Tim Barry has a well-earned, albeit Chuck Ragan-esque larger than life reputation of being a bit of a vagabond, the living embodiment of a character from a Tom Waits song. Hell, his last studio album, 2012’s 40 Miler (Chunksaah Records), is a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating nod to his pastime of riding the rails.
Dying Scene caught up with Barry in early November to chat about Lost & Rootless, and it seems unquestionable that a lot has changed in the years since 40 Miler. Barry’s assumed new roles as a husband and a father; his wife, Sarah, and now-two-year-old daughter Lela Jane appear on the cover of his upcoming release, Lost & Rootless (due November 28th on Chunksaah), and a second daughter, Coralee, was born two weeks ago (editor’s note: Tim and I talked two days before Coralee was born, hence a couple of the references in the conversation below). If there were a time in his professional life where Barry should feel anything but lost and rootless, at least on paper, that time should be now, no?
“I don’t know where I stand. Like, voting day was yesterday. Who the fuck do I vote for? You know what I mean?” Barry asks rhetorically. “In so many aspects of contemporary life in the United States or life in music, who are my peers? I have very close road friends, but I’m lost and rootless. I don’t know…what genre of music do I play? In what group of train riders do I fit with? In what group of workers in Richmond do I fit?”
Those questions are at the core of a number of tracks on Lost & Rootless. This time around, though, the story songs and the scorched-earth vitriol that are part-and-parcel of much of Barry’s traditional work are replaced by what can only be referred to as lighter, happier fare. Marriage and fatherhood will do that to a man, and songs like “Older and Poorer” and “Lela Days” are prime examples of that. Still, it’s not all joy in Mudville: “While I was just on tour, we lost our fucking health insurance,” Barry tells me. “We have a baby due in two weeks. So what the fuck do we do? We’ve got a two-year-old, an insulin-dependent diabetic family member, which will bankrupt a family right there, and then you have a baby on the way with all the risks involved. And then someone presents to you this unrealistic fucking charge of $1850 a month for insurance? That’s why people lose their fucking insurance. That’s why people start hustling. That’s why you start doing anything you can to get by.”
Better than perhaps most songwriters going nowadays, Barry has an ability to tap directly into the vein that provides depth and feeling to any situation, and many examples of that abound throughout our conversation. Check out the full text of our interview below. It’s a long one, but it may well be the most candid, compelling read to appear on the pages of Dying Scene.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Is Lost & Rootless, as a title, maybe a throwback to an older time for you? Or are there still times where you feel lost and rootless, even though not only do you have roots now, but you put your roots on the cover of the album (pictured above) for goodness sake?
Tim Barry: I hate the word “juxtapose,” but that’s what my life feels like. I think the most honest people are contradictory and inconsistent. And I’m not saying I’m the most honest person, I believe I’m pretty honest though. I think the album and the title really work because it’s a juxtaposition. The album cover is a picture of my wife with our daughter in our backyard, taken by Chrissy Piper. Certainly it’s a candid shot… But I do always feel pretty lost and pretty rootless (*laughs*) mentally or cognitively sometimes. I don’t know where I stand! Like, voting day was yesterday. Who the fuck do I vote for? You know what I mean? In so many aspects of contemporary life in the United States or life in music, who are my peers? I have very close road friends, but I’m lost and rootless. I don’t know…what genre of music do I play? In what group of train riders do I fit in with? In what group of workers in Richmond do I fit? I’ve never really had a permanent job, but I’ve had a million over hire jobs. It’s sort of representative of who I am I guess. I’ve never thought about it! You’re the first person I’ve talked to about it…I mean, I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never talked about it. You know, the album sounds pretty rooted, but I never am.
Maybe this is going way beyond where I should be going, but how does that sit with your wife and now with your daughter? With you saying that you still sorta feel lost and rootless sometimes, do they get that or are they like, “hey, we’re right here!” You know what I mean?
