BJ Barham Talks ’90s Country, Losing Side Records & New American Aquarium Album

In November of 2020, American Aquarium returned to Asheville, North Carolina’s Echo Mountain Studio (the scene of 2015’s Wolves) to record an album’s worth of ’90s country gems. Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers: Volume One delivers a wave of golden nostalgia while revisiting hits and favorites from country music’s fifth generation of twangy pop stars and traditional revivalists. For American Aquarium frontman and founder BJ Barham, the project may have been a welcome distraction from an ongoing pandemic and fractured political landscape, but it was also an opportunity to showcase his earliest influences. Calling on the spirit of FM heroes Sawyer Brown, Trisha Yearwood, Joe Diffie, Patty Loveless, and Sammy Kershaw (among others), Barham and the boys rip through a set of Saturday night stompers, road trip anthems, and jukebox jammers that encourage you to roll the windows down and sing along as loud as you can! I caught up with BJ to reminisce a bit, offer him a break from packing up orders for SB&CT: V1 (available on CD, vinyl, and even cassette), find out what’s next for American Aquarium, and talk about his plans as head of the newly minted Losing Side Records.

AI- Well, happy belated birthday to start things off! You feelin’ good about 37?

BB- Gettin’ old, man! You knew me when I was 22! I’m an old man these days!

But I dare say you have even more energy than you did then! While everybody else has kinda taken a knee over this last 14 months, it would seem that you’ve been as busy as you have ever been in your career. Just not out on the road!

Yeah, I’ve been busier this year than I’ve ever been touring. I always look at adversity as something you can either complain about or you can find a way around. When touring got taken off the table, I started finding other ways to focus my energy and my creativity. We’ve got three albums coming out this year, and I’m in the best shape of my life! I’m a better husband, I’m a better dad, and now that the shows are opening back up, I’ve got this whole new skill set I’m really excited! I hate calling something as horrible as the past year a blessing because it decimated so many careers and families and businesses, but it was a really great thing for me to take a pause from the road and really figure out what was important to me and figure out other ways to make a livin’ in the music business other than just playing shows every night.

You have just unpacked everything that I want to touch on (laughs)! You did! That’s my entire sheet of notes! I wanna start with the surprise album you just dropped last week, Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers. Out of nowhere (laughs)! Where did you get that song collection? And I also wanna tell you that all morning long, the entire office, the studios here at 100.9 The Creek, they’ve all been running around out there singin’ “John Deere Green”. It’s been all morning!

I think a lot of artists have joked about doing something like this. I just finally had the balls to do it! And the only reason I had the fortitude to move forward with it was because I had nothing but time on my hands! This was an excuse for me and the band to do it. We did this last November, so we’ve been sittin’ on this thing for about six months– I can’t believe we all kept it a secret this long! We did it as an excuse to get together and just play music together. It was something fun. Our last two studio records have been extremely heavy emotionally and thematically, and so we just wanted to do something that was fun that didn’t have any pressure [and] that wasn’t supposed to be taken too seriously.

I feel like in the songwriting world that we orbit, everything has to be serious. Everything has to be with a purpose, and I wanted to finally do something without either one of those things. I didn’t want it to be serious and I didn’t want it to have a purpose. I wanted to put it out for our fans because I knew that most of the people– especially kids my age, 37– they grew up with this stuff! They grew up listening to FM country radio and singing along! And I didn’t want to do the big monolithic stars. I didn’t want to do Garth and George Strait and Reba and Shania. I wanted to do the B-level country singles. All of these songs were top 10 hits, but very few of them were number one hits.

There was a very, very specific criteria. It had to be recorded between 1990 and 1994. I wanted the album to be split right down the middle with male vocalist and female vocalist fronted songs– there’s five male vocalist songs, five female-fronted songs– and I wanted it to be the songs that might not be the biggest hit from the artist but were some of my favorites. There’s Sammy Kershaw! There’s Sawyer Brown! There’s Joe Diffie! There’s Jo Dee Messina! There’s Trisha Yearwood! There’s some really, really influential songs for me on this record.

