Tim Barry is a folk singer/songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. For many years he fronted the band Avail, who is also worth checking out if you appreciate ballsy, melodic punk rock.
Tim’s songs are simple but powerful. He doesn’t consider himself a good guitar player (though I disagree). He focuses on how a song feels, and I must say, they feel damn good. Many of his lyrics are stream of consciousness. Barry writes about himself, his friends, and historical figures, alongside moving tales of fiction. As far as story-telling, I put him up there with Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Singing in first-person confuses some people. Certain songs are so melancholy that friends and fans often ask him, “Are you okay?” to which he responds, “I’m doing fine!” Below are 10 tracks that serve as a proper introduction to one of our generation’s most underground, yet prolific songwriters.
Track 1: “Idle Idylist”
“Idle Idylist” is the first track from Barry’s first album, Laurel St. Demo 2005. It was written after he came home from a job he hated and never returned to. He’s big on working when you need to and enjoying life to the fullest (a theme that shows up in other songs). It sounds like common sense, but we all get caught in the grind. If you’ve found yourself overworked and underpaid at a soul-sucking job, these lyrics will resonate:
You work a 60-hour week, you see one hour of sunlight
That ain’t right, that ain’t no life
Tim expresses his desire to live an honest life while calling out shallow, greedy people whose only concern is money. He’s confused and frustrated by those who don’t get it. Integrity is everything to him, which comes across in the lines, “I ain’t got nothing but myself / and I ain’t selling that or no one else.” This song encourages and pushes people to do what they truly love.
Track 2: “Driver Pull”
Taken from the album 40 Miler, “Driver Pull” is a beautiful laid-back tune about getting away from it all. It’s also one of Tim’s many songs about train-hopping. It goes well with solitude, campfire, and a full moon. His clean, concentrated performance pairs wonderfully with the low howl of Julie Karr’s backing vocals. When she holds the note for the word “pull” in the chorus, it sounds similar to a train horn. I’m not sure if they did this on purpose, but it’s eerie how well it works. This song will give you the peace of mind you didn’t know you needed. It seems to have worked for Tim, as he unapologetically sings, “I’m better for every day I’m gone.”
Track 3: “South Hill”
“South Hill” tells an eye-opening fictional story of a young man who sees no choice but to join the army. Throughout the song, Barry sheds light on the creepy, dishonest ways in which the military recruits the poor and uneducated. He did his research and it shows. Before releasing the song, he shared it with active military members who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, to make sure he got it right. With the amount of anger, confusion, and straight-up terror we get from the protagonist, you’d swear that Barry was pulling from real-life experiences. The level of care, respect, and detail that went into crafting this song is something to admire. It forces the listener to envision the absolute worst consequences of war. One can’t help but feel disgusted and sorrowful for anyone who has gone through these horrific situations.
Juxtaposed with these raw emotions is a chord structure and melody which is surprisingly upbeat and catchy. It’s complemented by the sweet, sorrowful cries of the violin, played skillfully by Tim’s sister, Caitlin Hunt. This profound piece of music from the album Manchester will make you grateful just to be alive.
Track 4: “Prosser’s Gabriel”
Tim Barry’s name shouldn’t even come up without mentioning “Prosser’s Gabriel” from 28th & Stonewall. It’s not just a song, it’s a history lesson; one which should be taught to every child in every school in the country.
Gabriel Prosser was a slave who organized a rebellion but was captured and hung in Richmond, Virginia after he refused to rat out his fellow enslaved black men. Tim sings about his plight with so much passion you’d think it was his best friend. I get chills every time I hear the lines:
You’re a coward if you own men for profit and greed
you’re the coward of all
and for all you must bleed
His direct, unwavering anger is reminiscent of Dylan’s “Masters of War.” It even left an impression on Prosser’s descendants, who held a family reunion and played an early, unreleased version of “Prosser’s Gabriel” and included the lyrics in the program for their event.
Tim refuses to ignore the ugly history of his hometown. It’s unbelievable and disheartening at times. But one positive outcome is that some of his lyrics are no longer relevant. As Tim explained in the last verse, Gabriel was “Buried beneath parked cars now and pavement.” Thanks in part to the song, along with the tiresome efforts of activists, church groups, students, and other folks who opposed this blatant disrespect, the parking lot has been removed. It is now a grassy field, filled with plaques for Gabriel and other slaves who were buried there. Tim was there (along with the descendants of said slaves) for the emotional breaking of the ground. He is now the proud owner of a piece of the pavement that he uses to put out his cigarettes.
Track 5: “Dog Bumped”
“Dog Bumped” from Rivanna Junction is the first song I heard from Tim Barry. It’s his rowdiest. He often opens shows with it and it electrifies the room. It’s a true story that you must hear to believe. In short, it’s about a friend who’s in jail for taking the fall for his sister, who took extreme measures against an abusive boyfriend. The protagonist, and the song itself, embodies a “take no sh*t/no regrets” attitude. It explores the importance of family and what people will do to protect their blood. Barry throws an infectious dose of redneck-like rage into this one, that is enhanced by his right-hand man, Josh Small, on the dobro guitar.
