The singer B.J. Barham wasn't asking for money. He was just venting to a friend.
Early in the summer of 2012, Barham and his country-rock band of nearly a decade, American Aquarium, were struggling to release their sixth studio album, Burn.Flicker.Die. The music had been recorded in the legendary Alabama studio town of Muscle Shoals with one of the band's inspirations, former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell. It was their best work yet, too. But Barham couldn't figure out how to get it into the world, or at least how to pay for it.
Earlier in the year, American Aquarium had raised nearly $24,000 to record and release the album through Kickstarter, with more than 300 fans contributing. But expenses had exceeded estimates, and to actually get the music onto CDs and LPs that people could purchase, they needed a little more than $3,000.
When Barham mentioned that, Van Alston, the friend with whom he was having an afternoon beer, simply walked out of Slim's, the downtown Raleigh shotgun bar and rock room Allston's owned since 1998.
"He came back with an envelope and said, 'Pay it back in six months,'" Barham remembers of the day that Alston changed his band's destiny. American Aquarium had flirted with breaking up or with Barham going solo, but that album pushed them from small clubs toward mid-sized theaters, from eking by toward making a living. Their seventh album arrives in January. "The only reason that record saw the light of day was because of Van Alston," Barham says.
With very few gaps, Alston has either owned or worked at bars since the mid-'80s, when he realized that he could make more money serving drinks a few nights per week than teaching high-school history in Wake County. During three decades in the bar-and-club businesses, he's developed a lexicon of aphorisms, quips and insights. "My greatest gift to musicians is my ability to make a tab disappear," he says, reciting one of his favorites from a Slim's barstool early on a Friday afternoon. "It doesn't cost me much, but it means a lot to them."
Never mind the false modesty, as paying tabs is the least he does: For the last quarter-century, Alston has worked as an essential impresario of local music, fostering systems that propel area acts and touring musicians while he stays out of the way and enjoys the show. Sometimes, that's meant songwriters living in his home. And the no-interest loan he gave Barham was one of about 30 he's provided for local bands. If he never gets paid back, he doesn't go looking for the money.
In the '90s, Alston owned the Comet Lounge and half of its sister music venue, The Brewery; those spaces served as incubators for the region's alt-country glory days. When he and a crew of friends ripped out the walls and built a bar at 227 South Wilmington Street 15 years ago, Slim's became an anchor of a downtown that didn't really exist yet. And in 2012, he purchased The Cave in Chapel Hill, reviving the 40-year-old underground bar as new development aimed toward the sky all around it.
Slim's and The Cave are entry-level venues for bands playing the Triangle—small rooms with a built-in bar crowd but with the capacity and sound system to help recruit new fans. They are inclusive venues, too, as likely to host a singer-songwriter on a weekend as they are a heavy metal act on a weeknight. They do hip-hop and garage-rock, country and pop, area standbys and touring freshmen.
"He is a very enthusiastic supporter of new things happening, whether or not it's his style of music," says Mark Connor, who became the manager of Slim's in 2011 and bought into The Cave with Alston two years ago. "He wants bands to be treated well so talented people keep coming back."
Alston spent several years managing profitable tours for the likes of Ryan Adams and The Bottle Rockets. He realizes the necessity of venues like his for bands to grow and thrive. At many clubs, every show entails costs that bands must cover before they're paid, like a sound engineer or a ticket-taker. But at Slim's and The Cave, the bar handles those expenses. The first $100 of any ticket money made—and, of course, a case of beer—goes directly to the band. The bars only consider keeping a 15 percent cut after the act secures that nest egg, which should be enough to get them to the next town.
"Bands make money from dollar-one here. If my stereo breaks down, I don't need to take your money to pay for it," Alston says. "I am going to sell my drinks."
Barham knows the psychological and financial benefits of such a system for groups on the road. He spends most of his year touring solo or with American Aquarium, and especially in the early days, he recalls clubs that didn't care if the band had enough money to make it to the next stop. Now, when out-of-town friends want to play in Raleigh or Chapel Hill, he typically sends them to one of Alston's rooms.
"I've seen bands that didn't deserve to get paid, that maybe had two people come through the door. But Mark Connor will go dig $75 out of the register," he says. "That is not every club in the country."
Still, Alston admits he's no saint: His temper is quick if short-lived. "I'm crazy. I get mad as hell and my cheeks go all red," he says, the unrelenting scratch in his throat evidence of singing along and shouting from time to time. He's been an enthusiastic partier for most of his adult life, the guy who hosted epic, at-home after-bars where songwriters would sing until sunrise and one-off collaborations happened spontaneously. When he saw photos of himself at his 50th birthday party last year, he knew it was time to ease up and exercise more. He's since become an avid cyclist on Raleigh's greenways, and he and his 9-year-old son, Alejandro, bike together almost every day.
And he is as unapologetic about his opinions as he is passionate about them, quick to defend them even when they are unpopular. That quality is essential to the survival of Slim's and The Cave, rooms that depend on their low prices and low overhead in order to offer an alternative to the expensive cocktails of the less casual spaces around them. Alston is an outspoken advocate for density and development, especially in downtown Raleigh. Balance, though, is essential. He argues that working-class landmarks like Slim's keep prices down and help maintain a city where creative-and-broke people can thrive.
"This building is 150 years old. If you knock it down and put a skyscraper up, somebody's got to pay for that," he says. He taps his hand against the black bar, where favorite album covers and photos of iconic Slim's moments are preserved beneath a thick layer of clear lacquer.
"A place that is geared to musicians, artists and a tiny niche subculture can't be part of the new. It has to claw to the old," he says. "We realize that we're different, but there's a line there somewhere. I just hope we can stay on the right side."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bar-backer"