Car roads and the casual melodies….

I recently found myself introducing a significant seismic shift into the expanding universe otherwise known as my existence. Namely, by deciding to alter my circumstances and start a new job that’s far removed from my old stomping grounds in media. The decision’s involved making a lot of significant alterations to my life and has left me wondering just what this next choice of a fork in the road has in store for me in the long run.

To be honest, the further outward I travel in that regard, the more I realize there’s a lot to unpack in the hypothetical possibilities.

Those unknown pages are exciting yet somehow dizzying and terrifying all at once, and that internal struggle of feeling makes tackling the present… less than pleasant from time to time. Especially for someone who’s fought chronic anxiety for years now with varying degrees of success.

But luckily, before each fresh morning of my newly-occupied time begins, I am given a small window of a commute for music and melody to come crawling on in to keep me company. The guest stars involved in the event usually rotate quite frequently too.

For a while it was Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 solo effort Western Stars. While I didn’t make a Top 10 album list for the year just expired, The Boss certainly would have made a cameo for this one as this record thrives on one of Springsteen’s main specialties: character songs.

While my car cuts a knife through backwoods, fields and scattered homes set against a rustic terrain, it’s easy to be transported away into the world of Western Stars. For one thing, there’s its engrossing stage of lovelorn daredevils (“Drive Fast (The Stuntman)”), past-prime cowboys (“Western Stars”), and aching nostalgics (“Moonlight Motel”). There’s also Springsteen’s ever-present ability to paint a vivid audio portrait for the listener that’s about more than just the story embedded at the surface.

Inside all those actors, the 70-year old New Jersey native injects honesties that include love, loss, insecurity, the struggles of blue collar living, and plumbing the dark depths of emotional turmoil. And while I never imagined making a segue between these two artists, many of those creative adjectives are also present via another cameo of my weekday listenings: rapper Mac Miller and his 2020 work Circles.

Circles was completed by producer-at-the-helm Jon Brion and recently released following Miller’s untimely demise from an accidental drug overdose in 2018. Like Western Stars, Circles is similarly a brilliantly flawed slice of humanity, not to mention another sort of seismic shift for its creator.

When Miller first came on the scene I remember him coming off as a stereotypical white frat-boy rapper, and as a result an attraction to his work never occurred for me. My car trips with Circles have caused me to bury that presumptive judgement however, as very sadly Miller seemed ready to show us a varied, evolving vision of himself creatively that we now can only get a glimpse of.

For example, album tracks like “Everybody” and “That’s On Me” ditch the hip-hop for a touch of The Beatles filtered through Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, with Miller showing a likable capability as a vocalist. Meanwhile, the title track is a gently meditative intro that slices deep into the cartilage of the musician’s blossoming display of vulnerability. Miller also hits familiar rap signposts with “Complicated” and “Blue World”, but despite the tone shifts the album’s focus remains on looking inward no matter the darkness.

I applaud artists willing to stare into the harshest parts of the mirror, not only for the courage of revealing truths in themselves but for placing those constellations in the sky for their listeners to find too. My experience in this case may be as simple as a few moments spent in the car before a long working day, but albums like Circles and Western Stars make those daily efforts easier to handle.

That’s because artists like these and so many others openly exorcise their fears, worries and anxieties in a way that, when we connect to it, feels like it slays the demons for us a bit too. I can think of few better ways to make the busy weeks just a little bit lighter.

Barham Brings Southern Gothic Americana To Solo Standout “Rockingham”

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The phrase “Southern Gothic Americana” may be the widest set of metaphorical body parts I’ve ever dug up and Frankenstein’d together in attempting to describe one album’s genre of music. It also may be one of the more unusual terms I’ve ever put in print here on OTBEOTB, but I promise it’ll all make sense in just a matter of a few paragraphs.

