by Tracy Davis
photographs by Juli Leonard
In days of yore, traveling minstrels made their way from one town to the next, sharing their tunes on the village green. Today, many minstrel types have set aside lutes and lyres in favor of electric guitars and drum kits, but even now, some things remain the same: Music is still best served live.
For touring musicians, that means keeping the show perpetually on the road, making the concept of “home” a very fluid thing. An endless, dotted-yellow-line, four-wheeled kind of thing.
But for three of Raleigh’s own, something about our capital city reels them back after every tour. Surely there are other towns with enough style and verve to tempt a fellow away from good old Raleigh? Might it be more fun for a musician to live in, say, Nashville? New York?
Pose that question to BJ Barham, front man for Raleigh-based rock ‘n’ rollers American Aquarium, and he’ll shake his head. Turns out, those other cities may be fun to flirt with, but Raleigh? A keeper. For Barham, 29, and for fellow musicians Blake Christiana of Yarn and John Teer of Chatham County Line, Raleigh is a chosen home.
Barham moved to Raleigh from Reidsville to attend his beloved N.C. State, then realized that he was, musically speaking, a “lifer.” He changed course, moved into an apartment on Wilmington Street, and became one of Raleigh’s most vocal champions. “I refuse to live anywhere else,” he says. From a seat at an outdoor table in front of the Morning Times, he points to its neighbor, the Raleigh Times. “That place opened in what, 2005? I love it, and everything that happened around it. I love this town … it’s got an energy all its own.”
He’s qualified to assess energy levels, given that last year, Barham and the band played more than 250 shows.
It takes a unique brand of talent and heart to end your workday at 3 a.m., sleep until 11, and then be on the road by noon to do it all over again, hundreds of miles away. Barham loves what he does, yet finds a different kind of joy in coming home after a long stint away.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, of the moment when their van takes exit 298 off of I-40. “Come on up South Saunders and the downtown skyline grows up out of nothing. That’s when we feel like we’re home.”
Deep talent pool
John Teer, one of the suit-clad gents who make up all-acoustic bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line, cites Raleigh’s energy, too. CCL formed in 2000, and the geographic reference notwithstanding, three of CCL’s four members live in Raleigh. Teer, 36, moved to town in 1988 as a fifth grader, and his roots are deep in Raleigh soil. He lives in a 1940s-era bungalow near Cameron Village, where he gives lessons in guitar, mandolin, and fiddle when he’s in town.
“In the late 1990s,” he recalls, “there was something in the air around here. Something special.” He likens it to an alt-country version of Seattle’s “grunge thing,” an unconventional, collaborative exploration of talent that crosses all musical genre boundaries.
Now, as then, the city’s local talent pool seems to grow deeper by the day, and Teer observes that the produce aisles of Harris Teeter are as likely a place as any other to make the happy discover that a musician friend is back in town and has time to play. “It’s always possible to do cool collaborations,” Teer says.
It’s not just the side projects that he loves. When CCL heads out for a long tour, tradition holds that they kick it off with a show at Sadlack’s on Hillsborough Street. The same stellar music they’re about to share out west at, say, San Francisco’s huge Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, or the Winnipeg Folk Fest, is served up free alongside draft beer and hoagies. Sadlack’s is slated to be torn down later this year to make way for new construction, but Teer vows that CCL’s ritual musical goodbye wave will find a new home, perhaps at some other scruffy but lovable Hillsborough Street stop.
Home is where the love is
Blake Christiana, 37, is the new guy in town. Front man for NYC-based Americana band Yarn, Christiana moved from Brooklyn to Raleigh in April, ready to set up house, and settle down. What drew him away from the city that never sleeps, and to the City of Oaks? Love, of course.
Yarn first played Raleigh in early 2009. The band was climbing the Americana charts and trying to break into the Raleigh market when it played a show at Slim’s on Wilmington Street. If ever you’ve been to Slim’s (which also falls in the scruffy but lovable category), you know the odds of meeting your true love there are, well, slim. Christiana managed it. Now, after years of the long-distance relationship thing, he and girlfriend Mandy Stamey are happily ensconsed in a tree-lined neighborhood near Five Points.
In Time Burns On, a song from Yarn’s third record, Come on In, Christiana sings that he has to “get on back / to my Brooklyn flat / where the neighbors don’t know my name / and the forecast calls for rain.” Time has, indeed, burned on. Christiana knows dozens of his neighbors from years of playing Raleigh, and he’s about to become familiar with that most Southern of traditions: The ceremonial dropping-off of excess cucumbers and home-grown tomatoes.
“Everybody’s so nice,” he says. “I grew up in a town (Schenectady) that everybody loves to hate, but they don’t have the energy to leave it. Raleigh is the exact flip side to that. People who live here are passionate about this city.”
They’re passionate about great music, too, and the band both feels – and returns – the love. “Raleigh was our first town crush,” says Christiana. “The whole band loves this town.”
Christiana’s idea of a good time in Raleigh? Oysters at 42nd Street, and a beer at Natty Greene’s. Or, even better, family time at home. After days on the road, he’d like nothing better than to throw something good on the grill and wrap up the night with a glass of wine in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, repainting his new place room by room. Home is, as they say, where the heart is.