If you’re looking for an album full of rainbows, sunshine and uplifting themes, you’re not going to find it with BJ Barham’s Rockingham. In fact you’re going to find the exact opposite. For those unaware, Barham is the lead singer of indie country-rock band American Aquarium. They’re a band known for their excellent live shows and their relentless touring schedule. Barham is most certainly not parting ways with the group, but felt it was time for his first solo release. The inspiration came to him last November when American Aquarium was doing a show in Belgium on the night of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris, France at the Eagles of Death Metal concert. It really disturbed Barham that something like this could happen at a music venue, something he calls a safe space where everyone can forget their troubles. A couple of days later he had eight songs that just came to him and that’s the songs that make up his new record Rockingham.
The album begins with “American Tobacco Company,” a song about the broken American dream and the illusion of hard work always paying off. Barham says his grandfather inspired this song, as his grandfather served four years in the military in World War II only to come home and work 42 years at tobacco company. His grandfather never got ahead, despite always being told that hard work will always pay off. It’s after years of backbreaking work that his grandfather realizes the American dream is a lie. It’s a depressing, sober song that will punch you right in the gut. The album’s title track is about Barham’s father realizing the same thing his father did about the American dream. Barham’s hometown of Rockingham, North Carolina is the other main theme of this song. It’s a small town that has long been passed by the rest of the world and offers very little opportunity for a good life. Rockingham is a perfect representation of many small towns across America where good, hard-working people realize that life is hard and your dreams don’t always pan out. As someone who has been through Rockingham multiple times, I feel like Barham perfectly captured the spirit of the town.
“Madeline” sees Barham singing to his yet to be born daughter. He imagines what it’s like holding his daughter in his arms and the innocence he sees in the eyes of a newborn child. He tells her about the world being a scary place and bestows advice he hopes serves her well in her life. It’s a theme we saw most prominently on Sturgill Simpson’s new album earlier this year. I can imagine for parents who just had a kid, this song really connects and Barham really delivers an excellent vocal performance on this emotional song. The entirety of Rockingham is one big, emotional gut punch, but it’s perhaps demonstrated best on “Unfortunate Kind.” Once again Barham’s inspiration comes from family, as he incorporated his own parent’s loving relationship into crafting this song. It’s about a couple that mistakenly fell in love and loved each other every year they were married. One story particular demonstrated this, as in their first week of being married the wife burns the pecan pie and the husband eats it anyway since he doesn’t want her to cry and feel bad. Eventually the man’s wife gets sick and dies, leaving the man to mourn the death of his best friend. But he looks back as lucky to have her in his life and the time they had together. It’s a heartbreaking, touching song that is absolutely fantastic.
Barham tackles the American dream again in “O’ Lover.” The song is a pretty messed up story about a man explaining to his love that things haven’t been going the way he planned and the farming life isn’t providing for them. So he’s planned to rob a store for money, is armed with a pistol he got from his father and has a getaway car to boot. To take it even further he points the gun at her and tells her get in the back of the car, not giving her choice of whether or not she wants to participate in this robbery. While it’s a disturbing story, stories of this level of desperation for money take place every day and once again I marvel at the absolute honesty that shines in Barham’s songwriting. This is followed by “Road to Nowhere,” a song about a man getting his heart-broken by the woman he thought was the love of his life. Her leaving destroys him, as once again someone he invested all of his trust and love in has left his life. It’s a tragic song and unlike a lot of modern country breakup songs, this doesn’t even involve alcohol or a happy ending. It’s just a crippling loneliness and darkness that you’re left with because that’s how it is in reality.
The album ends with Barham covering two songs off American Aquarium’s 2012 album Small Town Hymns. “Reidsville” is about a young couple realizing over the course of their lives that their fates living in small town are already pre-determined. It’s a life destined to be filled with difficulties and having to work the family business just to make ends meet. Eventually the town robs them of the joy they had when they were young and leads the man to declare he’s going to ask God when he dies why he gave up on the town. The song perfectly captures the dark cynicism of small town life. Rockingham concludes with the introspective “Water in the Well.” It’s about a man who sees his family farm taken away by the state of Georgia and is now left with nothing. He reflects on how long his family owned the farm and how he did his best to carry on the legacy that was passed down to him, but ultimately failed. Faced with the haunting failure and lack of money, he wonders what will become of him once he runs out of stuff to sell to make a living. And just like the rest of this album we don’t get a happy ending, but we’re all left wondering what’s next.
BJ Barham’s Rockingham will flat-out knock you on your ass. It’s depressing as hell and it’s full of raw emotion. Don’t take this as bad as it’s quite the opposite. It’s a beautifully dark album that paints a poignant tale of the failed American dream, lost hope, the hells of small town living and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. The songwriting is absolutely flawless and couldn’t be any deeper if it tried. While I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the instrumentation on this album because the songwriting is so excellent, it also shines bright and does a good job of letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting. At eight songs long, this album is somehow the perfect length. It doesn’t let up and hits you in the gut every step of the way. I don’t think there will be another album released this year as morbid as Rockingham. But I don’t know if there’s an album better than it this year too.