Inside American Aquarium’s ’90s Country Labor of Love
Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins
They say the songs you hear in adolescence are the ones that stick with you, resonating over the rest of your life and, of course, embedding their lyrics forever in your brain.
For American Aquarium bandleader BJ Barham, those songs were the country radio hits pouring out of the family car’s stereo in the mid-1990s. And those were the songs he found himself returning to in the early days of the pandemic, when he started playing daily covers on social media to pass the time and stay connected with fans. Twenty of those songs — recorded in a studio with the full band — comprise Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, a two-volume tour of ’90s country radio that provided a nostalgic bright spot in 2021.
“Recording these songs and hearing my band play these songs, I realized just how much of my musical foundation was built in the backseat of my dad’s Blazer,” Barham says from his home near Raleigh, North Carolina. “Riding around singing these songs, I learned melody, I learned song structure. I learned how to tell a detailed story in less than three and a half minutes. I used to pass it off as just the cheesy country of my youth, but I quickly realized that a lot of this stuff has impacted my career, has impacted how I write songs, especially when it comes to learning narrative.”
The 20 songs on Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers’ two volumes — the first was released in May, and the second on Dec. 10 — come mostly from 1993 and 1994, a period Barham sees as a “sweet spot” of ’90s country. The band steered away from songs from artists who are still filling stadiums — like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire — opting instead to highlight artists who made a major splash in the ’90s but who are felt more as ripples today.
Reflecting American Aquarium’s own ability both to rock and to wring out tears, sometimes in the same song, Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers is populated by songs that show the duality of country radio in the ’90s. The Joe Diffie hit “John Deere Green,” a highlight of Volume 1, packs plenty of laughs about small-town water tower graffiti, even as it unfolds a decades-long love story between Billy Bob and Charlene. And there’s something sweetly wistful tucked amid the shout-it-to-the-rafters chorus in Volume 2’s rendition of “Maybe It Was Memphis,” made into a hit by Pam Tillis. But the project features some deeper, more somber songs of the era, too, like Radney Foster’s “Nobody Wins” and “Independence Day,” Martina McBride’s anthem about a woman escaping abuse.
Nineties country radio also featured a blend of voices — male and female — just about absent from the airwaves today. Barham said the band was intentional about making sure half of the songs on Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers were hits performed by women. Finding favorite songs in that category wasn’t the least bit difficult, he says, but he concedes that singing them sometimes was.
“They were all powerhouse vocalists, and as a guy who is not considered a powerhouse vocalist, covering some of these songs was a challenge,” he explains. “We had to change some of the keys, and I really had to focus on singing. Usually I’m focusing on delivery, I’m focusing on selling a story or selling a song. And here I was really going back to focusing on, you know, how the hell am I gonna sing ‘Independence Day’?”
As good covers do, the renditions on Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers showcase not only the band’s talents and tastes, but also the timeless power of the songs themselves. Nineties country is often dismissed as silly, but even humor-fueled hits like Mark Chesnutt’s “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” and Sammy Kershaw’s “Queen of My Double Wide Trailer” get at something real. They’ve got plot, setting, and loads of character, all in the space of just a few minutes. Listen closely and you’ll find the heart in those songs, and some killer lines, too. Compared to today’s algorithm-pleasing bro country hits, they’re downright literary.
Especially when some time has passed since the original recording, covers can also make room for fresh perspectives. “Strawberry Wine,” a 1996 hit for Deana Carter, was always a poignant, bittersweet story of young love and “the loss of my innocence,” and American Aquarium brings out the song’s tenderness. They also bring in a new point of view, potentially, not by any cheap change of pronouns (the band didn’t touch those on any of the songs on the project), but rather by acknowledging additional possibilities.
“Some fans were like, ‘Why is a guy singing “Strawberry Wine”?’ And I thought it was interesting, the turn that that song takes with a male protagonist,” Barham says. “When you’ve got a male narrator, that song is a completely different song. That’s not just about a young teenage girl who loses her virginity. That’s about a guy, a Southern man’s first homosexual experience. When you’re not changing the pronouns, that song is a completely different song. And I like the idea of challenging how that song was written, or who it was written for.”
For now, Barham reckons he’s gotten the desire to record ’90s country covers out of his system. American Aquarium has since turned its attention to a new album of original songs slated for this summer, to be released by Barham’s new Losing Side Records label. But Barham is proud of how Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers brought his band together and kept the creativity flowing during the pandemic, and he’s glad that fans have felt uplifted by it as well.
“These songs all mean something to everybody because it’s a piece of their childhood,” Barham says. “Either they were riding with their parents to the grocery store and heard these songs, or they were in high school riding around with their friends and heard these songs. I thought we were making this record for ourselves … but we completely underestimated how much of our fan base was going to rally behind these records.”