The last time Lee Bains III was in Savannah, Georgia,, the Alabama-born songwriter was stoked to find out that he and his band — the spitfire, swaggering rock group the Glory Fires — were in town early enough to spend a few hours at the childhood home of one of his literary heroes, seminal Southern writer Flannery O’Connor.
“She was able to illustrate so beautifully the complexities and the eccentricities and the diversity of that community, and was able to sort of celebrate the margins of it in a way that was so inspiring,” Bains says. “She [wrote about] these profound and what I would consider universal truths by focusing on this very small region and the sort of limited perspective that she had.”
Bains worked similarly on last year’s “Dereconstructed,” the Glory Fires’ second full-length and first for vaunted Seattle label Sub Pop. 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. And like O’Connor, Bains frequently examines questions of morality and ethics.
To wit, “Dereconstructed” opens by invoking Pontius Pilate and eviscerating supposedly respectable civic and business leaders, such as infamous civil rights opponent Bull Connor, who could be found “putting profits in the black with businessmen on Sunday / Monday morning, beating prophets black and blue.”
“I think he’s such a strong example of human complexity,” Bains says of the controversial Connor. “He was a human who did some really fucked-up things to other humans and did so repeatedly and unrepentantly. That doesn’t make him the devil incarnate, but it does mean that he did some devilish things. And just as he could, so could any of us.”
Bains, for sure, loves the South, and Birmingham — though he now lives in Atlanta, his phone number keeps a Birmingham area code — and he says he’s in Alabama’s largest city almost as much as he’s not.
“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,” while the Glory Fires burn through Muscle Shoals swamp 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 — and, by extension, the Reconstructed South at large — on its B.S.
On “Weeds” he lambasts Birmingham for poor historic preservation efforts and regressive politics in the same breath. The burning “Flags” furthers the screed against recidivist political leanings: “Down here, we still hoist that old flag, watch it twist and flap in the wind,” Bains sings, “The way it did over the smacking lips and cracking whips of white men selling black men.”
“I’ve certainly tried to temper my celebration [of the South],” Bains says. “I try to keep celebration from turning into chauvinism and keep criticism from falling into just condemnation. That’s definitely something I struggle with, but I think what’s helpful is writing about these issues that are around these very large issues. I think often when I feel like I’m falling onto one side or the other, I find that if I bring it back to my personal experience and I ground these ideas in a story, then it sort of helps to better illustrate the nuance.”
Bains, a superlatively talented lyricist, understands the South’s nuances, contradictions, and stereotypes, and “Dereconstructed” turns the notion of jingoistic Southern rock on its ear. In doing so, Bains hits on the same kind of universal sentiments that O’Connor unearthed. But at the same time, Bains readily concedes that he’s just one man — a dude with a set of opinions influenced by his experience and upbringing and context. There are as many Souths as there are Southerners, he reasons, and he can’t claim to speak for them all. S
Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires perform with International Friendly, Horsehead and Industry Standard at Strange Matter on Monday, April 13. Tickets cost $8. Show starts at 9 p.m.