Lee Bains III hails from two worlds that seemingly couldn't be more different — spirited Southern choirs and punk rock. On There is a Bomb in Gilead, the soft-spoken Birmingham, Ala. native's latest album with his band The Glory Fires, Bains straddles those disparate scenes, with backyard barbecue anthems and slow-burning Southern soul. "Say a prayer for punk rock," he sings on "Righteous, Ragged Songs," "and say a prayer for me."
"Both traditions can really value a genuine, earnest feeling, and a chance to heal people and bring people together and make positive change," he says. "A lot of the punk rock bands that got me into that music reminded me a lot of the more accessible gospel music, like of the '60s and '70s — I guess you'd call it 'inspirational' and not Bible-thumping gospel. Listening to MC5, and bands like that, gave me that same feeling."
The Bains family raised its children on Southern rock staples and Alabama's native Muscle Shoals sound. Three-year-old Lee was his father's go-to party trick once Lee learned all the words to the Charlie Daniels Band's "Devil Went Down to Georgia."
"My dad grew up in Birmingham around a town called Bessemer," Bains says. "He grew up in the '60s, when segregation was at its height. To him, Allman Brothers and those bands signaled a new state of mind for the South. He heard a way to be excited about his Southern culture but to throw away all the racist trappings of it, like, 'This is the new South.' That's how I heard that music. As I got older, I realized the older dudes sitting and listening to that music in the high school parking lots or wherever, they did not feel the same way I did."
Bains discovered Birmingham's tight-knit, landlocked punk circuit, including all-ages venues The Boiler Room and Barn Stormers. "It was eye opening," he recalls. "You'd have exposure to so many ideas, and such a wide range of emotions you'd go through just sitting through those shows."
Bomb in Gilead shows off Bains' growling, church-raised gospel chops — on opener "Ain't No Stranger," Bains' Southern soul swagger croons and howls, not unlike a swampy Jim James. On the classic Muscle Shoals soul of "Everything You Took," Bains namedrops both the Ramones and Walker Percy, with a heavy dose of gospel on its chorus. The album title is a deliberate misspelling of the popular spiritual "There Is a Balm in Gilead."
"My grandmother was a choir director. They grew up singing the old hymnal in the Methodist church," Bains says. "My babysitter was deep into the Holiness Pentecostal church, and I heard that song through her as well. It stuck out to me. I'd always listen to the words in hymns. Most would just kind of bleed together — just the same types of images and themes. That one, I could've sworn they said, 'There is a bomb in Gilead,' and I had all these images running through my mind of what that could mean."
Bains recorded Bomb in Gilead in Water Valley, Miss., and mixed the album in Detroit, filtering punk energy and country roots through Mississippi and Detroit's rock 'n' roll muscle. It's a near whirlwind tour for Bains — he returned to Birmingham after school in New York, where he hoped to escape his jaded history with his homebred scene. ("Alabama, by now I hope you know, I'd die for you if called to do so, but I'm being courted by California, Tennessee," he sings on "Righteous, Ragged Songs.")
"I have a home in Alabama, and I have a family, and a history, and I feel like I'm a part of it," he says. "I feel more at home in Birmingham than I do anywhere in the world." —ALEX WOODWARD