Sarah understands me. Lela is a mini version of Sarah and I. So I’m sure she feels the same way as me at two years old! (*laughs*) I don’t know, it’s hard…I’m not good at talking about myself as much as I am asking people questions about themselves. And I’m really, really bad at talking about my music. It’s not that I believe, like a lot of writers, that it should be left up to the interpretation of the person that’s listening. It’s just that I really play and write by feel, and I live and walk by feel.
But you’re also five albums deep into this thing now. Your name came up when I was talking to Cory Branan a couple weeks ago about that you might not like talking about your music and you might not like talking about the stories, but the stories that you tell are ones that I feel need to be told. I think you’re able to tie in to certain feelings more than a lot of people do, even if you’re not telling your story. So talk about a juxtaposition, you’re a guy that I think people want to talk to and about because of your stories, but then you may not want to talk about them…
It’s not that I don’t want to talk about them, it’s that I just don’t know how. If you take story songs, like any first-person songs I’ve done, there’s a lot of me in it, but there’s a lot of other things in there too. People often ask me “you wrote this song, is it about you?” And I’ll say, “well, it’s about a lot of people.” I wish sometimes when I did interviews that I could have a list of my songs on the wall so I could look at them and use references! (*laughs*)
Well, a song like “South Hill” for example. That wasn’t your story, but it’s a story that you were able to tell, I think, better than a lot of people who might have actually gone through that. So you’re able to come off that…not that it’s like your story because I think people get that. Or even “Solid Gone” off the new album. That song blew me away when I first heard it yesterday. The actual story there…
Okay, so you just gave me this hit of confidence. I’m like the most unconfident person about music. I have a few friends who help dispatch and disseminate these songs, and yesterday, on my to-do list, it essentially says “dude, you have to fucking figure out which song to release next before the record comes out.” This morning I sent out emails to Kate and Vanessa and two other people, and I asked if they thought if it was okay that we do “Solid Gone” next. I’m so glad you noticed that song, that’ll be the next one. That song? Just like “South Hill,” whether it’s about one specific person or a whole lifestyle, it’s accurate to things that happen all over the United States.
In Richmond, Virginia, there are the “state” streets, where a lot of poorer people live. They’re very unpoliced. Those are the people who ride the bus in to work and clean up after fucking bankers. Cleaning bathrooms and stuff like that. They are trying very hard to get by, and you know, in the state of Virginia, if you’re caught with “x” amount of marijuana or any illegal substance AND a registered and legit firearm, you’ll get five years. So those are true stories. Those things happen if you read any newspaper in central Virginia. Ken Freeman who tours with me said that if gay marriage isn’t legal first in Virginia before marijuana, he’s going to lose his fucking mind. That directly effects people. But the idiocy of drug laws incarcerating more people than anything is insanity. And essentially that’s all that that song’s about. It sounds like a country song. It’s about guns and drugs and family.
Obviously it’s not personal in that it’s not your story, but it sounds personal in the way that you sing that song. There’s a few times where, I don’t know if I was hearing too much into it, but you can hear the raw emotion …
Because I see someone in particular in my head when I sing it. When I sing “South Hill,” there’s a man in my head when I sing it. When I sing “Dog Bumped,” there’s a person in my head while I’m singing it. Because of that, it becomes very real. They aren’t cartoon characters, they are very real people that you can see and touch and feel.
I think that might be what struck me most about that song. I think the album in general is truly great, but I think that what struck me most about that song comes from what I do for work other than this. I work in a gritty, urban area in an alternative sentencing program. That is the story of a lot of people. I can run through a list in my head of probably a hundred names of people for whom that’s pretty close. They may have not had a gun involved necessarily, but the decision-making process that led them to the event that’s the central theme of “Solid Gone” is exactly the same. The names are different…
The way they got in trouble was not based on personal greed.
