“Tough times don’t last, but tough folks do.”
BJ Barham, front man of American Aquarium, lives those words. He’s a quintessential North Carolinian, raised amongst rows of tobacco in Reidsville. He knows a lot about hard work and the people who carry it out. That upbringing is the driving force behind American Aquarium’s alternative country repertoire, with songs heavily influenced by the lessons, stories, and lives that define rural America.
“I come from a blue-collar family. I’m the only one who didn’t go into farming,” BJ says. “I moved to the big city to go to college and fell in love with music, but half the songs on our record are about small towns, little pieces of my childhood.” Those songs are both deeply personal and instantly relatable.
Combining soulful guitar licks with just the right amount of southern twang, American Aquarium produces a signature sound. It’s sometimes suggestive of the Allman Brothers, sometimes reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but always a richly-layered resonance of southern rock.
Despite a revolving door of band members, around 30 players since the band’s conception, BJ continues to further their collection of anthems, holding hard to the band’s name and its feeling. The current version involves Shane Boeker, Joey Bybee, Ben Hussey and Adam Kurtz. Together they’ve released 2018’s Things Change, American Aquarium’s first release on a label after selling thousands of records on their own.
Things Change is an assortment of reflections upon young adulthood. It’s emotional, conversational, and brutally honest. Much of the message is a lamentation of the reality described by the title, but it’s far from despondent. Ultimately, American Aquarium’s music leaves listeners with a gift of hope.
“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.”
American Aquarium comes to Dorton Arena at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11. As with all Dorton Arena shows, admission is free, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.