In the lush tobacco fields of North Carolina where BJ Barham was raised, people work hard. Families stay nearby, toiling and growing together. BJ loves those farms and his tiny Reidsville hometown, but he had to run off and start American Aquarium, a band now beloved by thousands.
BJ couldn’t stay. But he couldn’t really leave, either: he’s still singing about the lessons, stories, and lives that define rural America––and him.
“I moved to the big city to go to college and fell in love with music,” BJ says. “But half the songs on our record are about small towns––little pieces of my childhood. I’ve had moments where it turns out a piece of broken English my father repeated twice a week is the most accurate way to say something. So I put it in a song.”
American Aquarium’s seventh studio album Things Change offers the band’s finest collection of folk-infused Southern rock-and-roll to date. Stacked with BJ’s signature storytelling––always deeply personal but also instantly relatable––the record questions and curses current events, shares one man’s intimate evolution, and leaves listeners with a priceless gift: hope.
“In my early 20s, I was not as hopeful,” BJ says. “Now, as I’m getting ready to become a father, I think I have to be hopeful––especially with the situation our country is in now. For her sake, I have to be positive.” He pauses. “Her” is his daughter, due in the spring of 2018. BJ adds, “Being self-aware has always been a blessing and a curse. But that’s what’s always made my songwriting relatable to people. I don’t hold back. I’m almost too honest.”
BJ’s candor has fueled American Aquarium’s runaway appeal, visible most clearly in consistently sold-out shows across the country and throughout Europe – between 200 and 250 dates a year. Much has changed for the band and BJ since their acclaimed last effort, Wolves. In 2017, every American Aquarium member save BJ quit the group. American Aquarium has featured about 30 players since BJ founded the outfit in 2006, and while each member has left indelible marks, the band has always been anchored by the literary songs and sometimes roaring, sometimes whispering, drawl of BJ Barham. BJ’s personal life also underwent seismic shifts: He got sober. He got married. Soon, he’ll be a dad.
Featuring a new band lineup that includes Shane Boeker on lead guitar, drummer Joey Bybee, bassist Ben Hussey, and Adam Kurtz on pedal steel and electric guitar, as well as a reinvigorated frontman in BJ, Things Change is American Aquarium’s first release on a label after selling thousands of records on their own. “As an artist, your goal is for the newest thing you do to be better than the last. You’re slowly whittling away the bullshit to try and get to the truth,” BJ says. “With this album, I learned how to cut some of that fat so that it’s just truth. It’s our best record.”
Recorded at 3CG Records in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Things Change was produced by Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter John Fulbright and features cameos from Americana standouts including John Moreland and Jamie Lin Wilson. Brazen album opener “The World is on Fire” is a richly layered rock-and-roll anthem that documents BJ and his wife’s stunned reaction to the last presidential election. Emotional and conversational, the song taps into widespread feelings of confusion and fear: “She said, ‘What are we going to do? What’s this world coming to?’ / For the first time in my whole life, I stood there speechless.” But what begins as despair builds into defiant faith, as BJ growls a call to action to cap off one of his favorite songs he’s ever written. “I’m complaining about the state of things, and then the third verse almost serves as a challenge to myself: hey, you’re in charge of another human being. You can create change,” he says.
Driving rock-and-roller “Crooked + Straight” explores the small-town consequences of questioning religion, and the tightness of family in the face of one member’s rejection. His father’s advice anchors the song. “I come from a blue-collar family. I’m the only one who didn’t go into farming. I learned if you want something, you have to go out and take it. You can’t expect anything from anybody,” BJ says. “You can only go out there and work harder. My dad always said you can outwork anybody else.” Love for hard work and the people who carry it out appears repeatedly throughout Things Change. Guitar-heavy “Tough Folks” is a snarling ode to those with dirt under their fingernails, while bass- and pedal-steel-infused “Work Conquers All” spins a tale in praise and pursuit of Oklahoma’s state motto.
The album’s love songs are the kind of achingly beautiful that only comes with maturity and a willingness to expose one’s own flaws. Haunting “Shadows of You” recalls a lover’s flight as the protagonist longs for what he let get away. Gorgeous “Till the Final Curtain Falls” celebrates loyalty and pledges endless devotion. The moving title track takes an often doleful topic––people’s tendency to change––and turns it on its head, tracing BJ’s personal growth and recognizing his now-wife’s steadfast love.
BJ’s other two favorite tracks are album standouts. Moving “When We Were Younger Men” addresses the break-up of American Aquarium head on. As BJ professes love for his former bandmates over stripped down acoustic guitar, his voice is honeyed and deep. “It’s an open letter to five guys who I spent eight years of my life with seeing the entire world,” BJ says. “I think anyone who has ever had to walk away from a friendship or has had somebody walk away from them will relate to the song.” Stunner “One Day at a Time” is self-perceptive and vulnerable, detailing BJ’s battles with himself. Even within his career full of well-written gems, the song is a towering accomplishment.
