The American Aquarium story is fairly well known. The band went into the studio to record the album that would become Burn.Flicker.Die knowing that this would be their final album. They had been on the road for years, had released a handful of records but hadn’t developed enough of an audience to sustain the band. A few things coalesced that lead to Burn.Flicker.Die being a springboard to another chapter in the band’s story. First, the songs were some of the best BJ Barham had written, the band was also on fire-playing with a recklessness and desperation that surges out of the speakers. Also, Jason Isbell was hired to produce the album and by the time the album was released Isbell was on the fast track to being the star he is now. There’s no doubt that Isbell’s influence behind the board led to a better album but his success also helped bring attention to an album by some guys from Raleigh. Burn.Flicker.Die is good enough to warrant all the attention it got but having Isbell involved helped people find it. Around the same time the band started making inroads into the Texas music scene. Through their relentless touring the crowds in Texas started growing and the band was able to make a living.
Fast forward a few years and BJ Barham has released his first solo album, Rockingham. Rockingham, as well as a few songs on Wolves, finds Barham writing about how his life might have tuned out had American Aquarium never existed or if they had broken up. Rockingham kicks off with “American Tobacco Company” and the title track. Both songs are about simple lives, down and out existences, and the struggles to stay above water while being a blue collar worker. Both songs are honest and catchy. From a literary angle both songs are written in first person, present tense yet they are set in the past. This creates an interesting affect of pulling the listeners in and creating an honest story that doesn’t have to be factually true. In both songs Barham gives details to set the song in the past but the honesty in the delivery helps the songs ring true in 2016.
In an interesting turn, “Madeline” feels like a song written in first person, present tense that’s set in the future. This touching letter to a baby daughter is loaded with beautiful imagery without being overly sentimental. In some ways “Madeline” flips the script on Isbell’s “Outfit.” Since Rockingham is a solo album it has allowed Barham to experiment with the instrumentation. “Madeline” is a piano based song and the piano brings a depth to Barham’s voice that isn’t there on the guitar based songs.
“Unfortunate Kind” is a sparse tune that gives the members of the Sad Bastard Song Club exactly what they want. Rockingham closes with Barham revisiting a few songs from the American Aquarium cannon. Most notably is “Water In The Well”, originally on Small Town Hymns, but the version on Rockingham is centered around the piano. This new arrangement gives the song a weightier feel and a more soulful vibe.
Rockingham succeeds as a solo record. As to be expected, the arrangements are stripped down and simplified. The album showcases BJ Barham’s skills as a songwriter, he’s written honest songs that ring true without being factually true. Thankfully, American Aquarium has reached greater and greater success since the release of the pivotal Burn.Flicker.Die., they’ve toured with alt.country stalwarts like The Old 97’s and headlined their own shows in front of hundreds and thousands, they’ve also landed on noteworthy festivals like Willie Nelson’s 4th of July party. All of this success has helped lead to a place where Barham is relaxed enough to reflect. The songs on Rockingham are the result of that reflection and they say as much about the listener as they do about the artist.