American Aquarium Frontman BJ Barham Talks Covering for Turnpike Troubadours, 90s Country Revival, More

by Blake Ells
(Photo by Leah Puttkammer/Getty Images)

BJ Barham and American Aquarium are on a bit of a break from the road. It was a busy summer, as they released their latest album Chicamacomico in June and played their first date at the Ryman in Nashville shortly thereafter. They’ll meet up with the Mike & the Moonpies and Vandoliers tour for one special night at the Standard Deluxe in Waverly, Ala. on Saturday, October 15.

BJ talked to us about how special that venue is and about the time that he was asked to stand in for Turnpike Troubadours when Evan Felker abruptly left during their show in Key West, Fla. at Mile 0. He also talked about being on the front end of the 90s country music revival.

What was it like when you were asked to step in for Evan at Mile 0?

You hate to see your friend struggling. You hate to see your friend dealing with that. But we didn’t think twice about it. The festival came to us and said, “Listen, you were supposed to go on before Turnpike. Do you feel comfortable closing the show?” And it’s like, “We’re already here. Of course. We’re gonna play the same set regardless of if it’s 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.”

I chose to address the issue on stage. I chose to make sure people know that they need to be supportive of their favorite band or else they weren’t real fans. We thought it’d be a nice touch to do a Turnpike cover that night. We did “Every Girl” with John Fullbright who was one of the co-writers of that song and Jamie Lin Wilson. It was a camaraderie thing. We’re not just fans, we’re friends of those guys.

American Aquarium Steps in for Turnpike Troubadours in Key West

Our band went through the same thing. I had to go through sobriety. I had to clean up. They’re such a massive band. The public eye they are in is much greater than what we went through. I got sober in 2014 and there wasn’t a big hoopla. My story wasn’t on the cover of People magazine. I was able to do it a little quieter. The road is hard, man. Substance abuse is hard. Addiction is hard. Family life and turmoil at home is hard. It was a next-man-up kind of thing. When the starting running back goes down, someone behind him is gonna have to do the job.

You’ve played several shows with them this year. What’s it been like reuniting with old friends?

It’s amazing. Not only are we back on the road with friends of ours, we’re back on the road with friends that are operating at a very, very high level. Very rarely do you ever hear anybody get sober and say, “Life sucks.” You just don’t hear anybody say, “I got sober and everything went to hell.” Watching Evan perform those songs clear-eyed is one of the greatest things you can see in a friend. They were a great band when he was drinking. Don’t get me wrong. But watching Evan navigate that crowd with clear eyes is a different level.

BJ Barham on the 90s Country Revival

There’s a 90s country revival happening right now. You were way ahead of it. Did you sense it coming?

BJ Barham (American Aquarium): If I could predict the trends in popular music, I’d be famous by now. I think it’s nice that the bro-country era is officially dying. The elder statesmen of bro-country are disbanding which is great to see for people that love real country music. But there’s still gonna be that sheen to it. We still haven’t gotten back to the storytelling of 90s country. The sound has just changed.

Growth takes time. It’s a small step.

Are you a fan of any of the new mainstream artists?

I really like the new Ashley McBryde record. My girl Hailey Whitters is crushing it right now. Mostly female artists are steering this genre back into a place where it’s reputable. We should give it back to the ladies and let them right the ship.

So many of my friends have leapfrogged us. For those at home, that’s when bands that used to open for you are further past you in their career. Tyler Childers did. Morgan Wade. Hailey. When I was younger I thought this was a competition and thought that someone’s success took away mine. But I’ve learned that’s not how it works. We can all be successful. Every time someone leapfrogs me, it reminds me that I have an ear for authentic music. So I take it as a badge of honor.

American Aquarium Meets Up With The Vandoliers in Alabama

How important is what Scott Peek at Standard Deluxe has done for Southern artists?

It’s massive. I always tell people that Waverly, Ala. is one of the most magical places in the country. It’s an artistic oasis in a very redneck state. When I think of Alabama, I think of Birmingham and Auburn. Those are the places I think of that you can stop and play music. It was a safe haven for songwriters. It gave us another stop in Alabama that wasn’t Birmingham. Scott has been nothing but gracious to my band and any other band you’d talk to: Truckers, Isbell, Shakes, Lee Bains. It’s a magical place.