Like most people believe, anything that has to do with the sale of drugs, or any illegal sales, many times people are doing that because they’re filthy, greedy fucking people. But as many times as that happens, there’s someone who’s doing it for a reason that’s been presented to them. They haven’t been given the ability to care for themselves or their loved ones, and they do it to get by. In the same way that most of my friends get jobs to work for two months…like, third jobs that they can work for two months just to dig themselves out of a fucking hole. Or, an example in a personal sense is that while I was just on tour, we lost our fucking health insurance. We have a baby due in two weeks. So what the fuck do we do? We’ve got a two-year-old, an insulin-dependent diabetic family member, which will bankrupt a family right there, and then you have a baby on the way with all the risks involved. And then someone presents to you this unrealistic fucking charge of $1850 a month for insurance? That’s why people lose their fucking insurance. That’s why people start hustling. That’s why you start doing anything you can to get by. You know what I’m saying?
That makes total sense.
So it’s very personal, you know? These stories are real. We should all move to Canada! (*both laugh*)
You don’t hear much in the way of social protest music coming from Canada now, do you?
Hey! Good point!
Going back to that song, “Solid Gone” reminds me a little bit of people that I work with, but I come originally from Nashua, New Hampshire, which was largely a working-class old mill town where all the mills got shut down. Like you said you had the “state” streets in Richmond where everyone knows that that’s where the bad stuff happens, we had the “tree streets.” It’s the same in Manchester (where Tim’s played a few times in the last year or so). Some of those areas have bounced back in the last couple years, with new money and restaurants and things like that. But when they’ve been poorer locations for years, they’re always the first ones impacted by job issues and insurance issues, like you were talking about.
I live in a very nice neighborhood now. It’s hard to get by, but we’ve got terrific neighbors. We’ve only had a couple bad things happen: the house got broken into once and two high-speed police chases. Brutal accidents that thank god no one in the neighborhood got hit. But you know what I’m saying, that’s very unlike how I used to live for most of my life.
Is it culture shock for you to live in a place where stuff doesn’t really happen now?
No, the neighborhood I live in now is not unlike the neighborhood that I grew up in and lived in for eighteen years. I spent eighteen on living in bad neighborhoods, not unlike a lot of people. Not bad neighborhoods, but just different kinds of neighborhoods.
Rougher, yeah. More urban would be a better way to say it. I grew up in the suburbs where there were different dynamics. That’s why this whole demographic shift from the crack-ridden 90s in Richmond to the uppity, white suburban folk moving back into the cities. People of wealth moving back into the cities, turning the suburbs into the working-poor areas, then coming around here and complaining about noise or beeping or freight trains blowing horns. I don’t know if anybody else is tired of hearing everybody else fucking complain, but the thing is, you live in a fucking city! These are the things that happen! (*both laugh*) I don’t want to say “well move back to the suburbs,” but if you can’t handle it, you can’t handle it.
I said that exact thing at work the other day. The heat is broken in the building I work in…it’s a big old armory, and I was saying to someone that the only thing worse about the heat being broken and it being cold is listening to people complain about the heat being broken and it being cold. (*both laugh*) Move on, you know?!?
I’m with you on that! You have the money to wear layers. That’s better than most people have it!
We’re doing okay if the worst thing about our day is that it’s 62 degrees or 58 degrees in the office for a day or so. We’re gonna be alright.
You go out riding freight trains and you run into people who say “I’m freezing! I’m cold!” And I’m like, “what the fuck did you think when you voluntarily left the warmth of your home to go urban camping illegally on freight trains?!?” (*both laugh*) It’s cold steel, it ain’t warm steel! But that’s the accountant, trying to get rich…
Oh, I forgot to mention that Lenny Lashley says “how are ya?” So, from Lenny, “how are ya?”
Oh Lord almighty, tell Lenny I asked about him. I love that man. I love that fucking last record that he put out, holy shit! It’s one of the best records to come out…was that this year?
That was last year, but yeah!
It’s still one of the best records of this year. That guy’s a true talent.
I know that he’s been writing new music too…
It’s funny, we’re talking about (Lost and Rootless), I have a list, and I already have 34 new fucking songs.
Well, I’ve written maybe eleven since I finished this record. I can’t stop! I’ve gotta stop, though. It’s killing me!
Does that make you reevaluate the record itself? I mean, obviously it’s in the bag at this point and it’s coming out at Thanksgiving time, but are there times where you think “damn, I wish such-and-such a song could have been on this record”?
