Standing in the cool, fluorescent cavern of the K-Mart, clacking through the stack of cassette tapes, boasting brightly colored stickers declaring things like “Wow! Only $6.99!” or “Feat. Warren G!,” I paused over one near the bottom. I’d heard of it. Probably from liner notes. One of my daddy’s Allman Brothers albums more than likely. Muddy Waters – The Real Folk Blues. I pulled it from the plastic rack, carefully, turning it over in my fingers, looking at the husky black man’s twin, mustachioed, pompadoured faces on the cover — one shut-eyed and moaning, the other tight-lipped, eyebrows arched, as if to say, “Go on, and try me.”
I turned it over again.
“Mannish Boy.” “Gypsy Woman.” “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”
I fished the crumpled ten-dollar bill out of my pocket, and handed it to the lady at the register.
“This it, honey?”
Christmas money, probably. Maybe birthday. (It would’ve been my 11th.) Probably from Aunt Myrt, or maybe Uncle Bill.
There in the backseat, I bit off the corner of the cellophane, and tore off the rest. I cracked it open, pulled out the tape, and stuck it in the Walkman.
It crackled first. I remember the crackle. It sounded like smoke looks. Like barbecue smells. The guitar tickled my ear, the way that gnats and sweat conspire to do in the summertime. I think I blushed. Like I’d heard a dirty joke within earshot of my parents, or like somebody had called me a name. And that voice. It was kind of like the old black gospel music I’d heard. But far simpler. Cruder. Tougher. Sadder. Not pretty enough for the choir loft, I imagined. And there were all those grown-ups yelling and carrying on in the background. Drinking, surely. Cigarettes, too.
The language was familiar. The kinds of words and cadences that rolled out from between the lips of older folks, black and white both, around Birmingham. The kind that the old men in their perfectly creased ball caps and shirts, necks and noses burned deep red or deep black, would use at the Krispy Kreme or on the bleachers at the ballpark. But this man wasn’t cutting up and talking about football, or city politics, or fishing, or church, or carburetors, or old so-and-so, or whatever grown men were supposed to cut up and talk about. He was talking about crying, and being lonely, and drinking, and mean women, and drowning, and dying.
But he wasn’t complaining. I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t complaining, but it wasn’t. Complaining, of course, was something that a man didn’t do. There was just something about the way he sang, the words he chose, the way he spat them out, that sounded like he was daring — like he was BEGGING — the first dumb sumbitch to come forward and tell him he was whining. He’d earned his stripes, and there was something in the earning that was far worse, far more horrible, than anything that could be slung at him again.
Even then, I knew that whatever I was experiencing as a weird longhaired white middle-class boy at a Christian school in Birmingham was pretty far removed from whatever Muddy Waters had endured up to the point he sang “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” But, still, listening to that tape, watching the strip malls blur into pine trees through the backseat window, I heard that there was a certain power in putting your heart on your sleeve. And that, once you got the nerve to put it there, there wasn’t a soul that could take it from you.
Sun. May 6th LEE BAINS III & THE GLORY FIRES w/ LUCERO, Dirty Streets 5-10pm at The Hi-Tone, 1913 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, TN (901) 278-8663 $20 18+
Read the bio:
The title of LEE BAINS III AND THE GLORY FIRES’ debut album comes from Bains mishearing an old hymn as a child. In the soft accents of his elders around Birmingham, Alabama, “There is a balm in Gilead” sounded a lot like “There is a bomb.” It fits, really. The Glory Fires learned to construct music in the churches of their childhoods, and learned to destroy it in the punk clubs of their youths.
As much Wilson Pickett as Fugazi, as much the Stooges as the Allman Brothers, Birmingham, Alabama’s Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires have brought rock’n'roll to bear on their own experience and their own place. On ‘THERE IS A BOMB IN GILEAD,’ they deconstruct the music of the Deep South, strip it down and reassemble it, to make a righteous ruckus that sits at the vanguard of the vernacular.
In 2008, shortly after returning to Birmingham from college in New York, Lee Bains fell in with the Dexateens, a Tuscaloosa institution whose raggedy union of cock-eyed rebel pride and forward-thinking fury proved to be the perfect apprenticeship for a confused Southern boy, raised on Skynyrd and schooled in Faulkner. After Bains had played with the band for a couple or three years, a couple or three hundred shows, the Dexateens came to a reluctant end. Bains found himself off the road, back in Birmingham, without a band. He also found himself with a passel of powerful songs sitting somewhere between buzzsaw garage, classic power-pop and sweating country-soul. Casting his nets in central Alabama’s rock’n'roll clubs, Bains assembled the Glory Fires: drummer Blake Williamson (Black Willis, Taylor Hollingsworth, Dan Sartain), bass player Justin Colburn (Model Citizen, Arkadelphia), and guitar player Matt Wurtele. Chugging along with a fierce Muscle Shoals vibe, the Glory Fires brought a sense of urgency to Bains’s drawling, howling voice.
After tracking some demos under the powerful guidance of Texas punk pioneer Tim Kerr (Big Boys, Poison 13, Now Time Delegation) and a few months of shows, the Glory Fires traveled to Water Valley, Mississippi to record the tracks for their debut LP ‘There Is a Bomb in Gilead’ at Dial Back Sound with engineer Lynn Bridges (Quadrajets, Jack Oblivian, Thomas Function). The songs were mixed in Detroit, at Ghetto Recorders by Jim Diamond (The Dirtbombs, The New Bomb Turks, Outrageous Cherry). It is there — in that Mississippi grease and Detroit grit — that ‘There Is a Bomb in Gilead’ sits, fuse lit, ready to go.