By Sydney Miller, Associate Editor
BJ Barham is the frontman and bandleader of American Aquarium, based in Raleigh, N.C. My father was the one who introduced me to his righteous, red dirt/roots country music. BJ’s always had sadness and anger in his music, but after the 2016 election, with Aquarium’s eighth record, “Things Change,” Barham made it very clear that he was not your average country singer.
He’s an unapologetic redneck who’s not afraid to chew people out on Twitter and not afraid to dig into the mess of our nation on his records. “Things Change” and the band’s latest album, “Lamentations,” which came out in May, are all about how we must “Go into the darkness / and be the light.” He’s introspective and extrospective at the same time.
I was intrigued when I saw that he did a cover of Katie Pruitt’s “Look the Other Way,” so I reached out to him for an interview. The day after the election, we met up over Zoom to talk about Katie Pruitt, the state of the world, his daughter, and what being an ally means to him.
Thanks so much for sitting down with us!
Yeah! I love what you guys are doing. I realize that I don’t fall into the category of a lot of the stuff you cover, but I am definitely an ally and I am definitely a voice that wants to give a bigger platform to the community and especially in country music. I think we need it.
And I absolutely loved that cover of Kaite Pruitt’s “Look the Other Way” you did.
Oh man, that song crushes me. Anything she touches crushes me, but that song in particular… I went for a run one morning and it came on the Spotify recommended, you know, whatever your recommended playlist is and I just stopped. And my eyes were welling up with emotion. I was angry, I was sad, I was just like — cause [Pruitt’s] “Expectations,” it’s my record of the year. Whenever people start putting those [lists] out, that’s my record of the year.
That’s the record that — nothing else I’ve heard has emotionally pushed me the way that record did, and so I didn’t think she could top it twice in one year. But that song is definitely one of those tracks that is haunting and it’s so timely and it’s so… Usually people want to beat around the bush when it comes to talking about political issues and social issues. There’s no way to beat around that, you know, she’s talking about walking by and seeing somebody with a knee on their neck screaming “I can’t breathe.” It’s extremely urgent, and I love that about it.
So when did you first come across Katie’s music?
A buddy of mine from Nashville sent me a link the day it came out. I’ve got a really really great set of friends that we just send each other Spotify links to records that move us. It actually was my old pedal steel player Whit Wright, who has played with Josh Hedley and Kacey Musgraves, he sent me a link to it and from the jump I was just like “Whoa! Why have I not heard this voice?” And then I realized that she was a new artist and that this was her debut record.
But apparently all my friends in Nashville, when I try to tell them about her, they knew exactly who she was, so she’s been making noise for the past couple years. But with her debut I think a lot more people were turned on to the force of nature that is Katie Pruitt.
I saw you guys kind of interacting on Twitter a bit — have you ever talked to her, or is it all just over social media?
We’re like Twitter buds, you know, we talk on like Instagram and Twitter, just like if she posts something that moves me I’ll like it and say something, and she’s commented on my stuff, and I think it’s just mutual admiration. I think she digs what we do as a band and you know we really dig what she does and what she stands for.
That’s the glory I think — social media is a terrible, terrible thing and it’s ruining humanity, but the one cool thing about it is so many artists who have never met before but appreciate each other have this platform to kind of interact even though we can’t interact, especially, you know, in COVID times. I’ve interacted with so many artists that I’ve loved over the years that heard our record and started following me and then messages started happening.
I think artists are attracted to other artists. We wanna be surrounded by the things that inspire us. We wanna be in contact with people that are inspiring us. So any time someone like Katie puts out that song, it sparks a fire — at least for me it does, I can’t speak for all artists, but for me, I wanna be in the same room as the most talented people. It makes me want to be a better writer, it makes me want to be a better person.
And so when you see somebody who’s just that full of energy, you know — I remember what it was like when I put out my first record, I remember how I was back to the wall, me vs the world, screw everybody. And it feels like that kind of energy, and I’m, you know, nine records into my career, you know when you see that energy it kinda makes me feel like 21 year old me again, like you know what? Screw the world, let’s take it on.
Yeah, you know, I pitched this interview to our publisher Dale by saying “BJ likes to tell people to eff off on Twitter and in his music.”
Yeah, it’s one of those things where for a very long time I was very quiet. And it was youth, it was thinking it wasn’t my place to talk about stuff, thinking it wasn’t my place to tell someone how they should feel or if they were feeling right or wrong. And when it comes to things like tax allotment and fiscal policy, that’s opinion, that’s choice, we can agree to disagree. But when it comes to basic human rights and equality, there’s no “agree to disagree.” I will cut you out of my life as quick as possible.