No. No, because I went in probably with twenty-five. Really, I’m only concerned about the sequence of the record and if the songs fit together, so there’s a gang of songs that I dropped. Those will go into rotation for a new record. Maybe, if there’s fifteen songs leftover, maybe only one will make it on the next record or maybe ten will, you know? It just depends.
It’s the same shit…I was just rehearsing this story song last night, it’s this thing in my head where there’s this one story song called “Assault On A Police Officer.” It is the story of a man being beaten by a police officer and being charged with assault. At the end of the story, the man beats the shit out of the cop later, and that ties it in with saying ‘assault on a police officer,’ almost like “A-ha! Got you back!” It’s like a farmer finds a body in a field and then the cops converge on the field and he gets arrested for murder. But what was in my head, the emotion, is from an event about four months ago where I was detained by the police, which is just, like, a habit of mine; getting in trouble, always, for things that I haven’t done. So I got detained by the police for fucking kidnapping because some rich person saw me with (his daughter) Lela and didn’t think she belonged with me.
I got bum-rushed by the cops. It was crazy, man, it was fucking crazy.
That’s fucking intense.
It was crazy. The whole time I was thinking “these guys can do anything they want to me and my daughter…this is fucking crazy.” I wanted to fight them, and they knew it. I wouldn’t answer their questions. It went over the radio, and I could hear it, that “suspect is non-compliant,” and they all just started bum-rushing me. And I was like, “you know what, fuck y’all. I pay, with my taxes, your fucking salary. That means you’re subordinate to me, and that means you work for me.”
They like when you say things like that…
They can’t handle it when people come up on them like that. So that’s where I’m at with all these new songs. But these songs are super folk. So it’s funny, we’re talking about my new record, and I’m talking about my NEW new record! (*both laugh*) I am a very forward-thinking person, man! I can’t slow my brain down!
There are a lot of different feelings on this album. I think there are some really low lows, like “Solid Gone,” or at least the story involved is one of them. But there are also a fair amount of high highs, and we don’t necessarily get that from the Tim Barry collection. But between “Papa’s Porch,” “Older And Poorer,” the Lela song…which I’m glad you put right after “Solid Gone” because…
I am too! That was very intentional! (*laughs*)
Man, if there was another downer of a song after “Solid Gone,” it would be, like…holy shit…
I’m glad you noticed that! Thank you, Jay. That was very intentional. I guess the record has a different flow. I remember when I did Rivanna Junction, the first album, my dad was like “there’s a lot of pain on this, are you alright?” And I was like, “yes, of course I’m alright because I got it out.” And you know, I didn’t plan these things, but in retrospect, I am thankful that there’s some more positive songs. Why write the same songs, you know? How long can you listen to the same person sound sad and be surrounded by grief? And I know that once you’re settled without a lot of pain, that’s where it shows up. That’s where there’s a tragedy, that’s where there’s a loss of life.
So I never feel like I’ll ever be comfortable enough to think things are perfect. It’s only one phone call away where you get bad news and you get back into it. But I think like most writers, I write best when I’m high and when I’m low. I heard a famous writer up here say to me once that he writes best when he wakes up after a long night at the bar, super hungover, because there’s a different brain function there, and things you find differently. I can write well if I feel like someone’s been just dismissive of me, when I’m given them my all, you know? So this record and these songs, like the rest of them, are just accidents that are based on different cognitive outputs and different feelings. I wrote “Older And Poorer” when I woke up in Montreal and realized that I had no gift for my wife for our anniversary.
I think I remember you telling that story in Manchester just after you wrote it.
Yeah. But why write a sad song. I mean, I felt compelled to write it for her right now and document that day. Like you mentioned that “Lela Days” song, that was written over six months of me changing her diaper! That’s the song that I would sing to her as I was changing her!
That poor child can sing every single line of that song. We have band practice every night and she plays the guitar and she says “Lela song! Lela song!” And we play it over and over and over and she can sing every single word of it at just over two years old. But then, of course, there’s songs like “Knowing Such Things,” which is a very mean song. I get it out. I get it out because I know people can relate to that too. I don’t write it for them, but I know people have people like that in their lives.
