On April 2, so as to avoid any possible April Fools' Day confusion, perhaps, B.J. Barham, the leader of North Carolina country-rock outfit American Aquarium, took to social media to announce his five band mates had decided to leave. In 2017's earliest months, Ryan Johnson, Colin DiMeo, Bill Corbin, Kevin McClain and Whit Wright bowed out, in an almost one-by-one manner.
Barham promised American Aquarium would soldier on. After all, he had overseen a revolving door of two-dozen bandmates over a decade or more.
While some speculated about the band's future, Barham got to work on hiring new musicians and setting out on his Great 48 tour, where he performed a solo acoustic show in every state, save for Alaska and Hawaii.
Now, with a new lineup intact and a tour set to begin, Barham's ready to focus on the new and now.
And though the group has seen many changes over the years, it's impossible to deny that the guys who left the band most recently made up the most successful, stable version of American Aquarium.
"There are a couple of things that make this time different than when people have left in the past," says Barham by phone from his North Carolina home. "This iteration had been around for six years, with Bill [Corbin] going all the way back to our second album. And though I've never made two consecutive records with the exact same guys before, this next record will be the first time I've ever recorded with a totally different group with no overlap.
"This was a mass exodus."
Barham's adamant that he views the departed members as "brothers," and that the breakup wasn't fueled by "animosity, fighting and turmoil." But in a way that suggests he's come to this conclusion after a great deal of soul-searching, Barham points the finger back at himself when pinpointing where the breakup began.
"If I'm being completely honest, I ran them ragged," he admits. "I ran them too hard. I have a drive and work ethic that's unmatched by anyone I know. I'm comfortable with being on the road 300 dates a year, and those guys put up with it for a long time. I had to ask myself, 'Why did they want to walk away from this? Was it because people weren't coming to the shows?' No, the shows were selling out. 'Was it because no one's getting paid?' No, because everyone was making an extremely good living.
"I had to realize and accept that I was the reason they all left."
When talk of art and commerce collide, it's often an unpleasant discussion. Since the group's 2012 Jason Isbell-produced album Burn. Flicker. Die. was released, few bands in the Americana music scene have been as in-demand as American Aquarium. Looking back, Barham knows that higher demand for the band led to some divisive decisions.
"No one wants to be best friends with the boss," he says. "So 10 years of me barking orders and making us go out for another two weeks of shows when we should've gone home after a long run took its toll. But those boys gave me a good chunk of their lives so I could live out my dreams and follow my passion, and I'm forever indebted to them for that. Leading a band is a learning process for me, and sadly, the things the old band didn't like about me will probably turn into things the new band does like about me, because I will keep learning about what buttons not to push."
As for the new band, Barham enlisted three Texans and a Nashville player to join him. The heavy Texas presence is unsurprising, given that many Texas country fans mistakenly assume American Aquarium is a Texas-based act thanks to the amount they tour here and how popular they've become on the same radio stations and festivals that feature Lone Star favorites.
Joey Bybee, Ben Hussey and Shane Boeker, the three Texans, along with Adam Kurtz are the new version of Barham's band.
He's done worrying about whether the American Aquarium fan bandwagon gets lighter, Barham says:
"If people can't get over it, then thanks for your support up until now," Barham says. "But I'm done trying to appease them. We'll lose some people over it, but I'm not going to lose sleep over that. Yes, plenty has changed, and if you liked us because of a muscular bass player [Corbin], then sure, we won't be that band anymore."
After the band finishes up this bit of touring, they'll hit the studio to record American Aquarium's next record, which is set to be appropriately titled Things Change. In the past three years, Barham has gotten sober, gotten married, toured the world and has now replaced his entire band. Many things are different now, but not everything is new.
"A lot of things have changed, but the songs haven't," he says. "If you came on board because of the passion and the songs, then that hasn't changed and it won't ever change as long as I'm at the front. I'm still here, and me getting on stage and pouring my heart into the songs is American Aquarium. If that stops, then the band stops."
American Aquarium with Matthew Ryan at 8 p.m. Sept. 2 at Granada Theater, 3524 Greenville Ave., Dallas. $24 - $27. Details.