Southern Rocker Lee Bains is Proud to Call the Magic City Home

On Saturday, the Magic City’s proud native son returns for a 2:30 p.m. set on the Cask & Drum stage at the festival of the same name in Birmingham’s Lakeview District. He spoke to Weld about a whirlwind 2014, and the conversation served as an extension of that Bitter Southerner piece, focusing on his feelings about his hometown.

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires released their sophomore effort and Sub Pop debut Dereconstructed on May 27, and The Bitter Southerner welcomed it with an important feature on the Birmingham native, dubbing the album “the most important record to address the Southern thing in 13 years, since Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 Southern Rock Opera.”

What do you like about Birmingham?

That’s an involved question. My gut reaction to that question is that I love everything about it. It’s home to me. It’s hard to divorce my personal sentiments and my personal history from the city itself. Part of what I love about it is driving around, regularly, in town or in places that have not only significance to me personally, but to my family. I drive down 24th Street and I am reminded of riding to school or church in the back of my parents’ car. Crossing the viaducts, you pass that Florentine Gardens Building and I think about how my granddaddy was in a jazz band in high school and they played there and he would tell me about the dances they had. It’s so charged with memory and feeling – I just love it. It’s a constant stimulation of all of that. I feel that very personal connection to it.

In a broader scope, I love the fact that it’s idiosyncratic among Southern cities. It has a scrap and grit that a lot of Southern cities don’t have, I think. It has that vestigial, steel town vibe that just gives it a different feeling from a lot of Southern cities. It’s sort of where it’s located; there at the very bottom of the Appalachians and before everything turns into rolling hills and cotton country. It’s such a fascinating place to me. I loved growing up there and I love calling it home. I encountered people from diverse backgrounds and went to school with people from diverse backgrounds, but at the same time, there’s a common identity that comes from being a Birminghamian. I love it there [Laughs]. I could probably write a book about what I love about it. Or albums.

What would you fix about Birmingham?

There’s a lot. Birmingham and most of the people there have really had the rug pulled out from under them. In my lifetime, as a result of the lingering effects of “white flight,” and the city and county politics business activity that has gone on is part of all of that. I think it’s exciting and energizing that folks with higher educations and capital are interested in moving back to the city and interested in establishing businesses there to serve residents. At the same time, I would hope that that could be done with caution for how that can and will affect standing communities, and think about how to make sure that that growth and development happens in a just and equitable way that makes Birmingham a city that can continue to maintain that diverse and friendly working-class tradition.

There’s a sunny side of Birmingham’s character; for a Southern city, it’s a big city that has a small-town groundedness and level of neighborliness, but the dark side of Birmingham’s character is that that can be twisted in a way that entrenches and exacerbates racial tensions and violence and marginalization, as well as class exploitation. I hope that as this reintroduction of capital to the citizenship of Birmingham happens that citizens will, at the same time, take it upon themselves to establish coalitions with standing communities, many of whom are working class and black. I hope they’ll create partnerships to ensure that Birmingham is as vital and equitable of a city as we can have it, that we live up to that neighborliness and that feeling that is in the best part of our nature.

I guess that’s what’s on my mind, when you ask what we can do to make Birmingham better. There’s a lot of interest in doing that – I hope that it can be directed in that municipal and county governments can be emboldened to have some sort of way ensuring that that happens.

How important is this city and this state to your identity as a professional musician?

It’s crucial. As a person. And musically, I was talking to a friend recently about how in the last year and a half or two years, I’ve seen New York Times write-ups of Wray, who just came out with a great new record. We had one written up a few months ago. Waxahatchee, Katie Crutchfield’s band has been written up. And Allison Crutchfield’s band, Swearin,’ has been written up in the New York Times just in the last year and a half or so.
When the Wray review came out it, it struck me – these four bands that all sound different were written up in maybe the country’s most prestigious newspaper from this town that most people never thought to go to. Every single person in those bands — or in the Crutchfield sisters’ cases, the two of them — were regular performers and audience members at Cave 9. If it hadn’t have been for that space, I would wager that none of those records would have been mentioned in the New York Times; none of us would be doing what we’re doing now.

Going to shows around that time in Birmingham was just a blessing. That Aaron and Renee and them had the passion to not only start that venue, but to keep it going against all odds for as long as they were able to do it. It’s responsible for the fact that all of these kids in Birmingham had their perspectives broadened by bands that were coming from all over the place, doing all kinds of stuff. When we were in high school, and as we’ve gotten older, we’ve all been able to follow what we want to do and not be confined to what somebody else might think is cool. I feel honored to have been a part of that, and I really don’t think I’d be here doing this if it weren’t for that scene that existed before I came along and continues to exist since I’ve moved away. I’m really proud and grateful to be from Birmingham and from that community.