Do you feel like you write one better than the other? Do you feel like you write happier songs…or maybe I don’t want to say “better,” but do you think it’s easier to write one over the other?
There are so few happy songs… (*laughs*) I don’t know if it’s new feelings to me…I don’t know, really. I can’t answer that question.
Let’s say was it harder to write “Lela Days” or “Older And Poorer,” or does that come just as naturally as the other stuff as long as you’re feeling it?
It comes just as naturally. It’s not based on the lyric output or the mood of the song. Some songs take me many years to write and some songs take me thirty seconds. But a lot of people will say that their best songs are the ones that happen very quickly. I think it’s maybe that they don’t have the turmoil of an unfinished project, so they’re just really relieved that it came quickly. I was just going to use an example: the second song on this record is called “The James.” Some people might think of that as a sad kind of relationship song, but that song I wrote…(pauses)… probably after I did Rivanna Junction. Probably right between Rivanna and Manchester, so right at the beginning. The whole song was really done, and it was mostly about this realization that I was in love, and some of my lifestyle was incompatible with the idea of committing. That song is actually about the triumph of committing, to me. But I didn’t finish it…there’s parts that just didn’t flow or just didn’t come together before. That song’s been marinating and sitting in that crock pot for a million years.
Well, so the album starts with a couple songs that are much older, because the first song, “No News From North” is obviously from the Laurel Street demos.
Yeah, which I try to do on every record. I try to take one song from the demo and redo it. That “No News From North” song was written while I was still in Avail!
Yeah, that’s how old that song is. I tried to re-record that song for every album, and it has always just been horrible, because I was trying to add instrumentation to it. When I was demoing it this time…and when I say “demoing” it means I hit “Play” and “Record” on my iPhone and sing a song to it…but it was just my sister and I. My sister was playing violin and I was like “this is how this song’s supposed to fucking go!” Why did I bother with all that other stuff, because it’s just (perfect) with the lyric content and the flow… I wonder if I have the record, because there’s probably other old songs… I have songs from the Rivanna sessions, fully recorded, that I’ve dropped. I’ve never revisited them. I think just those two (are the old ones) on this one…well, “Solid Gone,” the melody of that I started writing in Australia on the last Australian tour with Avail, so that was 2006. It’s gone through a million changes and the lyrics came much later, but the melody was there. There was a guitar melody that my sister grabbed to play on it, which is just like a traditional country/folk melody.
But that’s how I write. I think that’s how a lot of people write, though. They have a song and they forget about it or they revisit it or they find it, and I’m lucky to have such longevity in music that I can grab from all of those old demo tapes. I don’t really need to reach backwards, but sometimes I’ll be playing and I’ll be like “what the fuck happened to that song with that melody that I wrote in Australia?” And you know, I would write all these songs whether or not anybody heard them anyway. I would have them all…I would have hundreds of songs.
Do you worry about there being a theme when you’re writing? Is it that there are songs that you think might be good songs but that don’t fit for now? Or do you not really bother with themes where that’s concerned?
No…no, again, I just write by feel. When I look and find that I have ten songs that I’m pretty confident in playing and singing and not having to stare at the lyrics, and they feel good together, then I can say “I wonder if there’s anything on this old list?” And then I’ll say “Oh shit, that song called ‘Brooklyn,’” which is a horrible name for a song, but it’s a cool song because it’s just a reference, a working title. But I did that last night…I was like “What the fuck happened to that “Brooklyn” song?” So I played it a couple times and I thought “this is pretty good…but maybe it’s not!” (*both laugh*)
Writing process is so hard for me to discuss because I don’t understand it myself, and I think the more I think on it, the more difficult it will become, so I prefer to just blow off the thought of it, you know what I’m saying? Once you start internalizing it too much, you stop going with the flow. And as I say, my favorite part of my life is when an hour has gone by and I haven’t realized it because I’m fully living in the moment. Songwriting gives me that feeling, so as soon as I start thinking about it, then living in the moment starts disappearing and it becomes something that you do, not something that you just fall in to.
