Monday, July 23, 2012

For Love of the James - An Interview with Tim Barry

Tim Barry is a Richmond, Virginia musician whose roots bury down into the bare soil of the early Mid-Atlantic punk scene, and who, 25 years later, can frequently be found on the road with alt-scene standard bearers like Hot Water Music, Gaslight Anthem and Lucero.  I've been a fan of Tim's for about two decades and while his writing has always drawn strongly from the eastern Virginia area we both hail from, it's grown increasingly so, and increasingly intimate, over the last decade.  I decided to reach out to Tim to discuss his new album 40 Miler, his current American tour (wrapping up in Baltimore on July 28th), and his freight train riding habit......and figure out exactly why Richmond, the James River, and Virginia in general are so special to him. He was happy to oblige. 

River Mud: So,  I grew up in York County.  As you wrote in "Wezeltown," “All I am is where I’m from.” Given that, are you a Henrico boy or a Hanover boy?

Tim Barry:   Well, neither actually.  I moved from Fairfax, Virginia to the City of Richmond in the 1980s and have never technically left.  Now, keep in mind, I’m 40 years old and I grew up in the old Fairfax – we played with electric cattle fences, to give you some idea.....  I am so thankful to have lived there before Fairfax became what it is now.  But you know what, I’m also thankful to have seen over time, with my own eyes,  what happens when the public doesn’t intervene in the development of an area – when for-profit interests oversee it and they tell the people and the local government who should live there and what it should look like and what the place should actually be.

River Mud:  Your writing, for two decades, has centered around the streets, train lines, and shorelines of  Richmond and the James River. I understand that focus on - or that return to - that one central, special place, and a lot of outdoors people understand that.  Tell us why the James River is so critical to your writing and your life. 

Tim Barry:  Man, we could talk about this all day!  For as long as I can remember, the James River has been where I ran to, my refuge.  The River has been the only place in my life where I have found pure content.  It has filled my life with memories, so many things I’m fortunate to have experienced have happened on that river.  I’ve also spent a lot of time on the James River alone – and you know – being outside by yourself is its own thing.   A camp fire without friends means that you become filled with thoughts and questions about yourself and your life.  The solitude brings an intense internal conflict.  You are forced to tune into the struggle inside.  You question yourself about things you were so sure about.  A campfire with good friends is kind of the opposite.  But it's easy to find yourself alone on the James.

The James River is just an intimate place for me.  All my pets have gone back to the earth there.  It is simply where I go – and 20 years later, my house is less than two blocks from the trailhead.  It also makes me think about a lot of those adult issues like pollution and zoning and clear cutting forests and people getting sick in the river….that’s my river, you know.

And as Richmond keeps trying to sell itself as a passageway to the outdoors (RM note: Outside magazine refers to Richmond as "Best Town Ever, 2012" and one of America's "Great River Towns" ), there is, or there should be, some real pressure to keep that outdoors access safe and clean for the people.

River Mud:   I feel the same way about some of Virginia's swamps.  They are part of me, and I feel like when I arrive there or pass through, they welcome me as I return home - and I'd sure like them to be around, and accessible, and safe for the next 10 generations. Is there a place where, once you hit that point, you know you are nearly home, despite the condition you're in, or the circumstances?  That you will probably survive or succeed, because you are back to a place that you fundamentally understand?

Seaboard Line crosses the James in Richmond
Tim:  Oh absolutely, but since I travel back into Richmond from so many different directions, it's different  from each angle.  From the north, it's the countryside between the Potomac and Richmond, along US 301.  From the west, it's the sight of Afton Mountain and the Shenandoah Valley.  It raises the hair on my arms and my thoughts turn to my chickens, my garden, and cold beer at home. 

From the south, it's the factories in Petersburg and then the James River.  Riding over it on the rails or the road, looking down and seeing if the shad fishermen are out, or campers are on the banks, or what.  And also it's the moment when my dog Emma, who travels with me, gets her first scent of the River - you’ve never seen anything like a sleeping dog that awakens to that smell of home, either in a truck or a box car…..she’s done at that moment.  she’s ready to cut loose!

I have a name for these, "symbols of re-entry."  I want to find more, too.  My wife and I bought a paper map of Virginia roads and we've committed to travelling every back road we can, stopping in every little town and corner and monument to see all the things that history might forget.  We highlight each road we've traveled, and now we are at the point where we need to start booking hotels because we've hit everything within a half-day's drive of Richmond, it seems. 

