A Fire-Side Chat with Tim Barry

Posted February 28, 2007 in

"I guess this is gonna be the kitchen then!" Tim Barry sat himself down on a cooler full of Milwaukee's Best and rested his guitar on his leg. His show with Drag the River that night at Kilby Court had been cancelled, and even though Tim knew he wasn't going to make any money, he decided to treat a few of his fans to a very intimate, very free and very good two-hour set outside of his tour van. Sitting outside of Kilby Court as Tim played with his sister, Caitlin Barry and friend Josh Small felt more like sitting in on one of their private kitchen jam-sessions in their hometown of Richmond, Va.

Tim Barry's primary musical venture, Avail, has been mostly inactive since the release of Front Porch Stories in 2002, so Tim has been trying his hand at country, folk and bluegrass with his new project. "I'm not calling it a solo project; I'm calling it a retirement plan." Barry released Rivanna Junction late last year, and plans on touring hard in support of it this year. Even though the album was released under Barry's name, it also features some of the best musicians Richmond has to offer, particularly his sister, classically trained violinist Caitlin, and Josh Small, an extraordinary guitarist and powerful vocalist. Barry never planned on being the sole member of the ensemble and receiving the bulk of the credit. "The reason we ended up calling it Tim Barry is just because we couldn't come up with a good band name in time."

Of course, Barry was a bit upset that the show that night had been cancelled. "I usually book all the tours myself," he said, complaining about questionable routing and more than a few lazy promoters that he had already encountered on this tour. "I guess that's the road, though." However, after a few beers, a few cigarettes and a few songs had been played for a few friends outside of Kilby Court, Barry's mood had completely transformed. "This is better than the show would've been anyway!" Tim passed his guitar around the circle to anyone who wanted to play as the impromptu set took on more of a fireside chat feel. Barry's gruff, smoker's voice only got stronger as the night went on, and Josh Small's incredible command of the dobro and banjo was outdone only by his huge voice that bounced off the other side of the alley and over the fence behind us.

This is the kind of honesty and love of music that has been instilled in so many musicians from Richmond. "I find a lot of inspiration and love there, but I don't know where it comes from." Though Rivanna Junction sounds more like the outlaw country of Johnny Cash and the bluegrass of Bill Monroe than Barry's fellow Richmond punks like Strike Anywhere and Smoke or Fire, they all have one thing in common: heart. After all, Lead Belly isn't that far removed from Avail if you think about it. "The same three or four chords that make up country, bluegrass and folk make up punk." Maybe that's why so many punk frontmen have been dabbling in folk these last few years. Everyone from Bad Religion's Greg Graffin to Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan are jumping on the folk gravy-train these days. In fact, Tim, John and Caitlin had just finished contributing to a track on Chuck Ragan's upcoming solo album. He had a huge smile on his face as he described the experience to me, as it was the first time that his sister Caitlin's voice had been recorded for an album. "I'm not trying to sell Chuck Ragan's album, I'm just talking about a guy who has a tremendous amount of love for what he does." That same love is very apparent in Tim's work.

The songs of Rivanna Junction have a very strong storyteller feel to them, and when I asked Barry about them, he replied that he was just writing the same way that he always wrote. "I don't know why I write. I don't know how I write. I don't even wanna think about it." Barry's songs all come from events he experiences in his own life. Songs on Rivanna Junction describe everything from bad breakups, depressed nights in Milan, Italy to Barry's rescue of a homeless woman trying to commit suicide in Richmond. There may be a storytelling voice in Barry's work, but he's quick to point out, "The stories are mine." The simplicity of Barry's life allows his honesty and emotion to shine through in his work. "I'm isolated from everything. I go to my job, I go home, I go to the river, I drink at the river, I sleep at the river." Everything Barry writes about is framed by his blue-collar existence.

Even though the show at Kilby Court had been cancelled, those of us who bore witness to Barry & Co's impromptu set outside of his van were treated to something very special that night. Tim Barry, Caitlin Barry and Josh Small were able to transform what could have been a disappointing night into one of the most incredible musical experiences that I have ever been a part of. The three of them ripped through the tracks off of Rivanna Junction with an incredible amount of passion and intensity, and even played some folk standards and excellent covers. Even though the crowd didn't number more than 15, Barry made sure that everyone who wanted to see an incredible show that night was treated to one. If only all musicians had as much passion and honesty for what they did, this type of experience wouldn't be so rare. If you consider yourself a fan of real, impassioned music, do yourself a favor: go pick up Rivanna Junction and be sure not to miss Tim Barry the next time he comes to town. You won't be disappointed.