Tim Barry on Why He Doesn’t Want to Be a Rock Star, His Secret City, His First Song and More

At the Middle East, July 21st

Among the crowd at the Middle East, July 21st

When I asked Tim Barry how he would classify the style of music he plays, he told me, “I just say it’s Rock & Roll with an acoustic guitar.” I’ll buy that.  I know that his solo set during the show at the Middle East Downstairs on Sunday, July 21st   reminded me of what rock and roll is really about as much or more than did any of the sets by artists with full bands and electric instruments.  He had the nervous energy and desire to please that an aspiring artist might bring to an important audition, yet he was confident and a consummate performer.  He established a rapport with the audience that made it seem like he leading a sing along with a bunch of friends at a pub. This was especially true when he took the microphone stand from the stage and put in on the floor in front so he could sing in the midst of the crowd. This was a guy who was working his ass off to put on a great show, but having a great time at it. He told stories and philosophized, but mostly he played his heart out, and the crowd ate it up.

As he recounted in the post Musicians Egos and…, he had been largely responsible for bringing the show together, and several acts expressed their appreciation to “nice guy” Tim, either from the stage of when I talked to them later.  It was a Sunday night show that certainly didn’t feel like it was happening on a Sunday night! I’ll have more to say about the other acts in later posts, but for now let me tell you about Tim Barry, and incredibly exciting artist I had the good fortune to interview on June 17 by phone from his home in Richmond, four days before the show in Cambridge.

Tim Barry in the Alley

Tim Barry in the Alley

He was on a short break between tour dates.  With family commitments, employment, civic involvement and other activities, he always has a lot on his plate, and that day he had the added stress of a fallen tree in his yard to deal with before resuming his tour. There’d been a lot of rain and it had brought the tree down. He didn’t have much time at home, and it was not something he wanted to have to worry about. Nonetheless, he was friendly and generous with his time.

It was a fascinating conversation.  Consider the following:  Barry writes deeply personal songs for purposes of self-expression and personal catharsis, but he admits to feeling a euphoric when he walks away from playing them for an audience. His hobby is hopping trains and he spends lots of time on the road, but he’s so deeply attached to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia that he can’t imagine ever moving away. He started his career as lead singer of the highly successful, loud and electric Punk band Avail, and then left the band behind just as his career was really taking off, in order to embark on a solo career in which he plays alone on stage with an acoustic guitar every night. He’s fiercely independent, yet has a reputation for being an equally fiercely loyal and supportive friend.  You can hear most of this in his own words in the audio from our interview below.


album coverWe began by talking about his most recent full length album, 40 Miler, and as well as the re-released demo recordings that launched his solo career. They’re packaged with a selection of songs recorded at Mumford Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia.  We then talked about his style of music, the transition from being leader of a punk band to solo artist. He’s written several songs that express a great deal of frustration about touring, so I asked him about that next. It’s such a clear contrast to the exuberance I’ve always seen on stage.

That led into a discussion of his songwriting process. He talks in some detail about one of his most well known and impactful songs, “Prosser’s Gabriel” about a slave rebellion in Virginia. Among the other topics covered are the ways that one can support oneself given the changing music business, and when he first began playing guitar and writing songs. He also admits the subject of his first song he ever wrote!

Performing among the crowd at the Middle East on 7-21

Tim Barry at the Middle East Downstairs

Tim Barry at the Middle East Downstairs

I confess that it’s a particular joy to hear him talk about our hometown, a section of the interview not included on the audio above due to restrictions on file size.

Barry is deeply connected to Richmond and it’s environs, and it’s always been a big element of his music. It’s one of the things that first drew me to it. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of music written about Central Virginia, so it was exciting to hear it.  I soon found everything he’d recorded.  But while the lyrics about Richmond are what initially attracted me, the albums stay on my playlists because they’re so damn good.

While I visit often, and have returned for extended periods due to family issues, I essentially left Richmond for good in 1988 when I went away to graduate school.  When I asked Barry if he’d ever thought about leaving Richmond for a place like New York, LA, Nashville, Austin, Boston, or New Orleans, where it might be easier to support himself as a musician, his response was emphatic.