How important was your move to Sub Pop for your career and the evolution of what you’ve done in the studio?

I’m fortunate to say that as far as making music goes, it really hasn’t influenced me at all. That’s what’s so great about them. Everybody at the label is completely supportive of the bands they work with and never try to pressure anybody into anything. They respect the musicians’ right to create the way they see fit, which is pretty amazing.

It’s definitely helped get our record in stores and it’s helped to alert the press to what we’re doing. And I think, too, it’s been kind of vindicating in that we all respect that label so much and respect so many of the bands that have put records out on it. It’s a vote of confidence in a way, to have a record out on that label and to highlight the spirit of independence that we strive for. Everyday, I’m grateful that that somehow happened for us.

Drive-By Truckers co-headline this bill you’re on at Cask & Drum – how important was their music, and the music of other artists coming out of Muscle Shoals while you were in high school and college, to the creation of your own sound?

Seeing the Truckers for the first time was definitely inspiring. I snuck into Five Points Music Hall with a fake I.D. to see them on the Southern Rock Opera tour and it was unlike anything that I had ever seen. They were a rock and roll band with guitar solos and songs and the whole bit, but they were ragged as hell and it felt…vital. They were singing the same way that they talked, which just [expletive] blew my mind. These guys from Alabama were not only acknowledging the fact that they were from Alabama, but they were embracing and confronting it at every turn.

It was really when the next album came out that I really started paying attention to their songs. Pine Hill Haints would come down and play Birmingham a lot, and that was also important for the exposure I had to Florence music. Jamie [Barrier] has a very similar, underlying sensibility, I think, which is that he sees something very independent-minded and punk rock about fiercely claiming his own place and culture. That resonated with me as well.

You’ve taken on almost a Springsteen-esque, blue collar persona over the last few years. Does it come natural? How have your music and your live show grown to become so embraced by the working man?

I don’t really try to portray myself that way. It’s funny, people have mentioned the Bruce Springsteen thing over the years, and I’ve never listened to Bruce Springsteen ever. I like some of the songs, but it’s not really – I didn’t grow up around that. It’s just not really my thing. But the more people say that, I’m like, “Well, I guess maybe I’ll check it out.”

I can certainly see in some sense what the commonalities are. We’re playing Oxford right now and there’s a dude that’s an Oxford fixture, he’s been living here and going to shows for a long time and he’s a Bruce Springsteen fanatic. He was one of the first people to make that comparison. He’s always talking about Springsteen. Last night at the show, he was like, “Y’all remind me of Springsteen on the 1980 tour.” Maybe there’s something to it.

I do respect that guy a lot. He’s always had a sense of purpose in writing songs and it feels like an accountability to where he’s from and to make music that’s challenging while at the same time being relatable. One of the reasons that I haven’t really gotten into him a whole lot, and a lot of that certain style of songwriter – I don’t know if it’s the Woody Guthrie influence or what, but there’s a sort of method of songwriting that employs a lot of characters and singing from the perspective of characters and using fictional characters to make quasi-political or quasi-social statements. I stay away from that like the plague, because I’m afraid – for instance, I have no [expletive] idea what it’s like to work in a coal mine or to be a foundry worker. I’m a college-educated kid that grew up with all of my needs and a reasonable number of my wants fulfilled by my two college-educated parents. I can’t claim to know what that’s like personally. I appreciate the fact that he and some of those other songwriters are motivated by calling out what they see as injustices to people who are in positions that lack power and lack loud voices. I definitely respect that and definitely strive to call out the same institutions and situations as I see them. My method of doing it is different.

I already made you answer the top five American rock bands question, so I’ll let you off that hook, but I’ll end by asking: you just played Texas the other night – were they okay with the volume this time?

[Laughs] Unfortunately, they were fine with the volume because I was having amp problems. So I had to apologize for the volume being less than teeth-rattling levels. But I’ve got it fixed now, so Nashville [and Birmingham] will get the full abrasion.

Cask & Drum presented by Fox 6 and benefiting Magic Moments will come to the Lakeview District on Saturday, Oct. 11. The day-long festival will feature the WJOX Kick’n Chick’n Wing Festival, Backyard Birmingham’s GameDay Tents & Hoover Toyota Pigskin Party, the International Wines and Craft Beer Tasting Experience and, most importantly, the music: Girl Talk, Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors, Houndmouth, Wild Cub, The Apache Relay, Jamestown Revival, Paul McDonald and Kansas Bible Company will join the bill alongside Birmingham’s Bains.
General admission tickets are available for $30, but will increase to $35 as the week continues. Cask passes, which include the beer and wine tasting event, are available for $100, but will increase to $125 as the week continues. VIP passes are available for $200, but will increase to $250 as the week continues.

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