Interview: BJ Barham Reflects on Life-Changing Experiences of the Great 48 Tour
“I’m tired and exhausted, but it’s a good kind of tired and exhausted. I’ve seen the country, I’ve been to places I’ve never been, and I’ve played a few states I’ve never played.”
BJ Barham is sitting in the green room at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, N.Y., reflecting on the last couple of months. In March, he announced plans for a tour dubbed the Great 48 Tour: Over the course of eight-and-a-half weeks, Barham planned to play at least one show in each state of the continental U.S. — just him and an acoustic guitar — in support of his debut solo LP, Rockingham. Now, as the trek is nearing its end, he has a hard time putting into words how monumental the experience has been.
“It’s life-changing,” Barham tells The Boot. “The things we got to see on this tour … the tour was great, the crowds were great, but everything that came around it, well, I can’t even explain. It’s changed my life, and I’m not just saying that.”
For Barham, it’s been a tough road leading up to this tour. Just a few months ago, it was announced that the current lineup of his band, American Aquarium, was disbanding — but the tough road started well before that news broke.
“I’ve been questioning a lot of things. I’ve been questioning my music, I’ve been questioning our country, I’ve been questioning a lot of stuff,” Barham admits. “We hear so much in the news about the bad people in this country.”
"This tour gave me faith in everything."
Traveling and performing throughout the States changed all of that: “This tour gave me faith in everything,” Barham explains with a smile on his face.
“The people coming out to these shows are diehards. They want to hear the stories, they want to hear the obscure songs,” he continues. “It lets me know there is an audience, literally in every state, for what I do. There are people in every single state that really dig the songs.”
As far as having faith in his country again … well, Barham says his Great 48 Tour helped with that, too.
“I’ve gotten to meet some really, really great human beings on this tour,” he says, “and from a purely geographical standpoint, I’ve gotten to see this entire country for what it is, and it’s incredible. There are a lot of countries you go to where the landscape is the same across the whole country. It is not like that in the States. Anywhere you’re at, if you go three or four states away in any direction, it changes drastically. It’s pretty crazy. I’ve been to all these places before, but I never really appreciated it.”
Fans who have been following Barham’s tour on social media have no doubt seen some amazing photos of the country’s geography from the singer-songwriter’s perspective. Most of those photos come from national parks, places Barham usually skips on tour.
“American Aquarium has been touring for 12 years, and it’s a democracy, so when we see one of those big brown signs on the side of the road that says ‘state park’ or ‘national monument,’ if it costs money or takes 10 extra minutes, we usually keep driving,” he says. “We stick to the highways and the quickest possible route to get somewhere. [The Great 48 Tour] was the tour of saying, ‘Okay, it’s going to be a two-and-a-half hour detour, but we’re going to see one of the prettiest things this country has to offer.’ That was totally worth it.”
And that’s another life-changing aspect of this tour for Barham: “This will definitely shape how I tour going forward,” he acknowledges. “If there is something I haven’t seen, I’m down to get up two or three hours earlier and go see it.”
“I used to go to town and play a show, and I knew the half-mile radius from the club. That’s it. I never got to see these cities,” Barham continues. “One of the main purposes of this tour was to immerse myself in every town we went to. Every recommendation we got, we took, and we’re better for it.”
"One of the main purposes of this tour was to immerse myself in every town we went to. Every recommendation we got, we took, and we’re better for it."
Though American Aquarium has long been considered one of the hardest-working bands in the world, Barham admits that the Great 48 Tour totally blew his expectations out of the water.
“I’ve always considered myself a well-traveled person,” he says, “and this put it over the edge. It taught me what this country has to offer, and it taught me what you can do on a tour. You can take advantage of what this country has to offer, and I don’t think I’m ever going to let these opportunities slip by. I think I’m always going to choose to be more tired to see more of it, you know? That’s what I learned from this tour.”
As Barham embarked on his solo tour, he didn’t lose the camaraderie of traveling with a full band thanks to his road trip partners: his wife and his dog.
“She’s my best friend, and I don’t say that as a cliche,” Barham gratefully says. “I don’t say that trying to get the ‘awwww’s from the crowd. We have the same interests, we have the same tastes, we love the same things. Being able to experience this with her, there’s no loss of camaraderie. And my dog, at the end of this, he’s going to be more traveled than any of my friends. My dog has p–sed in every state.
“It’s been amazing,” he adds. “I’ve always considered myself fortunate to do what I do, but I can’t put into words how grateful I am that my fans allowed me to do this.”
Barham’s last date of the Great 48 Tour comes Friday (July 7) at Club Metronome in Burlington, Vt. When all is said and done, he’ll have knocked out 57 shows in 59 days in 48 states, traveling a total of 32,000 miles.
“It’s exhausting and masochistic, but it’s beyond cool, too. I needed this. I really needed it,” he quips. “Me and American Aquarium have been synonymous for so long, and with some of the band parting ways, I really needed to re-inspire myself. I needed to prove to myself that I don’t have to rely on anybody else, that my songs stand on their own. That’s what this tour proved to me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not nearly as big of a crowd that the band draws, but there are people out there who like my songs as much as I like some of my favorite artists’ songs. I needed that.”
"I needed to prove to myself that I don’t have to rely on anybody else, that my songs stand on their own. That’s what this tour proved to me."
As the tour comes to a close, Barham shows no signs of slowing down. Though he’ll take a bit of time to rest up and recharge, he’s already looking ahead and planning the rest of his year.
“My focus now is to go into the studio and make another American Aquarium record,” Barham tells The Boot. “My biggest goal is to make this next record and come out swinging with it … my acoustic stuff is heavy, it makes you feel something. The band stuff, that’s visceral. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
Stay tuned for the second part of The Boot’s interview with Barham, in which he delves deeper into the future of American Aquarium and what fans can expect.
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