BJ Barham of American Aquarium has rehearsed 37 years for his debut at The Ryman. On the heels of the band’s ninth studio album, Chicamacomico, they arrived at the Mother Church of Country Music for the first time. Hailey Whitters opened, and Barham joined her for their Raised collaboration “Middle of America.”
Just before 9:30 p.m., the slow hum of the intro to the latest title track rolled from behind closed curtains. They were pulled, and after 16 years of hard touring and tireless self-promotion, American Aquarium arrived.
This band had plenty of “arrival” moments before Friday, to be sure. Their last album, Lamentations, debuted at number 16 on the country chart. And they made their formal Grand Ole Opry debut in July of 2021. But something felt different on Friday. For two hours, a band that had spent two decades performing in “dive bars and dance halls” stood alone on one of music’s grandest stages.
“I can’t tell you how special tonight is,” Barham reflected. “This is for every kid that decides to pick up a pen and paper and write songs and tries to write songs. This is where your dreams begin.”
Barham recalled that earlier in the day, his wife reminded him of a moment they shared on the same stage ten years ago. They were touring the venue with a group. He managed to find the Instagram photo that he took that day.
‘What if American Aquarium Plays The Ryman One Day?’
On Friday night, he added more commentary to the moment.
“She said, ‘What if you get to play here one day?'” Barham said of that tour ten years ago. “And I said, ‘Have you seen us? There’s no [expletive] way. I’m surprised they let me stand this close to the stage.’ About 2,000 shows later and five records later, me and this motley crew of gentlemen get to make our debut here tonight, and I thank you so much for being here.”
The band played seven of the ten tracks from its new record, including “The First Year.” Barham returned for the encore solo. The track was written about the loss of his mother, and alone on The Ryman stage, he introduced it accordingly.
“Tonight’s a special one,” Barham said. “Tonight’s the type of night you wanna share with people you care about. My mom would have absolutely loved this.”
American Aquarium found a way to seamlessly blend their new, emotionally heavier material with their old guitar-heavier singalongs. While plenty was shared from Lamentations and Chicamacomico, the fire remained in fan favorites like “Casualties” and “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart.”
“I was talking to my dad today and he said, ‘What’s it feel like?'” Barham once noted. “I said, ‘If it all ended today and I never get to play another show, this is the coolest thing I got to do.'”
Barham asked everyone in attendance to meet him outside after the show because he wanted to shake their hands.
“I want to thank you for supporting live, original, independent music,” he said at The Ryman. As he has each time since day one.