I’ve blocked so many of my family and friends from high school. I just send them a message, I’m like “I can’t tolerate your ignorance on my feed on a daily basis.” One, it makes me mad. Two, it totally changes the vibe of my day. You know, I can wake up in a great mood and I can see some absolute nonsense QAnon shit my aunt posted and I’m like, “You know what? Do I wanna spend the energy going through this?” And finally, it was no.
And I think the big turning point for me for speaking out about the shit that I see in the world that I think is wrong was when I had a daughter. The minute I had a kid, it became clear to me that I never want my daughter to come up to me at any point in time in her life and say “Dad, when this thing happened, why didn’t you say something? You had a platform and you were quiet.” I never want my daughter to call me a coward for not speaking up for the things that I truly believe in.
There’s a reason you don’t hear big country music artists, or at least a majority of your bigger country music artists taking stands and it’s a simple fact, it’s because it affects the bottom line. Half their fans lean right, half their fans lean left, and if they take a stand, they’re gonna alienate somebody. And when you alienate somebody, that means dollars are lost. And for a lot of mainstream artists, they’re not willing to give up two to three thousand tickets to the local amphitheater every summer, so if they just stay quiet, they don’t make anybody mad. It’s just the status quo.
But that’s not how change happens. Change doesn’t happen by being complacent and standing by and just watching. Speaking of Katie Pruitt songs [“Look The Other Way”]. It’s time to stare this shit in the face, give it a name, and call it out. Like if somebody says a fucked up comment in your conversation, just casually throws out misogynistic comments or racist comments or xenophobic comments, call them out on it. Like, “Dude, you can’t say that around me.”
And I have to deal with it a lot because being a Southern white male, we are, you know, the most entitled group of people that have ever walked the face of the earth. And so when you actually call someone out for their privilege and you call them out for their entitlement, it makes them extremely uncomfortable. I encourage my friends to call me out on the entitlement. I want to be better, I want to take the stance to fix the problems.
And some of the problems are so deep rooted in me that I don’t know they’re problems. These microaggressions that I’m still learning on a daily basis from friends, to just learning like, just a couple years ago I had a friend just straight call me out on pronouns and it was like “You’re not doing it because you hate people, you’re just ignorant on it,” and instead of getting mad at my friend for calling me ignorant, instead of trying to be like “No no no, I’m not that bad,” I just told her, “just tell me what I can do to not be ignorant. Teach me. Teach me how to be a better person.” Actively taking those steps and trying to be better is what everyone should be doing. It’s simple. But some people are so deep rooted in their own ego that they can’t remove themselves and put themselves in someone else’s shoes and have enough empathy to be like, “You know what? I can change a couple ways I talk to people and it will completely change the game.”
So you were talking about being a Southern white male, and that makes me think of course of your song “A Better South,” and I think what’s so unique to me about that song and just sort of about your vibe in general is that you’re recognizing all this and you’re calling people out, but you’re still hopeful for the future, you’re not just like, “The world’s on fire,” and then you leave it there; you’re like, “The world’s on fire, BUT I believe in a better South”
Yeah, it’s one of those things where I spent a long time in my career, in my writing, being negative. Ending songs on these negative takes.
Sad songs make you happy?
Yeah, and it was just one of those things where it was like, I didn’t need that much negativity in my life. I needed to be optimistic, and I needed to be hopeful, and again, it all goes back to when my daughter came. When I realized I was gonna be a dad and I had something else to live for and somebody else to leave a better place for.
Not to sound cliché, but everything changes when you become a parent. It’s not about just you and what makes you comfortable and what makes the world you live in okay. It’s about the things we leave to the next generation, my daughter, and I want her to grow up knowing that her dad is gonna fight tooth and nail for her, her rights, her kids’ rights. And I want to teach her to be a loud, outspoken female. I want her to know, never bend to anyone, especially someone who looks like me.
It’s great because she’s in preschool now, and she talks to everybody super loud. We never tell her to be quiet at home, we tell her to get it out, and she’s extremely high verbal. I love it because she’s gonna be the lady that just makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I’m just so stoked to be the dad standing behind her being like, “That’s my kid.”
I love that. I always get a little emotional when I talk about parent stuff — obviously, I’m not a parent, but my dad has always been there for me, encouraging me, and I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my dad.
And that’s why it’s so important to me to end on these optimistic notes. I point out the negative in the world, point out ugly things in the dark corners that we don’t want to talk about, but it doesn’t help to call something out if you don’t give a solution, if you don’t give a “It could be better than that thing, than that disgusting monster in the corner, we can do better than this.”