A lot of people think it’s funny because we’re in this Americana world, and it’s like the serious songwriting– and don’t get me wrong, I love real songwriting! But this is the music that formed my early love affair with music. It taught me song structure. It taught me melodic progressions. It taught me how to tell a story in less than three and a half minutes and be effective. I think most kids my age like to pretend they came out of the womb listening to Fugazi and Townes Van Zandt– but they didn’t. They were raised on FM radio for the first part of their lives. And I think it was a formidable education for me. I wanted to kind of pay tribute, tip the hat, and I think we put our own spin on these songs. If you loved these songs in the early ’90s and maybe forgot about ’em or tucked ’em into a nostalgic drawer in the back of your mind, I think it’s fun to kind of unload that sometimes and remember how much you love, like you said, singin’ “John Deere Green” at the top of your lungs at 11 o’clock in the morning!

I know you must appreciate the irony? You talk about recording these songs that were staples of FM ’90s radio at the time. As you say, here you are, American Aquarium, known for being progenitors of a particular Americana sound, and the irony of taking radio friendly music and performing it the way you do. Which is not to say it’s not radio-friendly, but it’s certainly a different crowd.

Yeah, definitely! There was a bunch of people who commented on social media like, “I like Faith Hill’s version better!” And I’m like, “Well, no crap! It’s Faith Hill!” I’m not tryin’ to get into a sing-off with Faith Hill! I’m just having fun singing these songs! And there is a little bit of irony to it, but it’s also paying respect to a foundational building block of my musical education that a lot of people might not know. The first question was, “Are you making fun of this kind of music?” Absolutely not!

I never thought that! That never came across that you were making fun of it!

I think if anything, this record pulled the curtain back and showed people just how much the American Aquarium sound was influenced by ’90s country records. Because I hear this record and it’s very much American Aquarium. It sounds like us. It’s pedal steel and B3 organ and it’s my voice! You know, it’s not the best voice in the world…

Let’s talk about that voice because you’ve got a different quality on these recordings. We were just talkin’ about it out front. I likened it to what Dylan did for Nashville Skyline. You went a little softer and a little smoother with you vocals on this one. Were you conscious that you were doin’ that for these songs?

Oh, a hundred percent! You gotta think, my songs, when I record my songs, I’ve only been singin’ those songs for about two or three months. I’ve been singing these songs since I was six years old! I’ve got my Sammy Kershaw impression down pat! I’ve got my Mark Miller from Sawyer Brown impersonation down pat! And like I said, I’ve been beltin’ these songs! When I sing with American Aquariam, it’s very intense. A lot of times my voice is in that higher register– and I’m screaming at people! I feel like with these songs, I was able to actually sing them and not just put my own voice on ’em, but I was also tryin’ to get into the characters that these songs represent. I feel like my voice changes a little bit, but I listening to it, I still think like, “Oh, that’s definitely me singing.”

I told the boys, “This is like the greatest karaoke dream of mine come true!” I got to get into a studio with an A+ band and basically do karaoke songs of my favorite country songs. We put this out with zero expectation. We put this out with like, “There’s gonna be a very small niche part of our fan base that really loves this.” And we have been overwhelmed by the response! People are losing it over this! They love it! This is volume one and we’ve got one more volume in the bag. So there’s a volume two coming.

It’s really fun because these records are letting me reconnect with a piece of my childhood that I hold very, very dear. When I hear some of these songs, I imagine sitting in the back of my dad’s S-10 Blazer, driving around, vinyl seats burning the back of my legs, and screaming these choruses at the top of my lungs! It’s a very special time and place for me. I’ll be the first to admit these aren’t the deepest songs in the world, but they represent a part of my childhood that is irreplaceable. As I get older, those tiny pockets in the back of my mind are more and more important. I get to go back with these songs and see people that have been gone for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. It’s really special for me, and I hope it’s like that way for other people. I hope that they listen to these songs and tap back in to a time and place when they were kids and they didn’t have to worry about a mortgage and they didn’t have to worry about their kids or their spouse. They just got to worry about goin’ fishing on Saturday and playin’ in trees and havin’ fun and bein’ redneck kids. That’s where I hope this record takes people.

