Photo © Mike White/DeadlyDesigns.com
By Baynard Woods
O n the day his new album, Old-Time Folks, was released, Lee Bains III was at a muffler shop in Atlanta hoping that the mechanic there might be the one who could finally figure out what was wrong with his ailing van. But Bains already knew the real trouble and it came like a gallows humor punchline.
“422,000 miles is a long and gracious life,” he texted me. “But this would be a hell of a time for it to go.”
Those miles were racked up playing more than nine hundred shows over the last decade, since Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires released their Southern-fried gospel-punk debut, There Is a Bomb in Gilead, in 2012. Bains, along with brothers Adam and Blake Williamson on bass and drums, respectively, booked as many as two hundred gigs a year on the punk circuit, often taking rotations of three weeks on and three weeks off the road, playing mixed bills in church basements, punk houses, restaurants, all-ages clubs, and bars.
“The fact that Glory Fires is such a positive band, the music is so positive and a chance for a lot of good things, it really motivated me to keep doing it,” Blake Williamson said.
That was important to everyone in the band. Bains is a writer who has something to say. He often begins shows with a song called “Sweet Disorder,” which he prefaces with a homiletic description of purpose that also serves as a call to arms.
“This song’s about fucking up systems of oppression, it’s about fucking up white supremacy, it’s about fucking up the objectification of women, it’s about fucking up worker exploitation,” he barks out over roaring feedback on Live at the Nick. “It’s about showing up for your brothers and sisters and family members and kinfolks, it’s about showing up for your hometown.”
Birmingham, Alabama, is Bains’s hometown, though he has lived in Atlanta for over a decade now. Both places hold horrible histories of white supremacy, but they are also sites of resistance, with history at the very heart of the civil rights movement and countless other struggles over centuries.
Bains’s grandmother was a choir director in local Methodist churches and young Lee would sometimes sing with her at the church or for people in retirement homes. “She was, you know, disciplined about it. She’s like, we’re gonna practice for this,” Bains recalled. “She would be, you know, particular about, like, hitting the notes and when I’m taking a breath and all that kind of stuff.”
When the day of the church performance would finally come, Bains would get nervous and stressed. “I just remember my granddaddy would just say, ‘You know, buddy, like, you don’t have to do this perfect. You’re not gonna do it perfect,’” Bains recalled, his own grizzled, downhome voice sounding older than his thirty-seven years. “‘This is just about making a joyful noise. This isn’t about you, and it’s not about me. This is just about sharing God’s love with other people.’”
Bains, who is an unorthodox sort of Civil Rights Christian, has a sound that is deeply Alabamian, his voice sharing shades of the rich guttural growl that animates the songs of Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell, with a style that has always been heavily influenced by that early gospel music. There Is a Bomb in Gilead is based on a mis-hearing of the old hymn about a “balm” in Gilead.
He also brought the pattern of discipline and release that he first learned from his grandparents into Birmingham’s DIY punk scene. There, as in church or a hootenanny, the boundaries between performer and audience break down, dismantling the capitalist concept of the star even as the scene creates it by setting a stage off from the crowd, putting a name on a flyer or a marquee.
Bains did his best to bring the old-time gospel ethos with him out onto the road. And the calluses on his left hand don’t just come from the guitar and the steering wheel. Over the last decade, when he wasn’t touring, Bains started working blue-collar, manual-labor jobs, digging ditches on road crews, hauling rocks, whatever. Now he runs a handyman business where he is his own boss.
The manual labor wasn’t just a necessity of a life spent half on the road. It was also an important part of Bains’s ethic, embodying his beliefs about community and work. Just because he had grown up middle class and gone to NYU didn’t mean that he was too good to dig a ditch in the hot Alabama sun. As a white man in America, it may not have come natural to him, but Lee Bains was learning every day that he wasn’t better than no one else. In music, he was striving to make great art, to do something extraordinary. But he knew he could only achieve that in the collective.
“The way that I get more in touch with that part is through community,” he said. “Through talking to others, and, you know, kind of being guided by that more collective spirit.”
L ate last year, Bains published a cycle of poems called “Work Lunch” in the New Yorker. The poems are formally inventive explorations of Southern foodways, labor, race, and family (among other things).
For a long time, Bains says, he didn’t really see any difference between music and poetry, but in recent years he has learned to use the space surrounding the words on the page in a way that’s analogous to the way a song uses the placement of its words in time.
