He sounds so young on the recordings now. After all, he was young when he wrote most the songs. Lee Bains was not much older when, in 2007, he recorded 14 tracks under the name Arkadelphia inside a house-turned-studio just up the hill from the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Ala. During those sessions, it was Lee on vocals, holding his grimy, red Gibson SG, a drummer and a bass player behind him with the rhythm, playing dirty Southern rock-and-roll songs in a cramped room of the house where the former tenants probably watched TV or read books.
I got a hole / it’s in my heart / I’m gonna fill it up if it takes all night long.
I was young then, too — foolish and destructive. I was in college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which is a common excuse for acting that way. I didn’t know I needed those songs — tales of heartache and hope, sin and salvation — or what I needed at all, which is the way it goes when you’re in your early 20s and have holes that need filling. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I’d never met Lee or heard the beautiful songs he wrote and performed in Arkadelphia.
I woke up this morning / right around half past noon / I groped around for the bottle / but all I could find was you.
The 14 songs making up Arkadelphia’s never-released album are stored on my computer. I’ve also burned them onto CDs that are strewn around my car and all over the place. I have them nearby for whenever I need them, which is a blessing, a salvation really, that I’ve passed on to a few other friends, who I hope have used Lee’s songs in the same way I did. I hope they’ve used them to fill-up the holes in their lives.
I first met Lee in Athens, Ga. while on the road with the Dexateens, a band from Tuscaloosa. Leed been swapping e-mails with Elliott, the Dexateens lead singer, and came to Athens to see them play live. We sat right next to each other at a Drive By Truckers show, but didn’t speak since we hadn’t yet been introduced. Later that night, Elliott introduced me to Lee backstage after the Dexateens set at the 40-Watt Club. I wish I could remember our first conversation. But I guess it’s more important that I remember how genuine Lee was, how he laughed and smoked and was thoughtful and hilarious way into the night.
I ran into Lee the next day, at a frat party where the Dexateens were playing. There was a metal trough full of crawfish, boiled red potatoes and yellow corn in the front yard. The stage was set-up about 20 yards away next to a tall row of hedges. Lee and I talked about music while the sun burned orange, stomped our worn-out boots on the trampled grass, which was wet with beer, and the Dexateens played a set of blistering, redneck punk rock-and-roll that afternoon.
It wasn’t until late that night, maybe on the back steps of the frat house, that Lee ever mentioned to me that he wrote songs and played music. Or at least that’s the first time I remember. It wasn’t much more than a passing a comment, like if Faulkner told you he wrote books and went back to stuffing an egg-salad sandwich into his mouth. I didn’t know just how great Lee’s songs were, the words speaking to me more than any poetry I’d ever been forced to read. How soulful and gritty and loud and ragged and rhythmic Lee’s music was. How one day I’d shuffle my boots along with it, like the Holy Ghost was coming through the amplifiers and calling me to dance. At the time, I probably just thought about how I needed another drink. Before the end of the night I offered Lee a ride to the airport in Atlanta, since I was headed that direction anyway. Lee was flying back to New York the next day to finish college.
As we drove to the airport, we discovered that fried chicken was among the many passions we shared. So we stopped at an old restaurant on Ponce de Leon Ave. where world leaders, actors and musicians have all dined throughout the last century or so. We both ordered a plate of fried chicken with a few sides and cornbread. Lee and I tore off the crunchy golden crust and pulled the still moist meat from the bone, leaving behind only a little bit of gristle and some crumbs. That’s when I knew I’d found my best friend.
After dropping him off at the terminal, I drove on to Tuscaloosa, not thinking much about Lee’s music until I logged-in and searched for Arkadelphia on my computer to find their MySpace page. That’s when I first heard an early recording of “Walker County Loathing, a ragged country song about driving to see a girl you can’t quit, hating yourself for it each and every mile of pavement but not doing anything about it except continuing to make the drive. One of those songs that breaks your heart, but you find yourself singing along with it at the top of your lungs anyway.
You know that / I don’t love you / and I know you ain’t got no love for me / Take your clothes off / let’s get down to business / so I can leave ‘fore I get that Walker County loathing.
I played the song a dozen times before I tried to go to sleep that night, my mind swamped with Bains’ mournful voice and those hot-shit guitar licks. Something in me filling-up each time I started the song over.
Several months after meeting Lee, I sat on a dingy couch and watched his band make an album that I’ll listen to for the rest of my life. I witnessed firsthand the growth of Arkadelphia over the next couple years, the three-piece band becoming my favorite in the Southeast. Sometimes Lee asked me what I thought of the songs during smoke breaks or after late-night shows in Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and beyond our state’s borders. He’d smoke Camel Wide Lights and I’d perfect my now longstanding title of “World’s Biggest Secondhand Smoker.” That fall, I rode in a beat-up station wagon with the band as they made their way to New York City. Gear slid back and forth, the four of us smelled awful, the interstates were long and dull, the crowds sometimes good and sometimes bad. We had the time of our lives.
The music was always there too, there turning me into a man, and telling me everything was ok — that it was ok to be from Alabama, to long to jump on a train and never come back, to pay a few bucks for a lap dance from a stripper, to look for love in the wrong places, to fail at kicking habits, to be proud of loving your parents all the time, to make grand plans and see them through or not, to be grateful for each time the sun rises in the morning — just trying to do right by everybody, trying to “get right,” as Lee would often say, for them and for you.
I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked Lee for that or if I’ve ever told him how much his songs meant to me at a time when I didn’t know songs like that could mean as much or could even exist, especially right in my backyard. They changed my life, and I’m grateful to you for that Lee.
Lee and I are older, with good women by our side. I’m doing my best to “get right,” like Lee’s music called me to do years ago. It’s a work-in-progress. Sometimes I fail and sometimes I succeed, but mostly I’m trying, and that’s what counts. I’ve watched Lee write and record another album in Birmingham, Ala., with his new band, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. It’s an album that will deservedly make it into the hands of a public that is just like I used to be, not knowing they need it so bad.
If we just stop and think about the one thing that we done right / we’d be writing ragged songs about a righteous ragged life / If we stop and think a bit longer about where we’ve went all wrong / we’d be learning how to live from righteous ragged songs.
One day when I have kids, and they get a little older and want to know what their daddy was like when he was young, when they want to know if Daddy had holes in him, if he was eaten-up with sorrow and heartache ever, I’ll play them the 14 songs from Arkadelphia’s unreleased album. I’ll tell them to listen close now, while I hold onto them and pray that they fill up the holes they get throughout their lives with good music and better friends. And I’ll sing along with Lee just like when I was young.
Photo of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires by David A. Smith