It was four hours from Charlotte and Blake Williamson drove it stoned. For this leg of the tour, he was pilot of the big white dent-speckled van that carried his drums and his bandmates, so Blake got to pick the music. He chose an old favorite, Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and stared out past the mess of crumpled receipts, gas station napkins, and gig fliers that filled the long notch where the windshield met the dash. Blake went up I-77 into southwest Virginia, then followed smaller, crooked highways into eastern Kentucky. Just past 4 p.m. he parked on Main St. in Whitesburg, a tucked-away town of barely 2,000 people at the outer reaches of coal country. It was mid-November and the sun had already slid behind the mountains. As the band stretched on the sidewalk, Main St. was the same dull cool gray as the looming rock. In three hours, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires had a show to play, their 250th or so of the last two years.
They’d done most of this touring—Blake, his brother Adam on bass, Eric Wallace on guitar, and Lee on guitar and vocals—in support of their monolithic third album, Youth Detention (Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town), which came out in June 2017. It was released on the New Jersey punk label Don Giovanni Records, and though the band is loud and aggressive enough to fit that milieu, the Glory Fires, in person and on record, are above all Southern by the grace of God. Specifically they are Alabaman, from Birmingham, and as the record’s title says, from the city’s south side in particular.
That rootedness is one reason why the Glory Fires have such an affinity for other small, hot places. Their tour schedule has sent them to every corner of the lower forty-eight—and across Europe multiple times—but their bread and butter is the kind of Southern town that isn’t served by many international tours: Augusta, say, or Hattiesburg, Greenville, Knoxville, Huntsville, Gainesville, Macon, Lafayette, or indeed, this outpost in eastern Kentucky that, like all of the above, could be one of many second homes.
Blake parked the van in front of Summit City, that night’s venue. The Glory Fires had just played there in July, right after the release of Live at the Nick, a barn-burning live album recorded at a hometown club in late 2017. The group walked a few doors down and entered a stairwell leading to the apartment of Tom Sexton, a young Whitesburg native (and occasional Popula contributor) who co-hosts the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast, which was sponsoring that night’s show. Four years earlier, when the Glory Fires had only recorded their first album, Tom had just met Tarence Ray (also a Popula contributor) and Tanya Turner, his fellow Trillbillies. He invited the band to Whitesburg because he loved them, and because Whitesburg is the kind of place where people need to make their own fun. And that’s the kind of place that the Glory Fires feel most at home.
“We all grew up in Birmingham, it’s the biggest city in Alabama. But it’s also the place where a lot of your favorite bands would never come,” Lee explains. “So we connect to places that have that dynamic. We want to be a band that comes and plays those places because we were so appreciative of the bands that came and played for us, and still are.”
“We’ve played Whitesburg eight or 10 times,” said Blake as the band grabbed seats around Tom’s dining room table and started looking through his record collection.
“All seven residents come out,” added Adam.
“And three watch,” added Eric.
They’re all white guys in their mid- to late-thirties with deep family roots in the South, and there’s a twang in Eric’s guitar leads even when their tempos hit hardcore-punk speeds, as they often do. But despite appearances, the Glory Fires are out to smite and bury every small-minded inclination in Dixie. Along with the Trillbillies, the online literary magazine The Bitter Southerner, the self-defined liberal rednecks of the WellRED Comedy tour, outspoken independent country artists like Jason Isbell and Margo Price, and even Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement, the Glory Fires are part of a booming cultural left in the South, one based on broad solidarity and confrontation. Youth Detention is full of songs about rejecting the Confederate flag, tearing down rebel monuments, uniting with immigrants and the LGBT community. Their music is built on the recognition that most young people in these kinds of historically fraught communities are all “the tiny flowering redemptions of sharecroppers and miners and slaves.”
That night in Whitesburg was a perfect example of the new grassroots Southern culture at work. The Trillbilly imprimatur and the full lineup—the Glory Fires were one of five bands for the night, performing right in the middle—would bring in enough visitors to seemingly double the town’s population. Tom and Tarence weren’t making any money from the evening, but they were eager for the chance to show their scene off. They’d invited Brett Payne and Bryan Quinby, proprietors of Street Fight Radio, which inaugurated the vogue for independent, hard-left political podcasts like the Trillbillies and Chapo Trap House.
