Marking an accomplishment nearly two decades in the making, BJ Barham and American Aquarium made a triumphant debut headlining the Ryman Auditorium on Friday night (June 17) with a show that compiled the biggest hits and deep cuts from Burn.Flicker.Die to Chicamacomico. The show was a dream come true and a culmination of years of hard work for Barham — as it is for anyone making their Ryman debut — and something he made light of several times during the career-spanning show.

“For every kid who picks up a guitar and decides to put paper to words and write songs, this is where you dream of ending up,” said Barham. “My wife reminded me that it was almost ten years to the day that we toured the Ryman… I remember her saying ‘what if you get to play here one day,’ to which I responded ‘have you seen us?’... But nearly 2,000 shows and five records later me and this motley crew of gentlemen finally get to make our Ryman debut tonight and I thank you all so much for being here. If it all ended now and I never got to play another show, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do.”

The maiden show of the band’s “Chicamacomico” tour, the band was full of energy and on cloud nine throughout their 27 song set that kicked off with the song of the same name and title track to their newest album. From there the group tackled a myriad of songs from their past five albums since Barham’s aforementioned Ryman tour such as “The Long Haul,” “Jacksonville,” “Losing Side of Twenty Five,” “The Luckier You Get,” “Little Things,” “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” and more.

After a set closing “Burn Flicker. Die” and ensuing standing ovation Barham emerged from backstage for a solo performance of “The First Year” from the freshly released Chicamacomico before welcoming pianist Rhett Huffman out “One Day At A Time” and the entire band for the finale and fan favorite “Katherine Belle.” The song brought the Ryman audience of devout American Aquarium aficionados to a fever pitch as they danced in the aisles from the stagefront to the rafters, soaking in every moment of their favorite band’s landmark show right along with the group in real time.

Prior to American Aquarium taking the stage Iowa-bred “cornstar” Hailey Whitters started the night off with her heartfelt songwriting and midwestern twang on songs like “Glad To Be Here,” “Ten Year Down,” “Janice At The Hotel Bar” and “Heartland.” Whitters also squeezed in a medley of “How Far Can It Go?,” a co-write with Trisha Yearwood, along with Yearwood’s own “She’s In Love With The Boy" for good measure.

However, the highlight of her set came during a performance of “Middle of America” for which she was joined by Barham, who co-wrote the song with her. As Barham remarked later on during his own set, it was his first time performing the song live with Whitters and the first time meeting each other in person after they met and wrote the song together over Zoom during the pandemic.

Both artists illustrated their budding talent throughout the night that made them more than worthy of gracing the legendary Mother Church. If the response from fans on Friday night and the recent buzz each has generated elsewhere recently is any indication, it’ll be no time before American Aquarium is returning to the Ryman and Whitters is making her headlining debut.

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