It’s also important because it’s the first official release for the brand new Losing Side Records. To tell you the truth, I’m surprised you hadn’t started your own label before now! Is this something that you’ve been workin’ on for a bit, or as you said earlier, you just had the time and the wherewithal to actually put it into motion not being on the road 250 dates?

I had the time to put in the work that it takes to start a new business. American Aquarium has always been our own record label. I own 100% of all 13 records we’ve released. I own all of my publishing, I own all of my licensing. I just never created an umbrella to put it all under! And so now, 15 years into my career, I’m finally at a point to where I’m like, “You know what? It’s time to make that umbrella. It’s time to build that thing.” ‘Cause if you look at Losing Side Records, the first 13 releases are the records I’ve already put out. It’s just nice to finally give it a name. I’ve been my own record label since day one. And shout out to our good friends over at New West Records outta Athens, Georgia! They licensed the last two records from me– Things Change and Lamentations— but I still own all of my music, which is a feather in my cap. It’s something I’m very proud of 15 years into a music career. Because the music business is a very fickle mistress. A lot of times, it will take advantage of you if you let it take advantage of you. I’m very proud after 15 years to be able to be like, “You know what? I still own every piece of art I’ve ever created.” And I get to pass that down to my kid!

How big do you plan to go with it? Is this just gonna be the future outlet for American Aquarium and BJ Barham? Or will you plan on working with other artists? Because I believe you’d be a helluva mentor after that statement.

The first three or four years, it’s basically gonna be a house for American Aquarium and all that is American Aquarium. But I 100% have every intention on signing new artists and developing new artists and teaching them the way that I think you should be in the music business, which is treat your fans better than you treat yourself, tour your ass off, and always try to make this record better than your last record. Write good songs, play good songs, and be good to people. I wanna teach that to kids because I’m very proud of where this band is 15 years in, and I think I have a lot to teach. So I hope one day to be able to put out records for other people and give people a home that they know is not gonna take advantage of ’em, give them fair deals, and never take their music from them.

I take a lot of notes from what John Prine did with Oh Boy Records. Oh Boy Records started as a place where John Prine could put out records and then eventually throughout his career, if he found somebody that he believed in enough, he would sign ’em to his label and put out their music and put his name behind it. When you stay in the game as long as somebody like John Prine did– which is something I aspire to do– when you build up a career of 30 to 40 years of integrity and good songwriting, and your fans trust you, the minute you put your name on somebody else’s stuff, it immediately gives them a couple of steps up the ladder. So I hope that one day I can do for the artists that get signed to Losing Side the same thing John Prine did for the artists that he signed to Oh Boy Records. That is the template, I think, for independent songwriters, starting their own label. What John and Fiona and Thomas and that whole family did at Oh Boy– and are ‘still’ doing– is truly inspiring.

American Aquarium

You talked about how much fun it was putting together the Slappers, Bangers & Twangers album. You’re always so forthright and forthcoming on social media with everything that you’re workin’ on, so I know that you took a trip to do some writin’ for the next album of original material. And again, great, fun new album that you got out! I think it’s something that folks need, but I also think and appreciate that your voice as a Southern artist advocating change and social evolution is extremely important. What has been on your mind and what can we expect for the next album of original material?

We still got a long way to go. We took a step forward, I think, the last year moving into adults back in charge (laughs),  taking control. That’s always nice to see! It’s always nice to wake up in the morning and not get on Twitter with this existential dread of, “Oh no, what happened today?” That’s comforting, but we still have a very long way to go. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s we’re not as progressive a country as we thought we were. There’s still so [much] deep-rooted bias and hatred. My grandparent’s generation, we thought we eradicated that in ’60s and ’70s– and we just didn’t! We buried it. Deep. And the past couple years, it hit a wellspring and they found out that all this stuff was just buried. It’s coming right back up to the top. It’s bubbling right back into our society, and we’ve got a long way to go.