Brett and Brian came down from their home base in Columbus, OH, lured to this tiny, cold hamlet because, “We had to see what was happening here,” in Bryan’s words. “You hear about someone else getting something going like this, and they come from somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we made a vacation out of it.” Others had come from West Virginia, and further reaches of Kentucky. Michael Millions, a rapper sharing the Glory Fires’ bill, had driven from Richmond. Staff from Means of Production, a radical leftist TV studio, had made it in from Detroit.
Tom, himself of Appalachian descent going back generations, needed space to host his out-of-town guests for the night, so he drove with Lee to drop his oversize black lab at a friend’s. The other three Glory Fires set out to reacquaint themselves with the town. They walked downhill and crossed the Solomon Branch to stop at the Roundabout Music Company so Adam could buy bass strings. The owners knew them, hugged them, said they hoped they could make it to tonight’s show, which was happening barely a football field’s length up the road.
There was still time to kill, as there always is for a traveling band. Blake and Adam both wear their hair at headbanger’s length, past their shoulders, the perfect look for aimlessly wandering all 0.2 miles of a small-town Main St. on a lazy Friday afternoon. They passed the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library, named for Whitesburg’s most famous native son, the grandfather of Appalachian studies. Caudill’s 1963 debut book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, was the first to draw widespread attention to the plight of immiserated white miners and their plundered land. It brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the region once the Kennedy and Johnson administrations made Appalachia a centerpiece of the War on Poverty.
One lasting product of that funding is the Appalshop, a film school-turned-multimedia production studio right down the road past Roundabout Music. Founded in 1969, the Appalshop draws artists from around the country, and also happens to be where the Trillbillies record their podcast. But the town’s handful of new independently owned restaurants, the small-batch Bourbon distillery, and the half-century-old Southern arts institution likely wouldn’t impress Caudill. His dismay at the continued poverty in his region made him spiritually sick by the mid-’70s, when he started blaming his compatriots’ poverty on “genetic decline” and conspiring with the eugenicist William Bradford Shockley, Jr., to develop a sterilization plan for the region. In 1990, after a Parkinson’s diagnosis in his late sixties, Caudill shot himself in the head with a .38 and left a living will stating that no life-saving measures should be taken at Whitesburg Hospital, where he died. Around quitting time on a Friday, the only people besides the Glory Fires walking past his bronze likeness outside the library were two addled-looking older men who could only mumble indecisively when Eric asked where to buy beer. Back to Tom’s place, where at least there was whiskey.
Lee and Tom had returned, dog-free, and were sitting on the couch discussing what comes natural to Southern men: college football. Lee had an acoustic guitar in hand as he listened, fingerpicking some turnaround, pausing to compare Whitesburg’s plight to Birmingham’s. He had a pocket history of his city memorized: its founding during Reconstruction, its roots as an integrated, working-class steel town, the infamous hate and bile from Bull Connor and his wicked enablers during the Civil Rights era. He saw an overlap with Appalachia, too: the Drummond Company, a family-owned $3 billion coal operation that has been routinely busting unions, bribing Alabama lawmakers, and endangering environments from Birmingham to the Caribbean since their founding in 1935. Just a month before, Drummond’s VP of Government Affairs was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison on six counts related to fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and money laundering for his attempt to block a Superfund site expansion in Alabama.
Lee recounted all of this with a gee-whiz smile to match his heavy drawl. His bandmates, especially Blake and Adam, wear their Southern temperament a little lighter. But Lee, who now reluctantly lives in Atlanta, where his wife works as an architect, positively exudes Dixie. It’s in his accent, yes, and his recently revived Baptist faith, but also in his casual yarn-spinning, the way he’s prone to reel off a generational saga of injustice and working-class history in the course of catching up with an old friend.
The Glory Fires’ music has this same combination of restlessness and deep roots. By and large, Youth Detention is an outburst, a mix of whiplash tempos, Lee’s half-shouted vocals, Eric’s wiry leads and blazing distortion, and found sounds from political marches and kids’ street chants. But it’s all in service of a ground-level depiction of the neighborhoods of South Birmingham. Lee’s singing is often so hurried that the themes may not register unless you look up the lyrics, but then you find that those frenzied shouts are full of sensual, hyperlocal description.