I have no interest in ever leaving this place. I love this city. I love it’s people. I love it’s architecture and I mostly love my family, my loved ones that are here, and the river. I have no need to ever leave. Fame or notoriety in music are not my goals in life, so I have no interest in moving to the places that would fulfill that. They’re also super expensive, and I’m not a man with much money.

I also think that maybe the quote you mention from my website (See “17 Things You Might Want to Know…”) wasn’t totally clear. When I said that I love Richmond for the fact that people don’t care that you play music, I meant more that if you have success in music they don’t put you on a pedestal or try to knock you down. It feels like people are seen as equals, because we’ve all worked the same shitty jobs; we’ve all dealt with the same personal struggles.

In this place I feel like people are talking to me because they like me.  I don’t feel like I do when I talk to certain people in some major cites, that they’re talking to me because they think they can get something. Because they think they can get on the next show or I can help them move their way up some fictitious musical ladder to success.

To continue that, I do think that Richmond has such a thriving musical community especially in underground that there’s plenty of support. As much as I abhor many aspects of Virginia Commonwealth University, it brings in such a massive influx of people who are interested in local art, music, and culture, and if it weren’t for those proactive people going to show going to art shows, coming together for community events, and what not, the city would lose a major part of its culture. I think this is a terrific city for people who make songs, and create art.

In the same way that Barry is ambivalent about VCU, he’s ambivalent about new people coming to Richmond.  He seems to suggest the city is fine the way it is now, large enough to have vibrant cultural scene, but still small enough to preserve it’s character. So while he proudly extols the virtues of the city, and proudly hails from it when he introduces himself at shows, he likes that it is a somewhat “secret city.”

I say all this hoping that people don’t move to Richmond. We don’t want any new people,f I say with a smile on my face. We’re a very secret city! It’s great!

When I commented that I liked the phrase “secret city,” he said he hoped it didn’t come out wrong.  I don’t think it did. I think it’s a common sentiment.  People who care about the place they live don’t mind it being found by kindred spirits, people who will improve life there, but at the same time they want to protect it.

When I expressed an interest in possibly returning home someday myself, he encouraged it. He became at once philosophical and sentimental, eager share experiences relevant to my issue. He told me that his wife went to college here in Boston, and offered some friendly advice based on her experience.

If you speak with her about it, she had a terrific time at Boston University, but at the same time she’s a Virginian it’s not home. But it’s leaving that helps you gain a perspective on what you really love and why, and where you come. To go back to my lyrics…that’s often what I write about when I’m on the road. It it sounds like a frustrated, it’s actually my brain thinking with the new perspective of oh man I really do love where I’m from. I really can’t wait to get home. I really do love Virginia. I really love the rest of the world too, but that’s where I feel the most anchored. It’s funny when you strive to leave, it’s on your mind and it really preoccupies your thoughts; and then you get wherever you’re going and you’re kind of thinking, “I kind of liked it better back at home, or where I was before.” There’s no shame in it.  When people are leaving I say to them, “Don’t forget you can always come back. Don’t think it’s permanent. We live in a transient culture these days. Go! Explore!”

I had to say goodbye to one of my best friends yesterday. She and her partner are working in a national park out West, and they packed up the car, their dogs and all that stuff. They saved money and they’re just going to go out and explore. I was thinking, she’s not going to leave forever. I’ll see her again, either on the road, or she’ll come back to Richmond. You’ve got to go out and explore, man! Always!

As our conversation ended, Tim’s thought’s returned to the tree in his yard, which had unnerved the chickens he raises, and how it would make it more difficult to do all he had to do before climbing in the van with no AC, on what was projected to be one of the hottest days of the year, after gas prices had risen 12 cents in 10 days, to continue his tour. These were significant complaints, but he wasn’t really complaining. He sounded more like he was just reporting facts. He’s clearly a man with a lot on his plate and a lot on his mind. How he brings so much to the stage on a night like Sunday, July 21 even with all that is anyone’s guess!

Check out the YouTube videos below, as well as his site, to learn more.

2 thoughts on “Tim Barry on Why He Doesn’t Want to Be a Rock Star, His Secret City, His First Song and More

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