I’m happy to be someone that sounds like I sound saying the things I say, because I think it’s important for young Southern people to know they’re not alone. I think it’s important for young Southern people to know that, yes, it’s okay to disagree with your father’s beliefs or your grandfather’s beliefs– or everything you were ever taught. Get out, see the world, make your own opinions about the world. I think that’s very important. That’s what I’ve been writin’ about the last couple of records, and [the next] record will be no different. My job as a songwriter, most importantly, is to observe the world around me and translate it into three and a half to four minutes songs that try to say something about what’s going on in the world. Whether it’s my personal life, whether it’s political, whether it’s religious, whether it’s fatherhood or sobriety or addiction or being on the road, whatever it is that I observe, I try to write about it in a way that people can relate to. We go back in the studio in November to record our next studio record. And I’m tickled! I’ve got the songs done, and we’re going to be playing a lot of those songs this summer when we get back to tourin’.

It was nice to have 16 months off the road and really focus on the things that mattered the most to me. And this isn’t gonna surprise anybody– my family is what I got to spend the last 16 months with. I got to fall in love with being a dad. Not a dad that comes home for three weeks at a time and hangs out, but like a full-time dad– cooks all three meals, changes the diapers, puts the kid to bed, sings the songs. I’ve fallen in love with that new role in my life, and [that translates] into the songs. I write a lot of stuff through my wife’s eyes, through my daughter’s eyes, through my eyes as a parent about the world around me. I’m growing as a person, so I’m growing as a songwriter.

Do you anticipate having some separation anxiety when you get back out on the road? I know that you were able to get out for a few dates with the family to do some acoustic shows and have them with you. But what about when you get back out and start hittin’ the trail hardcore? Do you feel like for the first time that you’re gonna be missing something more?

If this was 10 years ago? Yes, I would. But I’m at a point in my career, we’re in a bus now and we’ve retrofitted the back of the bus. It’s got a crib in it! It’s got king-sized bed for me and my wife!

That’s what you said you wanted to do the last time we spoke! You said your whole goal was to raise her on the road and give her all those opportunities to see all the places you wanted her to.

Exactly! We’ve been in a bus since 2018, and I’m finally at a point now where we’re in a bus that allows me to bring my family on the road. So I don’t have to have that separation anxiety anymore. I don’t have to worry about what’s goin’ on at home or missing a new word or missing a new concept or watching her do something for the first time. I actually get to be there and do it! And then when she goes to bed every night, I get to walk inside of a venue and do what I’m was put on this earth to do– and that’s play music in front of people. I feel very fortunate. Like I said, if this happened 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be able to do that. You can’t bring a family out in a 15 passenger van and a trailer and live any sort of normal life. But we can live a normal life on the bus.

Every mornin’. we wake up seven or eight o’clock, we get an Uber, we go to a museum. Or we go to a zoo or we go to a park! My daughter’s been to 37 States– and she’s three! I hope to continue that kind of travel for her. I hope that she is never stifled intellectually or personally by just being stuck in one place for too long. I hope that she understands there’s a big old world out there with a lot of different points of view. And I hope that she tries every one of ’em out and figures out what works for her! I’m gonna be there 100% to pat her on the back and support her and give her every opportunity to explore all of those different point of views. I’m not gonna wait until she’s 18 to worry about her seein’ the world. I’m gonna do it when she’s three and four, five and six. If she learns about the Grand Canyon in school, I’m gonna take her to see the Grand Canyon! If she learns about the Statue of Liberty, we’re gonna climb to the top of that sucker! I’m gonna let her see what it looks like! That’s something, again, that I feel very fortunate that my job and my career has afforded me. I understand that most people can’t do that and I’m not knockin’ anybody that can’t do it. Don’t think I’m sittin’ up here on a high horse. It’s just given the opportunity, I’m gonna take advantage of it, and like any parent, I want her experience in life to be better than mine. I feel like I had a really good go at it so far, and I want hers to be even better than mine!

You said that you’re planning on releasing three albums comin’ up. You said you’re goin’ back in the studio in November, that volume two for Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers is in the can. Is that all three? What is the third?