Youth Detention abounds with stacked-up imagery, almost always about children and teens. In “Sweet Disorder!,” Lee describes riding to church with his family, past “Southtown kids waiting for the bus in blurs of white and navy-blue.” After settling in his pew, he imagines the scenes taking place nearby. “Stolen girls locked inside the sweating walls of sodden motels,” busloads of young men heading “to prisons risen in the fields of old plantations, where their bodies are turned to profits by our fathers’ courts.” On paper these barely look like rock lyrics; on record, amid pummeling drums and sung with Lee’s unrelenting conviction, they sound like calls to action.
The fulcrum of the album is the title song, “Nail My Feet Down to the South Side of Town,” which has a tempo just steady enough and a chorus just anthemic enough to sound almost like Bruce Springsteen, even if the buzzsaw distortion sounds more like Dinosaur Jr. In the relatively hushed verses, Lee describes familiar post-9/11 scenes of unquestioned jingoism among high schoolers who proclaim their love of country, in their desperation to impress “fathers who would prove to give them up.” In each verse his delivery becomes progressively manic, until he is nearly rapping, achieving some alchemy of Eudora Welty and OutKast that remains, after a hundred or more listens, one of the most startlingly open-hearted and affecting songs I have heard this century.
On Live at the Nick, Lee shares a long spoken intro over the beginning of this song, a tribute to his old friend David Kelly, who he knew from punk shows in Birmingham. David was a football player, “a big ol’ burly dude,” until he rejected macho nonsense and became a kind of avenging angel of the south side. “David loved George Jones, he loved getting rowdy, he loved guns,” Lee says, “And if David ever heard anyone say anything fucked up about someone’s race, or their gender, or their ethnicity, or their class, or their sexuality, you were gonna have to fuck with all 250 pounds of brawny-ass David Kelly.”
Lee Bains III’s first memories are stories. At family gatherings, his grandparents would sit and entertain themselves with recollections of the Depression, and Lee was somehow always at their knee, never in the kids’ room playing games and watching TV.
I got a sense of how those large systems and events I learned in history class really played out in real ways in their lives. I heard how the crash of ’29 played out in the lives of small subsistence farmers in Washington county in Alabama. By the same token, I heard how they didn’t talk about all the racial violence that happened in Birmingham in the ‘60s and prior. It was difficult to get them to talk about those questions. I didn’t even get ‘em to try to talk about it till I was older and became curious about the way that they saw those times in retrospect.
He learned later, for example, that his grandmother had been a choir director at the Birmingham church that counted Bull Connor among the parishioners. The sworn enemy of integration, the fire-breathing racist monster to end them all, Connor sat there in the pews, known to everyone, while Lee’s Mamaw brought the gospel to him in song.
She and the rest of my grandparents were vaguely aware of the civil rights demonstrations downtown, but they were happening in a black neighborhood. Local news didn’t cover it, and it wasn’t a thing for white folks. But word started getting around about the police violence. So she would sit there in church and think, ‘This isn’t right that this man gets to sit here and say he’s a Christian. But at the same time she didn’t do anything.’ Years later, my whole life I’ve only seen my grandparents live in a primarily black Birmingham. I’ve never known them when there wasn’t a black mayor. That fascinated me too, the way that they could have been born into this society and into the family that didn’t question the idea of white supremacy, and then could, through living their own stories and, I assume, considering and questioning the ones handed down to them, and visiting their grandkids’ integrated high school, come out completely changed.
Birmingham, site of the Civil Rights era’s darkest images and brightest rays of hope—Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses, but also the Children’s Miracle and Dr. King’s famous prison letter—is a particularly volatile laboratory for this kind of family-historical self-reflection, but the opportunity for it exists throughout the South. Lee could have had similar conversations with ancestors in any of the towns and cities where he now plays with the Glory Fires. But he had them in central Alabama, in the state’s industrial hub, a city that didn’t even exist during the Civil War but became ground zero for the still-ongoing cultural fallout and triage from that conflict. And there were still lessons to be learned there when Lee was growing up in the 1990s.
