, winnowing the schedule to 92 shows. For Barham, sober for six years now, is a dad to a toddler and still happily married, the adjustment was a must. “We’re learning how to balance being in our mid-30s and being rock-and-rollers,” he says. “Being home was the most rewarding experience. It allowed me to be creative and write about things that really matter.”
Lamentations reflects that elevated focus. Barham, who is no longer religious but was raised Southern Baptist, wrote down the word “lamentations” in 2018, and knew it’d be his next album title before he’d written a single song for the record. He felt an anchoring connection to the word itself––defined as “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow”––but also to the Old Testament book in the Bible. “Lamentations is one of the few books in the Bible where there’s this doubt of God––this guy, crying out to the heavens, like, Why? If you love us so much, why did you let Jerusalem fall to Babylon?” Barham says. “I saw a direct correlation between that and a Southern man today who voted for Trump. I wanted to write about a broken America and all the things that lead a human being to doubting something. Every song on this record touches on something a little different.”
Ultimately, Lamentations is a thrilling portrait of an artist and his band reaching new levels of skill, consciousness, and potential after 20 years in the trenches. Unruly and sincere, Barham emerges as an important American voice––and an unlikely peacemaker. “I’ve had to work really hard to carry water as a songwriter,” he says. “It feels really good to be in my mid-30s, writing songs that I think matter. I think when you listen to this record, something is going to change in you. You’re going to feel something. That’s the most important part of songwriting: making someone feel.