It’s a bunch of secrets. I can’t really talk about everything right now. We’re keepin’ pretty hush. It’s a bunch of fun stuff! It’s stuff that we’ve always wanted to do, that I’ve always wanted to do. I took this year to make sure that my entire catalog was available on vinyl. I’ve spent the whole last year and a half making sure that we went back and remastered and remixed four different records that had been out of print for awhile– and now the entire catalog is available on vinyl!

That is really cool, by the way. I just want to interject there and tell you just how awesome I think that is.

Thanks! And again, I had enough time to sit down and do it! When you’re out on the road, you don’t think about goin’ back and remixing and remastering your 2006 debut record, you know? You got bigger fish to fry! But when you’re stuck at home for 16 months, you’re like, “You know what? I got time to call a couple people and get this ball rollin’!” That’s been really fun, figuring out a way to make sure that my entire catalog is available for people that want it. Part of that has been goin’ back and figuring out what I haven’t released and what I have released and making sure that if I’ve got something out there in the ether and somebody wants to own it on 180 gram colored limited edition vinyl, I’m gonna give them that opportunity (laughs)! So that’s kinda where I’m at now. We’ve got a few cool projects coming out this year a new American Aquarium record will be out next spring. We’ll be touring [but] not as much as we usually do. My new rule now is less than a hundred shows a year.

Really? Wow!

Yeah. 2019, I played 92 shows and it was the first time I dipped under a hundred in my entire career. And it felt so good! There was this amazing weight lifted off my shoulders being like, “You know what? I’m in the double digit club now. And I think I’m going to stay here for the rest of my career!” Because it allows me to be the husband I need to be, the dad I need to be, and still be a musician for the fans that they want me to be. 99 shows is plenty. 99 shows means I get to get to every state at least once. And look forward to it!

Well, I tell you no lies when I say that everybody in Macon is ready for you to get back when you can! I do have one last thing I want to ask you. Last time we spoke, you said the guys were always making fun of you, sayin’ they were jokin’ that there would come a day when you couldn’t stand out in front of 10,000 people, meet everybody, and sign everything. You said you were just gonna keep doin’ it until you didn’t think you could do it anymore. I’ll ask you, has that time come for you yet?

Throw in the coming out of the pandemic, and that is the only problem that hinders me a little bit. I’m still at a point now where this summer, we’re doin’ 1000 to 1500 person rooms. I still have every intention on hanging out. I don’t know if I’ll be shakin’ everybody’s hand? I might be doin’ a little fist bump, or there might be a big ol’ bucket of sanitizer at the merch stable, but I still run our merch store. I still write a handwritten letter to everybody that buys something from me. You gotta think, we just sold, through all the mediums, almost 3000 copies of that Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers record on Friday. We sold 3000 copies in one day! So, I’ve been sittin here all mornin’, just packin’ up orders, and writing people notes, tellin’ ’em how much I appreciate ’em supportin’ the music that I make!

Whatever kind of crazy harebrained idea I come up with, even if it is a ’90s country cover record, I want people to know that I’m still the guy they met 10 years ago, 15 years ago. I’m a little bit more comfortable these days (laughs), but I still appreciate every single person that pays hard earned money to come listen to me rant about whatever is important to me at that time. So I’m gonna be standin’ out there as much as I can this summer. Obviously, it’s about bein’ smart. Me and my wife are both fully vaccinated, but I understand that’s a choice for some people to make and that they’re not gonna be. That’s their right or whatever, but it’s also my right not to put my family at risk and not stand out there. I’ll figure it out once I get on the road and start feeling it. It’s all about feelin’ it out, and if it doesn’t feel right, I won’t do it. But once we get to the other side and free and clear, and we’re in the normal area again, you better believe I don’t care if it’s 2000 people, I’ll stand out there until three in the mornin’ signin’ stuff for people! I’m lucky to be where I am.

Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, the new album from American Aquarium is available now on all your favorite digital platforms and directly from the artist! Like & Follow American Aquarium for news and tour updates!