It is my personal responsibility
to climb in the van,
pull the sack of whitebread, peanut butter, bananas
from the shady spot on the floorboard,
to smear this peanut butter on this whitebread,
to cut up the bananas into little circles,
to unfasten the paper clip from the bag
The store over by work is a national bargain-center entity.
It is owned by something called an investment manager,
headquartered in Toronto, Canada.
That’s the shit that his music does too: it takes the small personal detail and then expands the context, whether economic or historical, or, often, both. His view of the South is global and transhistorical, time overlapping time, place overlapping place, a palimpsest of struggle and resistance. But it’s also everyday, old-time, rest stops, parking lots, meat-and-threes—and the people who work in them.
In the poem “National Fast Food Entity,” Bains describes sitting in the van, sweat-soaked, windows down, eating a Value Meal and watching an Adam Curtis documentary on his dashboard-propped phone and compares the experience to Andy Warhol’s definition of heaven. But the poem ends on another day, when he missed lunch, and is “dog-tired and labor-whipped” and can think of nothing but that Value Meal in the van until he notices a Fight For 15 picket line out front, demanding a living wage for the fast-food workers.
I approach the turn-in to the drive-thru,
ease off the gas,
lower the window,
honk the horn,
raise my fist,
drive on by.
Not on our watch.
We are worth more.
During those long hours behind the wheel and the shovel, Bains had been thinking about the records he listened to the most. The Glory Fires’ website describes the genesis of Old-Time Folks in “records that were more produced, arranged, and textured than their own past work, to records that struck them as timeless and immense, ones that invited you in, to get lost in the details.” Bains wanted to make something epic like that.
Joe Steinhardt, whose Don Giovanni Records released the last two Glory Fires albums, was on board. He set the band up with producer David Barbe, who had produced ambitious albums for Vic Chesnutt, k.d. lang, R.E.M., Drive-By Truckers, and others, and they set to work. They’d laid down some basic tracks when COVID hit. That changed the process—and gave Bains a lot more time to write. “My stimulus check was like my arts grant,” Bains said.
The result is one of those records that contains a complete aesthetic and political world view, a song cycle like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, in which phrases repeat in different contexts, each iteration deepening the others. Sonically, the album lands somewhere between Waxahatchee’s 2020 Saint Cloud and Steve Earle’s 2000 classic Transcendental Blues, bringing the lyrical specificity and spacious arrangements of the former into the hard-charging bombast of the latter.
But more than anything on either of those albums, Bains’s new songs are word-drunk. You can hear the influence of Southern hip-hop in Bains’s sheer ability to fit so many intricately timed words in a measure, while still feeling swampy and Southern. “Post-Life,” for instance, rhymes “do-gooder trophies for billionaire sweatshop bootstrap-stranglers” with “peace prizes for genocide-chiefs, land-thieves, and drone-swarm-slingers.” (He admits it only rhymes with a Southern accent.)
The repeated themes in the lyrics of Old-Time Folks ultimately reveal a sort of cosmic battle between various forms of oppression and the people, old-time folks, who resist them. On the one side there’s the white supremacist patriarchy so easy to find in the South—and the postmodern, neoliberal systems of subjugation and alienation, which Bains dubs “post-life,” which will:
turn your soul into a brand, your story into content.
It'll turn your friends into followers, your town into a market.
It'll turn your car into a taxi, your house into a hotel.
It'll turn the past into a vapor, the future into a cold hell.
On the other side of this divide are “old-time folks,” which is all of us, whether we recognize it or not, but especially “folks who are undertaking heroic action,” and are “part of those traditions… of resistance,” as Bains put it in one conversation. “Or,” he added, people “who recognize that they have inheritances of exploitation or whatever, that they can, through acknowledging it, choose to try to do something about it.”
Bains is steeped in that radical tradition. The album was almost called A People’s History, after the Howard Zinn books, and the first words spoken on the album come in the form of a lo-fi prelude of Angela Davis quoting her own mother: “This is the way things are now, but…this is not the way they always have to be.”
That invocation leads into the first of two versions of the title song, which is literally a catalog of resistance, with verses like:
Cherokee and Mayan survivors
banging on Appalachian prison bars,
Communist lawyers and sharecroppers
parting courthouse lynch mobs,
queer angels and prophetesses
walking and talking with God.