A lot of my songs like “Tough Folks” and “The World is on Fire” and “Me + Mine” and “A Better South,” are about, you know, pulling yourself up and making the world a place you want to be. We have no room for people to just stand by and just wish that the world was a better place. There’s a line in “A Better South,” off our new record, “The only dream that ain’t worth havin’ is the one you won’t chase down.”
It’s one thing to talk about how you want this country to be, how great and free it could be, and there’s another thing to go out there every single day and work relentlessly to make it a better place. And I choose to do the latter part. I spent too much of my life being the guy on the sidelines, being the guy that was too afraid to speak up.
Kind of like in Jason Isbell’s White Man’s World?
Exactly. Sitting by and hearing your uncle tell the off-color joke and not standing up and saying something about it. It’s important not just for us to be allies but for us to be outspoken allies, to let everyone know that this is a safe place for you to be, I got your back you got my back, it’s us against them. And like the Isbell song, “There’s more of us than there are of them,” [“There can’t be more of them than us,” from “Hope the High Road”] I truly believe that. You know, just take a look at the popular vote.
Yeah, I didn’t know that you’d get back to me about the interview right away so the timing’s kind of weird now, I didn’t know if I’d wanna talk on election day.
Yeah, the day after the election – I didn’t even realize it until today, I was like, this is gonna be timely, we’re talking in the throes of one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime.
Watching all this unfold, how do you feel like you’re going to talk to your daughter about this when she’s just a little bit older?
My goal as a father is just to teach her to be a good person. I think that’s all a lot of people want and where a lot of people were failed. You think they’re good, but then you see some of the shit they’re posting, and you’re like, “That’s not good. That’s not even, like, the basic definition of a kind person.”
Long ago, we lost the art of discussion. We lost the art of being able to talk to someone who has completely opposing viewpoints as us and be able to talk about it. We have these things now called arguments. They’re very similar to discussions, but arguments and discussions differ in one way, and it’s the amount of respect you have for the person you’re talking to. Discussions involve respect. Discussions involve the conversation coming to an end, you shaking hands, hugging, and still being close. Arguments are void of respect. And we tend to have a lot of those.
Hell, I tend to have a lot of those on a daily basis on Twitter, just yelling at people, because you know I’ve tried to have these conversations just like, “Hey why don’t you try to be a decent human” and they’re like, “Screw you libtard!” and you’re like, “You can’t say that!” and then just dragging them through the streets of Twitter.
I think it’s important to tell her [my daughter] and be honest with her, tell her that not everybody enjoys getting to know the things that scare them, to get to know the things that are different from them. I watch my daughter sometimes, she’s two, and she doesn’t know hate. She doesn’t know race. She doesn’t know any of this. And it’s fun to watch her just run up to kids, no matter what demographic they’re from, no matter what racial background they’re from and just hug ‘em, and wanna play, and wanna have fun.
And somewhere along the way we’re taught this division. In some of us it’s light, in some of us it’s very heavy, but there’s this division that gets pumped into us and I want to do my best — I’m not confident enough to say that I’m going to be able to keep every bad thing away from her, but it’s my job as a parent to try to teach her, “This is bad, this is good. There is a very clear definition between the two.”
And just try to explain to her, if she looks back at the 2016 election and 2020 election and wants to talk about it, I’m gonna tell her that there’s people out there that are afraid of things that are different than them, there are people out there that are afraid of things that they don’t fully comprehend, whether it’s because of their beliefs, whether it’s because of their education, whether it’s because of their social and cultural situations, they just don’t understand it.
Like my dad — I truly believe my dad’s a good guy. I think he’s got a big heart. He’s never left my hometown. He says some really off color nonsense on a regular basis and only in the last decade have I been man enough to stand up and say “Dad, you can’t say this. This makes me feel uncomfortable. Let me tell you an easier way to say this or a better way to say this.”
Yeah and you’re proposing the solution instead of just saying like, “Dad you’re stupid and old, shut up.”
Yeah it’s like “Dad, you’re a racist, shut up” – it’s all about how you’re saying and where you’re putting the emphasis. It’s about re-learning. Hate is taught, and hate can be untaught. Hate is a learned behavior and sheerly by definition of learning something, you can unlearn something.
It’s not easy, but you can.
Oh yeah, it’s extremely hard. It’s not easy. You know, I’m a straight white male who was raised in the South. I was raised with a very very clear way of life and when I went to college that was when it clicked for me. When I went to college I was 18 years old and I was thrown into this diverse beautiful place — Raleigh, North Carolina — this place where there was so much stuff colliding, and I was just like, “My parents were wrong about everything they told me about black people, about gay people, about everything.” Then you have to unlearn what they taught you and then learn from world experience.