Track 6: “Walk 500 Miles”
One of the all-time greatest songs about relationship woes, “Walk 500 Miles” from 28th & Stonewall shows Barry at his most exposed and vulnerable. There’s a great deal of strength and wisdom that comes to the surface when he opens up about his loneliness. The song is laced with brutal honesty:
Ain’t but 10 numbers on a phone
But I ain’t talking no more
You’re all right and I’m wrong
You’re above and I’m below
But I won’t be here when you get home
Each word sounds calculated and carries substantial weight. Many of Barry’s songs seem to be part of a healing process, but this one feels exceptionally cathartic.
Track 7: “Ronnie Song”
This track from Manchester is very personal for Tim. It’s about his dear friend, Ronnie Graham, who passed away in a bicycle accident. He takes a lot of pride in this one (as he should) because he wrote it and played it for Ronnie before he died. The last words he ever said to his friend were, “I love you, brother.” Talk about a kick in the feels. Hunt’s violin parts coupled with Daniel Clark’s piano/organ arrangements give the song an epic, orchestral feel. “Ronnie Song” serves as a reminder to tell people what they mean to you while they’re here. Too often we take the most important relationships for granted. You have to be dead inside to not feel the love and respect in this verse:
Come on brother, let’s make a list
Of all those gone that we still miss
Let’s make a list of what they believed
And we still do
Like living first and working last
And beating the day before it’s past
Like what’s mine is yours, man
And what’s yours is mine
Track 8: “Fine Foods Market”
I had to include this one from 40 Miler because it shows Barry’s humorous side. He pokes fun at hipsters who ride their bikes to art school and adults who drive Saabs to the golf course. No one is safe from the jabs—not even himself. When he goes after punks who “now wear flannel and scream over bar chords on acoustic guitars,” he’s clearly describing his career. After a while, you gotta laugh with him. Tim doesn’t hide his hypocrisy and there’s a playful charm in his self-deprecation. It reveals another relatable side of his music.
“Fine Foods Market” is a great addition to a backyard barbeque. The group handclaps throughout the song provide an extra layer of entertainment. In a live setting, it serves as a nice, lighthearted breather between songs with heavier subject matter.
Track 9: “Thing of the Past” (live)
The original, twanged-out country rendition of “Thing of the Past” can be found on the album 28th & Stonewall (which is great), but I recommend the stripped-down live version from Raising Hell & Living Cheap: Live in Richmond. The entire set was originally recorded without Tim’s knowledge. He enjoys releasing performances like this because it makes them more real (his 2009 DVD Live at the Grey Eagle followed a similar approach). At the beginning of the song, he says, “This song makes me truly happy but I’m not sure why.” I found that odd, but maybe he’s too close to the song. I know why it makes me happy: it’s jam-packed with an overwhelming feel-good vibe, provided by a nice helping of sagacious one-liners:
“Living’s better when taking chances constantly”
“It’s not what you make or do, it’s how you’re living”
“It’s about life and love and family and thinking free”
All of the above quotes should be inside fortune cookies.
The chorus elevates the song to another level, delivering instant goosebumps. It makes me feel high when I’m sober. It’s the type of tune that’s meant to be shared and sang at the top of your lungs, in a tiny room with friends and strangers. It’s even better when the singer is on the floor with you, two feet from your face, as Barry is prone to do.
Track 10: “Wait At Milano”
I’ve heard Tim say, “This might be my favorite song I’ve ever written.” It’s hard to argue with that. “Wait At Milano” was written while he was dealing with depression (which doesn’t happen often). The feeling rubbed off on him while thinking about his buddy, Travis Conner, who was chronically depressed. Not long after, Travis took his own life. Though it was written with Travis’s troubles in mind, Tim later put a positive spin on it, in honor of his newborn niece and other family members.
Whichever way you look at it, it’s guaranteed to tug on your heartstrings. It’s a poetic, subdued number that focuses on being content with what you have and where you are in life. The piano parts, played by James Barry, add a nice layer of serenity. Towards the end, Tim offers the best advice I’ve ever heard:
If what you seek ain’t free then steal it
and if it ain’t necessity you don’t need it
just leave what’s left for who comes next.
“Living simple” is a motto we should all embrace. The violin solo by Caitlin brings the song to a satisfying, soothing end. It’s the perfect closer for the emotional rollercoaster that is Rivanna Junction, and a nice way to end this list.
Bonus Track: “Bent Creek”
“Bent Creek” is from Barry’s latest album, The Roads To Richmond, which came out in 2019. It always puts me in a fantastic mood. I think Tim would agree it’s one of his happier tunes. The record is on the darker side, but this helps balance things out. Lyrics like “I ain’t gonna worry anymore, let the clouds roll and let the storm roar,” make me believe I can overcome any obstacle. It’s basically a folk version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and I’m so glad that it exists.
It’s been 10 years since I got into the music of Tim Barry and I’ve yet to hear or see anyone sing with as much passion. Everything is 100% straight from his heart. It’s hard to pick a “perfect 10” for such an important artist in my life, but this is a good starting point for the unfamiliar. If you like any of these songs, there’s a ton of greatness to be found throughout his eight studio albums. Also, I highly recommend seeing him live. It’s quite an unforgettable experience.
For more, check out Tim Barry’s official website: https://www.timbarryrva.com/