Lee Bains III is obsessed with Southern identity, and his lyrics aim to get to the heart of what is and what isn't Southern. However, the leader of the Alabama-based Lee Bains and The Glory Fires doesn't trade in Dixie clichés. Instead he tears apart and examines the South's pock-marked past and its lasting cultural influence on the region, using his hometown of Birmingham as both an extended metaphor and test subject.
Sonically, Bains and The Glory Fires pay homage to Muscle Shoals' signature sound while employing thick riffs, grit, and energetic punk, a fact that is evident on the band's sweltering, sophomore LP, Dereconstructed. Bains says the album "was my trying to sort of tease out the legacy of Reconstruction in contemporary Southern identities, in particular in the way Reconstruction has sort of played itself out in the political landscape of the South and the way in which identity has become politicized. I think it's a many-headed serpent, but I think, in part, most counter-intuitively, the legacy of Reconstruction — both among the reconstructed and the unreconstructed — is a heightened sense of sort of militaristic nationalism and jingoism in the Southern white male."
Bains grew up in Birmingham around "the Lost Cause, noble-Confederate narrative," he says. But he still loves the city in spite of its troubles. "Paris and New York don't have honeysuckle vines like the ones on 32nd Street," he sings to a lover who'd like to go elsewhere in "The Weeds Downtown." In the track, the band burns through a Muscle Shoals boogie played with The Stooges' in-the-red intensity. Bains later sings, "I know that Birmingham gets you down, but look what it raised you up to be."
But Bains' hometown pride doesn't prevent him from calling out Birmingham on its bullshit. Elsewhere on "Weeds," Bains laments the gentrification of downtown Birmingham ("I know the new architecture's largely depressing"), while on the burning "Flags!" he denounces his home state's often regressive politics ("Down here, we still hoist that old flag, watch it twist and flap in the wind/ The way it did over the smacking lips and cracking whips of white men selling black men."). On "We Dare Defend Our Rights," he adds an acerbic punk sneer to Alabama's state motto, as he calls out for justice for the "four little black girls" who died in the city's notorious Civil Rights-era church bombing. "The Company Man" eviscerates supposedly respectable civic and business leaders — like infamous civil rights opponent Bull Connor.
It's not only political hypocrisy Bains finds galling. Much in the way he's uncomfortable with how identity has become singularized and politicized, Bains, a practicing Christian, has the same problem with Christianity, which he thinks flies in the face of scripture.
"Flannery O'Connor said the South is 'Christ-haunted,'" he says, "and that definitely resonates with my experience. And that's something I actually really cherish about it. But at the same time, I think that with the emergence of the megachurch and the Southern Baptist Convention and the way it's become more and more domineering of its congregation and the way the Republican Party has become more influential in church bodies than any religious thinker in the past 50 years — it pisses me off. That it's made manifest in the political landscape, as a Christian, it pisses me off. That's sacrilege."
On Deconstructed, Bains attempts to reconcile faith, history, and tradition the best way he knows how: He cranks up the guitars and howls. The title track references Bains' heritage, offering an anthem about "taking your own damn stand in spite of those who'd define and control you." In doing so, Bains joins a long legacy of rebel sons who question the troublesome legacy of the South while celebrating its identity.
"I was just trying with this album to sort of smash that dualistic way of thinking about identity and, instead, consider the nuances of personal identity as it relates to culture," Bains says, "and do that through focusing on my own experience in my place and culture and family, rather than, you know, holding up these sort of monolithic ideas as gospel."
Clearly, Bains, a superlatively talented lyricist, understands the South's nuances, contradictions, and stereotypes. But he insists the story he's telling is solely his. After all, he says, he's just a dude who has a set of opinions that's influenced by his experience and upbringing. He's simply trying to suss out the complicated issue of what it means — to him — to be a Southerner.
"There are so many different Souths, you know what I mean?" he says. "I'm trying to figure out my own way and my own sort of conception of what the South is to me. And I hope that in doing that aloud, I can maybe make room for other people to do that, who feel like they haven't been allowed to wrest the South from the popular dominant perception."