For me, the hump was gender and sexuality. That stuff was still very much policed and enforced in the way that I was socialized. Or religion. The idea of non-Christians was a very scary one, or of gay people, trans people. That’s some shit that I had to reckon with outside that community. I had to learn that in the same way that my grandparents had to learn questions of race. That happened through punk, and through reading. But hearing those stories of reflection and transformation already laid the groundwork. My grandaddy was born in 1917, so when 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, he was older than I am now. Jim Crow was just the way it was. Twenty years after that, I’m in my grandaddy’s backyard in a neighborhood that’s all black and he’s just talking to his neighbors like friends, no problem. I learned then that you’re not better than anybody in this world. I saw him live it.
Punk came in high school, around the time that Lee was making these connections. The Birmingham scene was small and tight-knit, but every so often a band from outside would come through—from Richmond, maybe, or Gainesville. From the former there was Strike Anywhere and Avail, from the latter, Against Me!. Blake, Adam, and Eric, all of whom he knew from the scene, were drawn to artier bands, Yo La Tengo for instance, but Lee’s baptism into music-making came through these howling Southern pop-punks and their direct appeals to emotion and connection. It also came through those fans, like brawny-ass David Kelly, who were as devoted to open-mindedness and iconoclasm as they were to the bands that played.
They changed my way of looking at things, they just felt like we were part of a conversation. We’re not the middle, the flyover states. I’m watching this important, passionate, artful band and they are stoked to be here and we’re here together. They weren’t on TV here or the radio, or even the internet. I heard about them because someone saw their last show, and said, “Here’s this burned CD.”
He was reading, too: the Beats, Faulkner, Amiri Baraka, Flannery O’Connor, writers of biblical cadence and unpolished vernacular. After getting his B.A. in English he pushed into music full-time, joining venerable Birmingham band the Dexateens, who, in songs like “Take Me to the Speedway,” were calling out Roy Moore’s heinousness more than a decade before the rest of the country had to see his Elmer Gantry routine up close. When the Dexateens went on hiatus, Lee got the first lineup of the Glory Fires together, recording an album called There is a Bomb in Gilead in 2012 and beginning a succession of endless tours and ripping, preacherly live shows. Only Blake remains from that first band, which was less manic and confrontational than the current Glory Fires; Bomb even contains pedal steel and tremolo guitars, along with a few other Americana prerequisites. But Eric and Adam were onboard within a year or two, around the same time that Laura Jane Grace, Against Me!’s lead singer and one of Lee’s heroes, came out as transgender. Soon, the Glory Fires’ sound finally befitted their name. The group signed to Sub Pop in 2014 and released Dereconstructed, which opens with “The Company Man,” drawn from his grandmother’s experience singing the gospel with Bull Connor.
In between those first two albums, Lee was offered a few songwriting deals that would have taken him to Nashville, away from his band, and would almost certainly have brought him more money for easier work than he will ever earn playing “Nail My Feet Down” to small bars full of country kids. But the opportunities never sat right, and never gibed with the growing political convictions behind Lee’s music.
I’m trying to open up the music and the words to be useful in the struggle of the disempowered against the system that empowers folks that don’t deserve it. I don’t want to be taking directives from anything but that. I don’t want to be beholden to anything but that. That’s led to turning down a lot of stuff and saying no to record labels or opportunities for money where there might not be explicit strings attached but there often are.
That sense of conviction leads straight to places like Whitesburg, where in November the Glory Fires were finally compelled, a few minutes before seven, to walk the twenty feet up Main St. to Summit City and load in their gear. Tenure, the night’s first band, based in Whitesburg and featuring Tom’s Trillbilly co-host Tarence Ray on drums, started their set, sounding slack and exploratory and perfectly uncalculated. They were followed by Slut Pill, another local, melodic indie rock group comprising three women. Lee, Eric, Blake, and Adam were up onstage between each set, moving amps, reconfiguring drum setups, winding mic cords around their forearms.