“At the end of the day, if you’re not writing songs to affect other people’s lives, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” BJ says, reflecting on the new album, where he’s been, and where American Aquarium is headed. “Money may come and go. You may never get fame. But if you sit down and write songs to affect people, you can do it your whole life and be happy.”
Charlie Overbey And The Broken Arrows
Charlie Overbey may be a lifelong Californian, but his songs are steeped in the timeless traditions of the American South. After years of touring the world supporting acts ranging from David Allan Coe and Blackberry Smoke to Social Distortion and Motorhead, Overbey slowly amassed a collection of introspective original songs that transcend the endless rock & roll party, taking a stark, undeniably honest look at some of life’s most gritty moments. The result is Charlie Overbey’'s new LP, Broken Arrow.
Coined as " The Punk Rock Spy In The House Of Honky Tonk" Charlie's new album Broken Arrow is a triumphant collection of road-hardened alt-country tunes born of Overbey’s upbringing in what he calls “the school and church of Johnny Cash,” Broken Arrow features guest appearances from The Mastersons (who also play in Steve Earle's band The Dukes), Miranda Lee Richards (who sings on duet single “Slip Away”) and Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers, and was produced by Ted Hutt who recently won a Grammy for his work with Old Crow Medicine Show, and has helmed multiple albums by Lucero, The Gaslight Anthem, Dropkick Murphys and many more.
“I’ve never worked with anybody like Ted,” Overbey says, reflecting on the sessions. “This is the first time I’ve ever let go and trusted somebody else as a partner in my songs. He really pulled some stuff out of me that I had not planned on delivering. Honestly, these songs can be hard for me to sing—they come from a deep, real and sometimes dark place.”
Self-aware and introspective without relying on played-out tropes of love and loss, Overbey’s songwriting is genuine, fearless and visceral. Authentic, reverb-drenched ‘70s-channeling album opener “Slip Away” gets right at the heart of life’s darkness, chronicling the heart-wrenching suicide of a young girl. Accompanied by wailing pedal steel and the haunting harmonies of Miranda Lee Richards, the song sets a tone of somber acceptance in the face of mortality.
“The Ballad of Eddie Spaghetti”—featuring a guest appearance from its namesake—also addresses mortality, though from a different perspective, confronting Spaghetti’s recent struggles with cancer. While the refrain, “If I die at 47, if I die before my time / Will they drag me up to heaven or deliver me to Hell in my prime” might read as a last will & testament, the soaring vocals and upbeat tempo elevate it to an awe-inspiring, fist-pumping battle cry. As Overbey sees it, “You gotta step up and kick life’s ass sometimes.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Overbey was exposed to country music early and often. It wasn’t something he sought out on his own—his father owned a 1947 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar, and almost every time it was played, out spilled a Johnny Cash song. Overbey recalls these times fondly and admits they shaped his musical growth, though it took years of punk-rock rebellion before he’d come to appreciate the genre’s influence on him. “When you’re raised, and it’s all around you,” he says, “it’s the last thing you want to be a part of.”
Overbey’s first success in the music industry came when his cowpunk outfit Custom Made Scare landed a deal with Side One Dummy Records in 1998. But before the band’s debut album dropped, Overbey went on the run from the law for months, finally turning himself in and spending a year in prison. The very same week he was released, the band hit the road immediately, and toured heavily into the new millennium alongside seminal punk acts such as Suicidal Tendencies, Social Distortion, Agent Orange, Zeke and REO Speedealer.
A side project of Overbey’s called Charlie & The Valentine Killers also toured in the late 2000s with David Allan Coeand Lemmy's side outfit The Headcat. “It was still days of angst,” Overbey says, but the country-leaning project’s sound served as an important precursor to his current solo work backed by the Broken Arrows.
Looking ahead to the March 2018 release of Broken Arrow, Overbey is gearing up to hit the road with a vengeance for the first time in years. He and the band are already working on songs for a follow-up record that will draw from the same rich vein as Broken Arrow. Overbey isn’t one for idle hands—when he isn’t playing or writing, Charlie has become a well-known name in the fashion world with his one-of-a-kind, hand-shaped Lone Hawk Hats, for devotees in the Americana scene, including the camps of Blackberry Smoke, Miranda Lambert, Lucero, the Foo Fighters, Dwight Yoakam, Cage The Elephant, Kaleo, and Miley Cyrus. Lone Hawk Hats were even the focus point in a recent Stella McCartney campaign.
It’s a craft Overbey taught himself by trial and error, ultimately carrying with it the same authenticity and attention to detail you’ll find in his songwriting. They are available at several high-end locations, including he and his lady's brick-and-mortar shop Honeywood Vintage / Lone Hawk Hats on ultra hip York Blvd in Highland Park, Los Angeles.
As the album title suggests, an existential darkness permeates Broken Arrow. It is the work of a road-savvy rock & roll veteran who sees the world as it is, fully grasping the jagged pain of life. But this darkness isn’t a dead end—Overbey’s songs are shot through with enough hard-fought resilience, determination and optimism to remind listeners the only way out is forward, and that the wild ride of life is a mysterious and beautiful gift.