It is not, by any stretch, an overstatement to refer to Tim Barry as one of the premier storytelling songwriters in the punk rock scene for as long as most of us have been associated with it; he was certainly trending in that direction during his Avail days, but it’s become an irrefutable fact in his work since going solo a decade-and-a-half ago. With the exception of maybe “Prosser’s Gabriel” from his 2010 album 28th and Stonewall (or, I guess, “T. Beene” from it’s follow-up, 40 Miler), Barry writes almost exclusively in the first person. Sometimes, this finds him telling the gut-wrenching components of someone else’s story in explicit, vivid detail; see “South Hill” or “Solid Gone” or “Dog Bumped” most notably. While the subject matter is clearly not his story in each of those songs, he’s got a way of pulling the listener in and making you feel every last strain and emotion and decision made by each of the respective narrators.
Sometimes, though, and especially when relationships are involved, the lines between author and subject get blurry to say the least. Sure there are songs like “Lela Days” or “Older And Poorer” that are pretty on-the-nose when it comes to being obviously self-referential. But on classic Barry fan-favorites like “Exit Wounds” and “Avoiding Catatonic Surrender” and “Walk 500 Miles” and “This November,” he long-ago proved that he can write a broken-hearted love song like nobody aside from maybe Ben Nichols. Because the themes present in those songs are so, unfortunately, universal and because of Barry’s adeptness as a songwriter, you’re never quite sure if he’s retelling traumatic events from his own biography or simply relating the cautionary tales of his friends and peers. Case in point: years ago when Tim and I spoke during a prior album-cycle promotional run, he relayed the story of his father contacting him after the release of Rivanna Junction, asking if he was doing alright.
Today marks the release of Tim Barry’s latest album, The Roads To Richmond. It’s his seventh studio full-length, and it is, in many ways, an album that delves into what’s been a very transitional time in the proud Richmond, Virginia native’s life. Not only did Barry quit working a “real job” and make the decision to live solely on music for the time being, but more importantly (and profoundly) Barry and his wife split up in the years since we last heard new music from him. He found himself living, at various times, in his van, in an apartment on the “bad side of town,” and most recently, in the very first house he’s ever purchased. And so the weight of separation and moving on and all of the confusion and emotions that those things entail, particularly when still trying to embrace the role of SuperDad to his pair of young daughters (Lela, 7, and Coralee, almost 5) were destined to bleed into the material that wound up on The Roads To Richmond. In fact, when we caught up over the phone to discuss The Roads To Richmond, it prompted me to jokingly – well, half-jokingly anyway – paraphrase that Rivanna Junction quote from his dad. As it turns out, I’m not alone. “Brent Baldwin down at The Kitchen mastering plant down in Carrboro, North Carolina, was doing the work on it, putting the finishing touches on the recording,” Barry explains. “He’s a professional, and I trust him and I trust his opinion and his work, and basically he said what you were paraphrasing my dad as saying. Like, “whoa, man, I hope everything’s okay!” (As homework, I challenge you to listen to the funeral dirge that is “Box Wine And Xanax” and not feel like you got repeatedly punched squarely in your midsection.)
The tone is present right from the first somber piano notes of album-opener “Big Ships.” When Barry’s voice eventually joins the instrumentation, it does so in a more tender way than we’re really accustomed to. It’s a song that was written in a place that’s been important to a small legion of East Coast punk rock fans over the last several decades: Asbury Park’s Little Eden. “I was sitting in Kate Hiltz’s kitchen at Little Eden in Asbury Park. I don’t know what I was doing there, but I was there for a couple of days, and no one was around, I had the whole house to myself,” Barry tells me. “And I was writing that song, it just popped out of nowhere like songs do, and when it came around to the chorus, I looked up and on her wall it said “Big Ships Turn Slow.” I ripped those lines right off of her kitchen wall, and that completed the chorus and the song kept on trucking.”
Barry tends to play his cards close to his vest when discussing the actual subject matter of some of his more ambiguous material, preferring instead to allow the listener to connect to songs on their own personal level. Still, he offered a bit of a hint behind what went into “Big Ships,” which turned out to be the pivotal moment in putting the writing for The Roads To Richmond to bed. “It’s like this,” he explains. “If you’re taking on a massive life change, you can use the phrase “big ships turn slow,” like, if (I’m asking you for) advice, I can say “I’m quitting my job and I’m gong to be self-employed and I want everything to go right.” And you could say “Tim…big ships turn slow.”
