“Take me back to where I’m from, where the air’s as thick as tobacco gum/Where I was born, where I was raised, on broken promises and glory days.”
So begins the first, eponymous single from BJ Barham’s solo debut, “Rockingham.” That “where I’m from” is Reidsville, North Carolina, in Rockingham County, the setting for this acoustic album.
“Rockingham” was a labor of love for Barham, the lead singer of North Carolina alt-country group American Aquarium. Barham wrote the eight incredibly intimate songs after a tour in Europe that happened to coincide with the November 2015 Paris attacks. The resulting songs were all about the notion of home and what that means, but they didn’t feel fit for an American Aquarium release.
So Barham set up a PledgeMusic fund to see if fans would contribute to his first solo album. It worked— he raised 177 percent of his fundraising goal.
(Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this album as a digital download for contributing to Barham’s PledgeMusic campaign before I was an employee of the Statesman. Eagerly awaiting the vinyl copy to come in the mail.)
While the songs aren’t autobiographical (save for one), you get the clear sense that Barham has lived (or has known people who have lived) many of the experiences of this album.
“Rockingham” is a short story collection, a set of snapshots, capturing a time and a place, reckoning with the past as a way to make sense of the future. That theme runs clear through to the album cover, a Polaroid of Barham’s young parents.
“This is the town that I spent the first 18 years of my life in, the town that the last seven generations of my family were born and raised in, the place that serves as the backdrop for the entire record,” Barham told Rolling Stone Country. “[‘Rockingham’ the song] is about running out of opportunity and coming to terms that you are never leaving the town you were born in. I’ve always found beauty and inspiration in the bleak and desperate side of the human condition. The thought of staring down the rest of your life and realizing you don’t have another move really struck a chord with me.”
The eight acoustic songs on this album all find sad, tragic characters who are staring down the rest of their lives, from the tobacco farmer in “American Tobacco Company” to the widower in “The Unfortunate Kind” to the Bonnie-and-Clyde pairing of a farmer and his paramour in”O’ Lover.”
And while “Rockingham” features five original songs, it also includes three solo versions of previous American Aquarium songs that Barham wrote as well— “Road to Nowhere,” “Reidsville” and “Water in the Well.”
Taken altogether, this is Barham’s “Nebraska,” similar in both tone and theme. Especially on “O’ Lover,” which echoes that album’s “Atlantic City,” the characters presented here have nothing but bad choices and worse choices. Barham’s strong but rasping voice has been compared to Bruce Springsteen’s in the past, but never before has that comparison been more apt. His voice, a guitar and some minimal instrumentation is all you need to get a full sense of life in Reidsville and Rockingham County.
And as for that one autobiographical tune? That would be “Madeline,” where Barham addresses a fictional daughter with some of his own hard-earned wisdom, not unlike Sturgill Simpson’s “Keep It Between the Lines.”
One of those pieces of advice is “Never be ashamed of the fact that you are Southern.” That might as well be this album’s thesis statement—Growing up in a small Southern town and never quite being able to outrun where you’re from shapes you and forms you, for better or worse. But accepting that is the first step to being able to deal with it, so it seems Barham is saying.
“Rockingham” isn’t a completely uplifting listen, but its characters, and its notions of the South, stay with you. And it’s as perfect of a portrait of Southern life that you’ll find this year.
Rockingham is available in wide release on August 19.