Bains’s lyrics grow deeper with each album, but the biggest difference between Old-Time Folks and the previous Glory Fires releases is the way that the music makes room for the vocals, lifting up the words like they are so many stage-divers in the mosh pit. The arrangements are simultaneously sparser and richer than Bains’s in earlier outings, incorporating more backing vocals and instruments, but also holding them back, almost as if Bains had learned to see the silence within the songs like he did the white space around words in his poems. The extra air brings out the gospel and country that had always been buried deep in the heart of Bains’s songwriting. The song “Gentlemen,” which is structured as a conversation with his grandfather, finds Bains singing the verses backed primarily by a piano, bringing in drum and strings only halfway through, his normally booming voice a scratchy, nasal, high-and-lonesome whisper.
But if the new album brings country and gospel squarely into Bains’s sound, it also throws his radical politics into those genres like a bomb. If Jason Isbell could be described as country music’s AOC, Bains is its antifa.
I n spring of 2022, the album done, shortly before they were set to start another tour, the Williamson brothers quit the band.
“That band was the most important thing in my life, for twelve years really, and I’d just kind of gotten to a point where it couldn’t be anymore,” Blake said.
He was tired and COVID forced a reevaluation. “This is Lee’s band. It’s hard to make an artistic statement because he has done it. He does it all,” he said. “I’m envious, and I’m in awe.”
But, Blake said, comparing himself to the tires on the van, “my tread is gone.”
Adam agreed. “I just don’t think I had it in me anymore to just trudge through tour after tour, bar after bar, night after night, sleeping on floor after floor for somebody else’s music,” he said.
This hit at the contradiction at the heart of Bains’s artistic endeavor. He has a singular vision about community and music. But it is his vision. It wasn’t that he tried to keep the Williamson brothers from contributing more than the parts he assigned them. It was just that he knew what he was going for. It was Lee Bains III + the Glory Fires.
But after more than a decade together, Bains was hurt by the brothers’ departure, likening it to a divorce. He was also a little scared. He had to figure out how to do a tour alone, immediately. And then, on a larger scale, to promote what should have been the band’s biggest album yet that summer and fall.
“Blew a fucking tire,” Bains texted from the side of I-85, a narrow-ass, truck-filled stretch of highway without much shoulder to boast of, on his way from Durham to Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of D.C.
Bains stood there cursing, no bandmates to lend a hand. He got the van jacked up to change the tire, but the wind of a passing truck blew it down. Finally a good ole boy with a tow truck came and helped him out and declined to accept any payment. Thought Bains seemed like he could use a hand.
With a big beard, a camo baseball cap, cowboy boots, and both a jacket and pants of worn-down denim, Bains looked like the kind of guy a good ole boy in a tow truck would give a break to. But that effect was likely due as much to demeanor as appearance. Bains’s voice is infectious, warm, effusive, big, friendly, and unassuming. He’s the kind of guy to greet you with a bear hug. He doesn’t smoke or drink, and at shows, he rocks out, front row, full attention, to every other band that takes the stage, drinking from a gallon jug of water.
Since he was alone, he’d invited me to ride along with him for some shows. I met him at the Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring that night, when he finally made it to town. Following a raucous punk band, Bains took the stage alone, with his guitars—he switched between acoustic and electric—and a stomping board he’d built for when he went out to the picket line to play for workers on strike at the Warrior River mine in Alabama.
As soon as he started to play, I couldn’t help but think that it might have been good that the brothers left the band. Bains’s voice was ragged and soaring, and, within its guttural Alabama whine and wailing country intensity, it contained a sense of gravitas that brought a hushed attention to the tattooed punks. When he played “God’s A-Working, Man,” the first single off Old-Time Folks, it felt like a communion. Bains lured the punks in with his political sermons—which are as much a part of the live show as the songs—and then kept them rapt with the power of the song, which unites his labor politics with the Woody-Guthrie-esque vision of Jesus as a union carpenter in a rich and timeless-sounding country gospel.
Old broken things to fix,
a riled-up, wild-eyed band,
piles of winding stories,
a sanctified, beaten-down land.
The longer I've been living,
it seems like the less I understand.
But every morning I hit my knees,
and thank God my God's a-working, man.
The next night in Philadelphia there was a completely different vibe. It was a very young crowd, there mostly to see Angel Du$t, which featured members of the popular band Turnstile. Bains had only been added to the bill as a last-minute opener when his original gig that night got canceled. Where Bains’s set had electrified the highly political D.C. punks, most of the all-ages crowd in Philadelphia stood in the back of the room talking as he played.
Both Bains and his label-chief Joe Steinhardt, who lives in Philadelphia, knew it wasn’t the best bill for Bains. But, as they saw it, even last-minute opening-act slots in church basements are better than the big corporate conglomerates that dominate so much of the music industry.