I’ve been very fortunate — I’ve been able to travel the world, I’ve been to every state, I’ve met so many different people from far left leaning to far right leaning and I’ve learned to love a lot of different things about everybody.
Like I said, I’m a redneck from Reidsville, North Carolina. I sound like it, I look like it, I talk like it. I was raised by rednecks, but I’m also an empathetic human being that believes in one, the human experience, and two, the human experience.
Did you see Katie’s covers of the Neil Young songs, “Ohio” and “After the Gold Rush?”
Oh, so good. They’re so good. She’s fantastic. Jaime Wyatt also put out also one of the better records of 2020 as well. [Ed. – It’s likely Barham mentions this because Wyatt is gay. We’ve profiled her in these pages – and agree with BJ about her album “Neon Cross”!]
Shooter Jennings produced it, right?
Yeah, Shooter did her record and then he did our record, we were back to back, and Jamie is — Jaime’s top notch. We took her out on tour two years ago, she spent the summer out on the road with us. And again, it’s just about finding stuff that inspires you, finding stuff that you think needs a bigger megaphone to get out into the world and then just trying to give it a megaphone.
I think it’s important to spread the things that inspire us, from tiny little things to the really really big things. Hell, that’s how I found most of the stuff that really inspires me, a friend randomly texts me, “Hey I heard this and it made me think of you, hopefully you dig it,” and then you listen to it and it changes your life. Like a friend of mine sent me just a link that said “Katie Pruitt Expectations” and I opened it and I had no idea that it would be the record I listened to the most this year. I love how that happens.
So you said at the beginning of this that you’re an ally and you support the queer community. What would you say to a fan of yours who maybe has been listening to you and just isn’t sure if you are on their side or not?
Well, first and foremost, I am on their side. Always. I’m going to fight for anybody that’s getting an unfair shake. I’m going to speak up against it. I don’t know — I can only be empathetic. I can’t be sympathetic because I haven’t went through it. Again, you know, I’m a cis white male, it’s what I am but I want them to know that there is a place for them in my music, there’s a place for them at the shows. They will never ever ever feel different or less than.
It’s one of those things where, you know, our shows are a mixed bag. Our shows are pretty wild. It’s like punk rock kids and rednecks. It’s weird at first because, like, “Oh, this is a really weird crowd,” like “I hope nothing stupid happens.” But then you get two songs in you see everybody with their hands around each other singing songs and buying each other beers and it’s a really neat thing where everybody can kind of turn their bullshit off for 90 minutes.
So I want to encourage people, if you’re worried about coming to a country show, don’t be afraid to come out, don’t be afraid to be there. Don’t be afraid to be who you are while you are there because I’m there and they’re there to see me, and I’m going to be on your side always. I just will let everybody know that there is a seat at the table when it comes to American Aquarium for every single person.
I don’t care who you are, we support it. Especially if you are a marginalized person in this country, you deserve to be spoken for. And you don’t need me to speak for you, I get that. The world has listened to white guys talk about their opinions since the dawn of time, nobody needs to hear any more from us, but I want you to know that I will be a megaphone for anything that needs to get out there, especially when somebody’s talking down or talking bad about a community as a whole.
I know it’s simple and it’s easy for me to say, but anytime I can put it in action I do put in action. I’m also open to talk to anybody about stuff like that, you know, if you have a question about our band, if you have a question about what we believe in, shoot me a message. As you can see in this interview, I’m about being very open with how I feel.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
It’s one of those things where I’ve been following you guys and I’ve seen you guys comment on our stuff and it’s just it’s so nice to see a voice, it’s so nice to not just be like “Rolling Stone Country” or some other all-encompassing thing. It’s very nice to see this, like “We are standing up for the queer community in country music.” I think it’s important.
Again, I grew up in a very right wing, conservative, evangelical town where being gay was not something that I understood, that I was around. Fast forward to 36 year old me, I have a niece that is a lesbian. I have a mother-in-law’s that’s a lesbian, I’ve got a sister-in-law that’s a lesbian. I’ve learned where I was wrong for so long and I’m learning what I can do to be a better ally, on from a family level to an interacting with fans level.
So when you reached out to do this interview, it made my day just ’cause it’s something that I believe in. It’s not just having the backs of the queer community at my shows. It’s, you know, I’ve got a lot of females in my family who are fighting the same struggles that a lot of people who are going to be reading this interview are fighting, and I just want them to know, the same way I told my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, my niece: I’m there. I’ve always got your back, I’ve always got your voice in mind.
I really appreciate everything you said. It’s really made my day as a queer person and a fan and I’m sure it’ll make a lot of other people’s days.
Awesome. Awesome. That makes my day hearing that.
American Aquarium’s latest album, “Lamentations,” is available wherever you get your music.