Peppered throughout the album are tracks that are unambiguously autobiographical., perhaps none moreso than “April’s Fool,” a song that in some ways sounds like a follow-up to Rivanna Junction‘s “Exit Wounds,” except with the added weight of a marriage and children involved. “(That song is) autobiographical to a T. And you know, to be clear, that song was written while I was going through possibly one of the biggest transitions of my life. It was written in one go. It was “play and record” on my iPhone while I was living in my van. There’s really very little editing on that song, and I don’t think, for me, that music gets any more real than that.“
While Barry is obviously no stranger to the broken-hearted love song, “April’s Fool” is a track that evokes enough visceral emotion that Barry was initially remiss to include on the album. “My instinct is to not share that kind of song and share that kind of music because it is sad. My job isn’t to depress people. I don’t even have a job!” As time elapsed, however, Barry started to understand that there was real value both to himself and to his listeners in telling such a personal story. “The subject of the song is divorce, it’s separation, it’s the end of a relationship. It’s the difficult possibility of going on alone when you’re not used to that. That’s what the song’s about. It’s just a moment. And when I was going through that at that point, I didn’t have any peers who were. I had a lot of questions, and there wasn’t really anyone to reach out to…But, as I breach the release of this new record, I realize that I have multiple friends that are going through that exact situation. I have many peers who are dealing with that dynamic in their life right now. I think it’s purposeful now to put that sort of intimacy onto a record so that other people know that other people have been through it.“
I suppose this is as good a point as any to explain, emphatically, that The Roads To Richmond is a sad, depressing album; it’s not! There are very real and very weighty feelings on the album. Over the last half-dozen years, a couple of Barry’s musical peers, Dave Hause and Brian Fallon, wrote their own powerful post-divorce albums (Devour and Get Hurt in that order if you’re keeping score) that rank among the best collections of work in either of their respective lengthy careers, both with bands and as solo artists. Part of the reason those albums have resonated with so many people for so long is that, sure, they’re raw, visceral looks at the pain and isolation that separation leave behind, but they also offer a little bit of redemption; a little bit of positive glow that in spite of all the pain, the future may turn out alright. For that reason, there are a lot of people for whom The Roads To Richmond will be their Devour (or their Blood On The Tracks…or their Rumours…or their Tunnel Of Love).
If I’m going to highlight some of the more raw, heavy emotional tracks on The Roads To Richmond, it’s only fair to highlight some of the tracks that provide a little levity and balance. “Bent Creek” is in uptempo, front-porch singalong about being at piece with the freedom that laying your burdens down and moving on can provide. It’s a cathartic song, and Barry’s voice sings like that of a man with a weight that’s been freed from his shoulders. “Fussin’ Over Fate” is a similar feeling track, a boot-stomping jam about not lamenting the fact that your old hometown has changed from the place you used to remember. “East Texas Red” is a reworking of a Woody Guthrie classic that was popularized by Guthrie’s son Arlo, a country and western murder ballad of a cruel old railroad yard boss who gets his comeuppance at the hands of two weary railroad travelers. “Coralee” is a tender, sweet acoustic ballad of Barry’s own, an ode to his youngest daughter.
And then there’s “Oh My Darling.” It’s a rollicking, Pete Seeger-esque finger-picked number that is placed perfectly on the album, as it helps lift the spirits from the weight of “April’s Fool.” “Oh My Darling” is a track that sounds like Barry singing to his daughter, but the reality is infinitely sweeter; it was penned by Barry’s oldest daughter Lela Jane, then five, as an ode to her little sister, the aforementioned Coralee. “Lela free-styled the lyrics!” Barry explains. “She told me to get a piece of paper and write it down as she sang. She’s fast at writing lyrics and melodies.” Barry gave Lela co-writing credit on the song, and Lela even sings some of the response parts on the call-and-response section of the last chorus.
You can check out an abridged version of my chat with Barry below; much of our chat was edited and condensed for content purposes. We talked quite a bit about The Roads To Richmond, naturally, and we also talked about Barry’s recent run of shows with Avail, the seminal band’s first gigs in more than a dozen years. You can also buy your own copy of The Roads To Richmond at Tim’s Bandcamp page or at his official store here or at his longtime label home, Chunksaah Records here.