River Mud:  One of my favorites on your new album isn’t about Richmond at all, but, I think is about Asheville, NC – "Wezeltown."  Am I right?  The song describes a positive place where you and your people can just “be.”  Tell me about that song and about that place.

      Tim:  Well,  yeah, close.   it’s east of Asheville, near Black Mountain and Chimney Rock.  My friend      Wezel bought a big piece of land there decades ago, and I spend a lot of time there when I’m not working in Richmond.  “Wezeltown” started as a camp for his family on that land, and has now turned into an amazing place with amazing houses and amazing gardens and landscapes.

River Mud:  Tell me about the Rivanna Junction, the title of one of your previous albums.  All I know is it's that big freight line just south of downtown. Same place? 

Tim:  Yup.  Rivanna is the elevated split line over Shockoe Bottom.  It carries both grain and coal trains, along with mixed freight loads.  I’ve ridden the trains through there and out of there countless times.  Let me talk about freight riding in general.

Seeing Virginia - or anywhere - by train is special.  The train lets you understand what’s going on – it’s not the manufactured landscape of highways and McDonalds.  It’s the real guts of Virginia. Clear cuts and strip mines, the back side of paper plants, the inner city, the front sides of for-profit prisons.  The inside of big forests and swamps.  Real Virginia.

It also lends itself to asking big questions, “Why is this train sending all these soybeans to China?” and “Why did a forest in Virginia have to get clear cut just to export wood to China?” Most Americans don’t get to see that, don’t get faced with those questions.

Safety is an issue, including staying away from railroad police.  All of it is dicey right now because there is a new subculture of violent, drug-abusing freight riders (or train kids) who are popping up in the rail yards and leaving behind, you know, 40 oz bottles and dead dogs, because they ride with dogs but don’t take care of them.  The railroad police are cracking down, and for everybody else, that is a real issue.

Over the last several years, my riding is changed for a lot of reasons.  They call me a “40 miler”  – it’s the name of the new album -  and it’s a derogatory term for a part-time freight rider or a “weekend hobo.”  Like a “sellout” in indie music or a “poser” in skating. But you know, whatever.

River Mud:  OK this is for our survivalist readers.  What makes a good camp? And when you are looking for a new place to camp, do you take into account how long you might be staying?

Tim:  Totally different than what you are thinking.  Setting camps for freight riding isn’t about staying. It’s all about leaving.  Once out of town, its important to find that beautiful, dry, safe spot within a walking distance of  the next spot where the train will stop at a signal, a yard, or anywhere that train crews will change.  You need to be able to get going in a hurry, if you can hear, as an example, that one train is already on the line, and another one is coming to that junction and will have to stop at the signal for awhile. 

River Mud:  What’s next after the world tour? Any places that have been burning up your mind to write about?

Tim: After the tour, I really just “do it as I do.”  It takes 9 months to prepare for a year of touring. And then the tour starts.  So I am just rolling with the tour for 40 Miler for this summer, then I'll be coming home to deal with the fall harvest – both foraging and gardening, and then just focusing on my family and extended family this winter.

Then I'll get the itch, and it will all start again. My entire life is this push and pull to and from home - and the river - and knowing that my mind starts to wander once I get comfortable at home.

River Mud:   I write about about the passage of time, and the coming and going of the seasons quite a bit. In our family, it drives an awful lot of how we live and how we spend our time.  And for me personally, how I think about life, living, and my own mortality too.

Tim:  That is the truth, and it’s one of the reasons I have lived in Virginia my whole life, and I have no interest in moving somewhere else.  I want the sunburn in July.  The cold in January.  The seasons should drive us.  We need those seasons to remember that time is changing – time is moving on.  Doesn't wait. My friends in San Fransisco are kind of like, “Who needs all that? The weather is perfect all the time here.”  But for me, and I guess you’re the same, I need that change.  It’s supposed to happen.

River Mud:  Anybody else who thinks and lives this way, that you interact with on a regular basis?  

Tim:  Yeah, you need to look up Edward Trask, he’s a prominent Richmond artist and these kinds of changes, and places, and thoughts are the basis of what he does.  (Note from me: I had totally forgotten that Ed was the drummer of Avail, and had no idea that after that, he was the drummer of Holy Rollers - I had the pleasure of seeing both groups live.....way back in time). 

River Mud: Thanks again Tim – looks like I'll be able to catch up with you for your Baltimore show.   Safe travels and good luck overseas!  Also much thanks to Tim's agent, Vanessa of Mutiny PR, for setting up the interview not just once, but twice (thanks to the giant East Coast power outage). 

Tim's "This Land is Your Land" singalong in a Richmond elementary school.

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