BJ Barham has led country rockers American Aquarium for a decade, but “Rockingham” marks his first solo effort. It’s a stunning collection that stands out in a sea of singer-songwriters.
Spurred by watching the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks while touring Europe, “Rockingham” drew Barham back home.
“I was in Belgium the night the Paris attacks happened. I had the next two days off in Holland. I basically locked myself in a room for two days and wrote songs about home,” says Barham, who didn’t end up writing directly about Paris.
“It started taking shape in narrative about small-town America, through these characters who I’d met throughout my life. Then universal themes began to emerge. They’re songs about the broken American dream,” explains Barham, who plays Visulite Theatre Friday.
Barham grew up in Reidsville in Rockingham County and wrote the songs from the viewpoint of people in his hometown, where his parents, grandparents and brother still live.
“Anytime something like a grand attack happens, it starts making you question, ‘What if it was me?’ There’s these things I want to say to certain people and that need to be said. It turned into this big exploration of narrative fictional songwriting based in a real place,” says Barham, who has previously written from an autobiographical standpoint.
“American Aquarium is basically catching up with what’s going on with me every two years. This was me jumping into the deep end. Showing off the story instead of, ‘This happened to me.’ ”
After high school, Barham left Reidsville for N.C. State and found music.
“Raleigh gave me a city and a chance to play music,” he says. He and his wife recently moved to Wendell in Wake County, not far from the city. “I find myself getting older and realize Reidsville had its ups. What small towns lack in culture and opportunity they have in values and morals. To be brought up the way I was brought up, looking back I was fortunate to be able to be raised small town.”
Lyrically, “Rockingham” puts Barham in league with great storytellers like Steve Earle and John Prine. On “Madeline,” Barham advises, “Never trust a man who does hard drugs in his 30s.” The line has drawn attention from journalists for its simple Jason Isbell-like brilliance.
“That’s very autobiographical. I don’t have kids. That song is to a future child. Explaining some of the grander things I’ve learned in life and some of the specific things I’ve learned in life. That’s one of my favorite lines. I guess I could’ve used a more inspirational quote that someone could use in their Twitter profile. That’s a hard lesson I’ve learned myself.”
He says it cuts through the seriousness.
“This record is a very heavy emotional record, and any time you get a chance to chuckle and make somebody smile and it can still be truthful to the song, I jump at the chance,” he explains. “This record is such a bummer. I never killed anyone in an American Aquarium song, I killed like seven people on this record.”
The North Carolina native opens for Hayes Carll.
When: 8:45 p.m. Friday.
Where: Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave.
Details: 704-358-9200; www.visulite.com.