“The whole industry is consolidating,” said Steinhardt, who teaches music production and business at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“Over the last few years, there have been these conglomerates forming that are taking over small venues,” Bains added. These conglomerates would book bands on a whole tour, playing only in their venues. The Glory Fires, Bains said, decided early on that they wouldn’t play at places like that.
“What happens is, those corporations—like Wal-Mart or whatever—they have no connection to the community,” Bains said. “And they wind up putting long-running community-rooted independent venues out of business, because they can’t compete with these billion-dollar corporations.”
After the set, Bains pulled me over to the side and introduced me to a young guy named Ethan Alexander, who had driven up to Philadelphia on his day off from his job as an auto mechanic in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Alexander had come to see another band, but he had been moved by Bains’s songs and his message of solidarity and hung around the merch table much of the night.
By the time the album finally came out, almost five months later, Bains had figured out a solution for the tour. He never got his van fixed, but he rented one from a friend, and Loamlands, which describes its music as “distorted country” that is “built out of a love for Southern, queer culture” would both open for him and serve as his backing band.
It was not any cis-het white dude that Loamlands would tour with. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna go on this tour with this guy and here he is,’ and my queer friends were like, ‘What?’” Kym Register, the leader and singer of Loamlands (which has since started going by the name Kym Register), recalled. They had a similar reaction half a decade or so earlier when they first saw Bains play.
That first time, Register turned around and started to walk back out. “And then I just heard him talking about unions and the class struggle, like socialism,” they said. “Or being country and fighting racism in the South and accountability to whiteness and so I just turned right back around and listened to his whole set and got preached at.”
So when Register’s friends asked why they were going on tour with a straight white man, instead of explaining, Register just played the music. But, on previous records “he sings so fast and [it’s] so hard to understand what he’s saying sometimes,” they said.
The production of Old-Time Folks makes it easier to digest. But it also pushes the music to a place that is closer to that of Loamlands, whose haunting and almost ethereal country lyricism and feedback-fueled fingerpicking sounds of a piece with Bains’s new songs like “Old Friends,” “Rednecks,” and “Gentlemen.”
I met up with Bains and Loamlands for the final date of the tour in Greenville. The city had changed so much in the twenty years since I’d lived there, and as Bains and I walked past the busy bars and cafes on a Sunday evening in the once sleepy, theocratic town, I could feel the tension between the old, Christian repressiveness of the city’s past and its new “post-life” commercial extraction.
I could tell Bains was tired as we walked back to the Radio Room. It was the last night of a long tour. But when he took the stage, the signs of exhaustion disappeared. The live set took all the quiet, thoughtful intelligibility of the album and turned it up to a high-decibel boil with Bains’s utterly raucous howling, kicking, and dancing.
Loamlands’ muscle-shirt-and-headband 1980s stage vibe helped Bains’s denim-gray-and-camo palette stand out in a way that was parallel to the new life they brought to the songs. Register, an old friend of Bains’s, sang harmony on some songs. When they didn’t, they were there in the front row, singing along and rocking out. I was right beside them, waving my fist in the air. On my other side, I saw Ethan Alexander, the Greenville mechanic we’d met in Philadelphia.
Bains ripped into the next song, coming down off the stage and into the audience, where members of the crowd wrapped their arms around him in a gesture toward community, toward breaking down that barrier between performer and observer, toward liberation. “Organizing from the stage,” Register called it.
Outside after the show, I started talking with Alexander about what had drawn him to Bains’s music in Philadelphia that night. “I’m from the South…and he had the whole vibe that kinda just attracted me to his music,” he said. “He spoke about workers’ rights and white privilege and stuff that’s really all affected my life in many different ways here.”
Alexander told me that happening upon the Bains show that night changed his life.
“Through Lee and through his activism and basically just learning about what he stands for and what he does really inspired me to act,” Alexander said. “I quit my job. I was an auto mechanic for fifteen years…and I’ve started a new life and I’m trying to do my best to stand up for everybody who’s oppressed at work and people who are taken advantage of.”
Alexander got a new job driving a truck, with better wages and conditions, and he’s doing organizing work, including joining a movement to organize Starbucks workers in Greenville, despite the difficulties of South Carolina’s political landscape regarding labor.
It was a testimonial there in the parking lot, where Bains and Loamlands were loading up the rented van. Bains would drive them back to Durham that night and then return home to Atlanta in the morning. As the doors slammed and he drove away, I stood there thinking about something Alexander had said just before he left, as Bains’s songs also echoed in my ringing ears.
“Lee, he’s the soundtrack for the movement, man. People just don’t understand yet.”