You may not have heard the name American Aquarium yet, but the six-piece band from Raleigh, North Carolina should be on your radar. They're not traditional country at first listen, but at the heart of their songwriting and storytelling, they are. AA are twangy and Southern — lead vocalist BJ Barham calls the group "the original spirit of country music."

Taste of Country caught up with the raspy vocalist during a recent tour stop in Nashville. He told us everything we — and you — need to know about the up-and-coming act that can't and won't be pigeonholed as strictly country.

“I had the crazy notion that I wanted to start a country band for some odd reason — all my friends were starting punk bands and rock bands and metal bands," Barham says. AA, who got their name from the lyrics to a Wilco song, formed in North Carolina in 2006.

"I wanted to do a country band and I didn’t want to do country that you’d ever hear on the radio," he explains. "I wanted to do something that I grew up on ... like the Merle, the Waylon, the Willie, kind of that outlaw spirit of country. I knew early on I wanted to do a certain style of music, at that point in time everybody was calling it alternative country. Luckily, I talked five guys into sharing the same dream with me, and 10 years later here we are.”

It may seem unusual that a "country" group chose to stay in Raleigh instead of moving to Nashville, but it's something they're very proud of. In fact, that's how Barham introduces the band before each show: "We're American Aquarium, and we're from Raleigh."

“If you can’t make it in your hometown, why move somewhere else to try and make it? I’m glad that we stuck in Raleigh," he proclaims. "It took a long time. It took 10 years. Could it have been sped up if we moved to Nashville? Maybe. It’s good now, because we’re kind of the ambassadors for our city.”

Many wouldn't shelve the band's new album, Wolves, in the modern country section at the local record store, but it's where they belong. Barham knows American Aquarium don't fall in line with the "bro-country" fad, and they're not pop-country, either. The lead singer believes they embody the spirit of the genre as a whole.

"I’ve caught a lot of flack in the past for being very open about my taste in country music ... A lot of people are considering us the original spirit of country music, it’s about kids from small towns telling stories about things they know," he declares, adding, “We like to think that at the root of we it we kind of embody what a country band should be."

Barham doesn't particularly care for "bro country" — or really any of the music on the radio — but he does understand the importance of it. Instead of trying to fit the mold, he focuses on American Aquarium's honest songwriting.

“I write what I know," he explains. "When I first started writing songs, I read an article where Bruce Springsteen said, ‘To be a good songwriter you have to write what you know about.' ... So I write about what I know. For the last 10 years I’ve known about being in a touring rock band. I’ve known about broken relationships. I’ve known about really fun nights on the road and really low mornings on the road. That’s what I’ve written about."

“You make ‘em personal enough to where you feel good singing them every night, but the goal of a songwriter is to write a song that relates to people," Barham explains. "That’s why music is music."

Wolves is the group's "coming of age" album, as Barham calls it, and it's bringing them some much deserved success. The album is the result of the singer quitting alcohol, drugs and general on-the-road partying. Now eight months sober, he calls this release their "grown-up record."

"It’s our record of we’re not kids anymore, this is what we do for a living," he shares. "We need to take it serious."

When asked which songs might turn a country fan's head, Barham thinks of two: "Southern Sadness" and "Man I'm Supposed to Be." The first is a tune about growing up in a small town and eventually moving to a bigger city, but questioning if that's the right choice. The latter is a song for the men — the men who realize their ladies may be too good for them.

But if those tracks don't get you hooked on American Aquarium, their high-energy live shows certainly will, Barham insists. He says the group have played together so long that they're "a tight, tight band. They've played more than 3,000 songs together.

Take it from him: "I know every band toots their own horn, but we’re a really good live band."

Learn more about American Aquarium here.

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