When I think of a phrase like this and attempt to paint a picture of it…. the first word I think of is stark. Plain grass and backwoods framed houses in towns whose names are just as quickly noted as they are forgotten by travelers passing those familiar green road signs dotting the rustic landscape. Unassuming places to the casual observer, but beneath the surface lingers a thousand stories of tragedy, heartbreak, birth, death, pride and a blue collar struggle that’s run on longer than the roads can ever hope to stretch.

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The closest musical elder to that portrait is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album originally intended for Springsteen and his E Street Band but eventually reimagined as the stripped down lo-fi cast of working class lovers and losers it began as in the demo phase. Nebraska illuminated Springsteen’s still growing songwriting during one of his most prolific periods of musical history by not illuminating him at all. The words and stories remained, but gone were the layers of chunky guitars, Roy Bittan’s airy flow of piano, and most any traces of that trademark Asbury Park anthem-seeking. Instead, the album was a densely knit fog of shattered souls, uncertain futures and depressions laid bare to the world beneath a set of window panes as dingy as the album’s cover.

It’s a dark listen that remains one of Springsteen’s most underrated, yet certainly is one of the heaviest to emotionally journey through.

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I found myself having many of these Nebraska reflections while listening to BJ Barham’s similarly toned upcoming August 19th solo release Rockingham. The Pledgemusic-funded project also finds Barham (like Springsteen) momentarily breaking away from his band American Aquarium in order to release a small set of songs that made the most sense stripped right down to the bones.

The end result is a cross somewhere between Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson. Barham is the essential “pearl snap poet with bad tattoos” (as he once coined himself in the AA song “St. Mary’s”) who’s gruff, ragged around the edges vocals hold inside them one of the more underrated storytellers of this generation.

Barham is very Guthrie-like in the way he can embody the Dust Bowl farmer with no way out on the dirge-like “Water In The Well”, the real life story of his grandfather on “American Tobacco Company”, or the Bonnie & Clyde pushed to the brink in “O’ Lover”. It’s not just that he can tell the story of the common man, he can make you feel every breath of his characters. Whether their stories happen to be real, or just well-crafted fiction.

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Regardless you grasp every straw of that emotion in the desperate sadness of a husband meeting/losing his wife in “Unfortunate Kind”, the father entrusting his every bit of wisdom on an often troubled world to a newly born daughter on “Madeline”, or in the embodiment of simple Southern life on the rootsy title track. Barham expresses a tender respect for his North Carolinian background all across this record actually, but never resorts to the kind of chest-thumping, overcompensating, flag waving, tractor driving stereotypes that modern mainstream country music has bogarted the hell out of in recent years.

Instead, he paints us a bit of that image I attempted to sketch for you earlier. Like every note was carefully built with his own two hands. Not by using the idea of women in tight jeans or Red Solo Cups as a centerpiece (I’ve got my eye on you Toby Keith), but by just relaying to the listener the often harsh or dirt poor realities of life in the small town South. And just like any average life, it’s a rollercoaster. Many of the endings might not be happy, but in the end you might still just come away proud of where you’re from simply by surviving.

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Rockingham shows off an all-too-brief but strongly knit nucleus of songs for Barham. Rarely do they need more than just his voice, spare acoustic guitar strums and fills here and there of instruments like piano, percussion, banjo and harmonica. And while his work can be just as soulfully raw with AA, it’s nice to see Barham step to the side for just a moment to show off how strong his solo skills are as well.

In either formation he proves extremely captivating, and when paired with a novelist’s sense for lyricisms it’s impossible to not be stopped by just the simple need to listen. And while I may throw out plenty of comparisons to other musicians, at the end of the day Barham is an artist unique unto himself.

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For everything Ryan Adams has almost hatefully thrown away about his Southern heritage, BJ Barham has embraced with a full-throated authenticity that few others are so gracefully capable of. And it’s not because they can’t write it.

Barham just sings it with a singular, steely-eyed conviction that makes me believe every word of every note, each and every time I hear it. And Rockingham is yet another perfect echo of all that Southern Gothic Americana sweat and blood.

See? Told you it would make sense.

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