When the time came for the Glory Fires to take the stage, Summit City was warm and aglow, full of the mingled aromas of vaporizer smoke and pizza from the new place down Main St. It was scarcely different from any DIY space or punk show anywhere else in the country on a Friday night, but this town had stood gray and stock-still barely an hour before. The parking spaces up and down the block were uniformly full now. Lee strummed a deafening, distorted chord that summoned his bandmates to arise: Blake’s tumbling drum fills and Eric’s bent leads eased in, Adam’s bass pounded. The four sounds lurched among each other until Lee signaled a downbeat and suddenly they amassed, a brutal, collective hit and a long loud sustained note—cymbals awash, guitars screaming.
Above the din, Lee sermonized: welcoming us all, calling us to action, announcing that we were here in Kentucky, “the state of Bill Monroe and Muhammad Ali,” to reject the played-out notions of Southernness and embrace our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, our immigrant neighbors, our black and Hispanic and poor peers. Then he gave the signal, a hurried, “Let’s fuckin’ do it, rendered in Alabama patois as lesfugginduht, and the band sprinted in to “Sweet Disorder!,” the one with the trafficked girls and the kids in church.
With the exception of a newly written song that Lee performed solo, fingerpicking his electric guitar, the rest of the set followed this same pattern of inspirational preacherly monologues segueing into brutally fast, hard-swinging Southern punk and back again. Blake and Adam’s hair spun like fan blades, Eric strutted and soloed, and Lee treated his microphone like a bullhorn. He shouted his lyrics and appealed to the enraptured crowd that their shared young Southernness was a reason for pride and optimism. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who Lee toured with when he played in the Dexateens, has famously pondered the “duality of the Southern thing,” its age-old roux of hospitality and hatred. But Lee is less patient, disinclined to give those old ways another goddamn thought. This band shouts: Suffer no fools, bankrupt Roy Moore, call out the Drummonds, curse Bull Connor’s name. Reclaim the bountiful Southern capacity for open-mindedness and community-building.
Consider the range of cultural icons who have emerged from the South in just Lee Bains’s 33 years: R.E.M., Beyoncé, Lucinda Williams, Britney Spears, Bree Newsome, Stacy Abrams, Jesmyn Ward, Emma Gonzalez. In spite of the baggage that perpetually clings to this region, young Southerners have seen their compatriots try everything, and do it well: music, art, cooking, writing, raising up a creative scene, protesting their evil neighbors. They’ve also grown up haunted by performative lowlife conservatism: Confederate rehabilitation, prideful racism, nonstop corporate assaults on the environment and human rights. They have villains and heroes around them everywhere. They have decay and triumph alongside. As a result, they can build communities to match anything. The South’s cultural history is a litany of once-unknown places that grew into global hubs with their own signature aesthetics, from New Orleans to Memphis to Nashville to Austin, Muscle Shoals, Chapel Hill, and Athens.
The last song of the Glory Fires’ set was their most abrasive and unflinching, “Good Old Boy,” a blast of throat-shredding hardcore undergirded by moaning, shrieking feedback. None of Lee’s run-on sentences here, just a few syllables about kids with different names getting treated differently by authority. Lee’s guitar came off and he wrapped the mic cord around his forearm, then waded into the parting crowd. Inside a circle of friends, he thundered, “You call yourself a good ol’ boy?” The sound was a pure threat, full of actual rage, echoing through his guitar pedals. It was a final shot for connection: arms out, among his people, urging them to make this part of the world some better version of itself.
Blake, Adam, Eric, and Lee slept in the recesses of Tom’s apartment, on spare mattresses and couch space, without blankets and nearly fully dressed. They awoke slowly but were soon out having pancakes at the local diner right near Tom’s place, along with all of Whitesburg. There is a new album in the works, an ambitious one by all accounts, and they’ll be focused on recording and producing until well into the spring at least. If history repeats, it will be another wonderful, loud source of joy for many people, but no commercial sensation. And they’ll tour again, make more money than the year before but not enough to quit their day jobs, and only by spending six to eight months on the road and on floors. It sounds an awful lot like the future lives I hear friends describe and the one I envision for myself—uncertain, uphill, not rich with catharsis but full of intensity and anxious optimism. Their van might not be fancy, but they get a lot of bear hugs everywhere they go.
Saturday morning, they had breakfast with Tom at another cafe on Main St. and then eased out of Whitesburg. Lee was now behind the wheel, heading west. The show that night was in Chattanooga.