Yeah, I guess the more you think about “the process,” the less it becomes your process and starts to become work.
Yeah, let’s compare it to fishing, since that’s what I’m going to do after this. (You have to) clean your plate before you go. I’m not going to stand at the river and cast thinking about the fish I’m going to catch, I’m just going to get in that feeling and if something bites, I’ll just go with it. Instead of going “if something bites, what am I going to do? Am I gonna yank back, you know?” (*laughs*). It’s the same sort of thing, I don’t know, maybe that was a weird comparison.
No, no, not at all. It goes back to the whole theme of being in the moment. As someone who’s not a songwriter, I think if you tried to sit down and focus on writing a song, I don’t know if it would be as authentic as something that just sorta happened naturally or spontaneously.
I was talking to somebody about this the other day. I can look at my songs and point to the songs that I have no recollection of writing. Like, zero. I’ll be like “when did I write that? Or how did I write that? Or WHY did I write that?” (*both laugh*) Then there’s a crop of songs, a harvest of songs, that I can tell you EXACTLY the moment that they showed up. I was sitting at the fucking Rivanna subdivision watching the signal lights waiting for a slow coal train to come in at the foot of Oregon Hill, and my buddy had just been locked up, and I get “one quick minute got me twenty-eight long years” locked in my head, and I ran back to the house and wrote the song! Or sitting in Milano, Italy, in a squat and wrote the first words to “Wait At Milano.” And I finished it in Hamburg, Germany, in the dressing room, looking at the bay. I can see it and I can smell that day.
Gabriel Prosser’s song, I wrote walking in the James River Park System between the main section and the spiral steps at 22nd Street, walking Emma, and I got the whole song in my head. The melody and the cadence of that song I had written when I was still in Avail, but the lyrical content, 100% wrote it off the top of my head, knew the chord progressing, recorded it when I got back to the house. It was about ten minutes long because I was just spewing history, and then I edited it down. Anyway, you know what I’m saying? But then there’s a whole shit-ton of songs like “South Hill”…holy shit, I remember how it came and it took me concentrating for six months to get it right. And then, of course, I had to send it out to people I knew who were vets and people who I knew who were active duty to say “listen, what is wrong with this? Tell me honestly.” You know what I mean? There’s a lot more work to it than just going with the flow, but that’s how my brain works with writing.
Like I said, I think that’s what makes songs come across as authentic that way, you know? I think if you tried to sit down and pay too much attention to what you were doing, and I don’t just mean you, I mean songwriters in general, at least in our circle of songwriters in general; I think if you tried to sit down and write it, it wouldn’t maybe come out the right way.
And it’s a tricky thing between only doing music and having a life outside of it. There’s no need to name names because it’s happened with generations of musicians, where the first couple of records are great and then a band lives on the road…sometimes that affords them the opportunity to become masters of their craft, and sometimes it destroys their music. I’m thankful that I still have an enormous life outside of music. It means I have the autonomy to create my own schedule and do my own thing. But I do spend more time alone, or not amongst friends, than I do among friends these days for some reason. I don’t know why.
Is that because of family life or because of music life, or is that just one of life’s mysteries?
It’s just changes in life. You know what I mean? It’s all good. I’ve got my close ones and that’s all you need.
And any more than that is just icing on the cake, you know?
I agree completely.
Well listen, I don’t want to take up too much of your afternoon because I know the fish will hopefully be biting for you.
It’s a little early for them to be biting, but it’s not too early to go down there and enjoy it! (*laughs*)
See, I don’t know how that shit works, I haven’t been fishing basically in my adult life.
That’s funny that you say that, because I didn’t fish for many years. I grew up fishing, but this is definitely a ramification of family; because I can’t go wander off for the whole day because that would be absolutely unfair to my wife and daughter, I just go fishing for a couple hours to clear my head. I’ve revisited it in the last five years, just out of necessity.
(Then we spent a few minutes talking about fishing in New Hampshire. You’re probably not interested.)
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