Southern Rock revised

“God and guns
Keep us strong
That’s what this country
Was founded on
Well we might as well give up and run
If we let them take our God and guns”

(God and Guns)

Could any lyric possibly sum up the prevailing cliches of the Southern mindset more thoroughly than the one quoted above, taken from a 2009 release by the bloated senior citizens who still call themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd? In its description of an embattled people under attack for their religion, their fondness for firearms, and their belief in the “true” principals this country was founded on, it perfectly encapsulates the sentiments that have become associated with much of the region’s popular rock music over the years. In fact, at this late date, the term Southern Rock is virtually synonymous with redneck, regressive posturing.

While that perception is unlikely to change anytime soon, a new generation of southern-based bands has taken on the self-appointed challenge of dragging the regions most shameful memories and lingering foolishness out into the hard light of the 21st century, kicking the sleeping dog of Dixieland’s past squarely in the hindquarters with squalls of feedback and raw emotion.

A recent release by a young band hailing from that deepest of Deep South states, Alabama, make clear just how far free thinking musicians can stray from the music’s conservative past while still maintaining a fierce devotion to the sound that drew them to pick up instruments in the first place.

“Dereconstructed,” the new album by Birmingham band Lee Bains III and The Glory Fires is a feral blast of metallic swamp boogie that sounds like it was recorded in a basement meth lab. Built on equal parts punk fury and hard blues gallop, the album immediately sets itself apart from the more refined, professional-minded music that often passes for hard southern rock these days.

But what truly distinguishes “Dereconstructed” is Bains’ refusal to turn a blind eye to what he sees as the rampant hypocrisy, injustice, and religion-approved bigotry that remain all-too-familiar blights on the Southern landscape.

In the album’s opening song, “The Company Man,” Bains recounts a conversation with his grandmother concerning Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, during the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s. Connor, who attended the same church as Bains’ grandmother, is infamous for directing the use of fire hoses and police attack dogs against peaceful demonstrators, including children.

“Mimi, tell me about old Bull,
Mean and proud even praying in the pew,
Putting profits in the black with businessmen on Sunday,
Monday morning, beating prophets black and blue.”

On another album highlight, “We Dare Defend Our Rights” Bains looks back to the death of two young African-American girls during the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 by white supremacists. He then moves forward to the present day, and the caustic attacks often leveled against homosexuals by Southern pastors.

“Blessed are the meek,
Unless it’s four little girls in Sunday school,
Learning how to turn the other cheek,
Or the younguns lashed with brimstone tongues
(“Boys like girls, and girls like boys.”).

Issues so sensitive to the Southern psyche haven’t been raised in song since, well, the original Lynyrd Skynyrd, who spoke out in favor of gun control (“So why don’t we dump ‘em people, to the bottom of the sea”) and even dared to criticize Alabama’s race baiting governor, George Wallace (“In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo boo boo”)

But while Alabama serves as his point of reference, the questions Bains raises in these songs could just as well apply to anywhere in the U.S, from Texas to Massachusetts. During a recent concert at Slim’s Place in Raleigh, Bains dedicated “We Dare Defend Our Rights” to the state’s Moral Monday protesters.

And as he makes clear in “The Weeds Downtown” Bains is a man who, while acknowledging sins past and present, still maintains an abiding love for his hometown.

“Paris and New York don’t have honeysuckle vines like the ones on 32nd Street.
I know that Birmingham gets you down, but look what it raised you up to be.”

Of course, all that battling with questions of Southern identity wouldn’t mean a thing without the mighty ruckus Bains and his band kick up over the course of “Deconstructed.”

Released on Sub Pop, the record label responsible for the early releases of Nirvana, Soundgarden and other ’90s Seattle bands, the record proudly carries forward that eras stripped down, no frills production. Moving from hard, bluesy rock and swaggering funk through the rhythms of the fife and drum bands that can still be heard in the hill country of North Alabama, styles, instruments and voices bleed into one another, forming the kind of thick, spice-infused bouillabaisse that has been a specialty of Southern bands since the days of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Sevens. It’s a record best heard loud, in a small space with the AC off and a cooler full of adult beverages nearby.

In voicing hard questions in music as uncompromising as it is tuneful, Bains has opened up a new avenue for a genre too often seen as a soundtrack for the “Old times there are not forgotten” set.

As he noted in a recent interview in the online magazine The Bitter Southerner, “To me, what I identify with the Southern identity is this notion of courtesy and Judeo-Christian charity and hospitality and keeping to yourself and respecting people’s eccentricities or whatever…Instead, we’re left with the notion of a Southerner as AR-15-waving, angry, judgmental, hateful figure. Those aren’t the Southerners that I grew up around.”


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