A few years back, singer-songwriter Tim Barry closed out an album by pondering his own death – and he didn’t seem to mind leaving this earth too much. “Take what you want/I won’t leave much,” he sang.
2012 finds him in a very different place. Themes of resilience and hope flow through Barry’s new record, “40 MileR,” which will be released by New Jersey indie label Chunksaah on April 10th. “If this record is uplifting compared to my old ones it’s because I feel stronger from all the beat-downs and shit I’ve taken in the past,” says the Richmond, Virginia-based artist.
He launches the record with “Wezeltown,” which may be the most beautiful piece of Americana to hit the airwaves this year, a treasure of a song that finds Barry exploring the grimmest truths of existence and emerging with a defiant, hopeful smile. “We’re here alone and we leave alone,” he sings. “So let’s all sing it while we can sing/Let’s scream while we still have a chance to scream/It’s short time here and a long time gone."
Throughout “40 MileR,” the rough-hewn characters populating Barry’s lyrics refuse to surrender even in the face of long odds. And on the closing track, “Amen,” he makes his own personal promise to battle through adversity: “Go on kick me in the head/Watch me get right back up again.”
“40 MileR” also finds Barry taking his spare folk-country sound in a different direction. This time around Barry opts for more raucous, rocking approach on several tracks, adding more electric guitar, organ, piano, harmonica, as well as the gorgeous voice of Richmond songstress Julie Karr to the mix. Reviewers are likely to make comparisons to everyone from Steve Earle to Lucero to (early) Wilco.
Barry says the fresh sound was intentional. While he crafted the record’s dozen tracks by himself on piano and guitar, he had Karr and a cast of fellow Richmond musicians in mind while writing. “My intent wasn’t to bury them in the background, but to push them to the foreground to give them the exposure they deserve,” he explains. “They’re all songwriters and all kick-ass musicians.”
Though a sense of tough-minded optimism permeates the album, the writing process was particularly challenging: Barry figures he threw at least 25 tunes in the trash heap before creating anything worth keeping.
In part, Barry’s writing difficulties stemmed from his earlier achievements. In 2010 he’d penned “Prosser’s Gabriel,” a five-minute slow-burner that recounts a failed slave uprising in the year 1800. The revolt ended with the lynching of Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith who’d plotted the insurrection. Gabriel’s grisly death was part of Richmond’s secret history: his grave had been covered with asphalt and turned into a parking lot by the local college, his struggle long forgotten. Barry’s song helped to galvanize the efforts of activists aiming to create a monument to this freedom fighter and the others buried at the location, which had served as a cemetery for both slaves and free African Americans. After writing “Gabriel,” Barry hit the road with The Gaslight Anthem and told the story to thousands of concertgoers, urging them to right this historic wrong. Gabriel’s descendants reached out to Barry and asked him play the song at a family reunion.
The movement Barry helped to fuel eventually achieved a remarkable success: In May 2011, city officials finally began pulling up the pavement, and a park-like memorial will soon replace of the parking lot. “That song impacted people far more than I could’ve expected. That created a lot of pressure when I was writing for this record, ‘40 MileR,’” he explains. It took a serious mental shift for the tunes to start flowing again. “The second that I quit trying to repeat anything I’d done in the past, everything got easier. Playing guitar became fun again.”
Barry will be bringing his new songs to audiences around the world throughout 2012. For details on his touring schedule and “40 Miler” check his website“40 Miler” and his other three studio albums are available at Chunksaah.