By John D. Pierce
Lee Bains III had planned to be touring with his band, The Glory Fires — that “draws deeply from punk, but also soul, power pop, country, and gospel.” Yet, like just about everyone else, Lee became homebound this spring.
And, like many other musicians of all genre and varied notoriety, Lee has put his good gifts to good use.
Each Wednesday evening — “until COVID is over or I run out of songs” — Lee welcomes listeners into his Atlanta living room for a one-man, low-tech show via Facebook Live. With guitar in hand, or occasionally a banjo, he sings not the latest tunes on his albums or popular cover songs — but beloved hymns that shaped his faith while growing up in Birmingham, Ala.
For Holy Week, the live-streamed “Lee Bain’s Inclusivist, Liberationist Hour of Gospel” began with a soulful rendition of the spiritual, “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord).” Then he sang the reassuring “It Is Well With My Soul.”
“This is one I associate with my grandparents,” he said. “When times are tough, this is a good one to sing.”
Other comforting hymns of faith followed, such as “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “There’s A Land That Is Fairer Than Day.”
As requested by “Aunt Nancy” — Lee’s partner in family Rook competitions —he sang “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.”
One could almost feel the swaying in homes around the Internet when he rocked a bit with Luther Barnes’ “Satan Take Your Hands Off Me,” and the comment stream filled when he slowed things down with Kris Kristofferson’s hit, “Why Me, Lord?”
In an interview with Nurturing Faith, Lee said music for him is “a deeply human mode of communication that can carry with it a sense of intimate connection, and I think we are all craving that right now.”
BACK TO ROOTS
Like many musicians, Lee and his band mates had to cancel tours — including a long one in Texas, centered on the popular yet postponed South by Southwest festival. But his music couldn’t completely stop — and the weekly, solo live-streaming gospel hour seemed right.
“We’re definitely a secular rock-and-roll band, that plays songs I write loud and amped up,” he said. “But I grew up singing and playing in church, and when I’m having a hard time and dealing with anxiety, uncertainty and doubt, and just generally rough stuff, I sit in our backyard and sing old gospel songs by myself.”
He added: “I’d noticed I was needing to do that more than normal recently.” And he rightly assumed others needed the same hope that comes from old hymns of faith.
“One day, while I was back there singing, I noticed one of my neighbors was quietly drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette in his backyard and listening,” Lee recalled. “When I turned around to say, ‘Hey,’ he was like, ‘Don’t mind me; just keep going.’”
So Lee concluded others might find such solace and that, in a time of physical separation, the best way was to live stream his singing of those beloved hymns.
A DIFFERENT WAY
Jim Dant is pastor of First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C., yet his clergy robe hardly conceals the bass guitar playing, wannabe rocker inside. So he has engaged with a wide variety of musicians as part of his ministry.
“Music speaks in a different way,” said Dant. “It has been such a big part of what we are doing.”
Pop singer Livingston Taylor, rock guitarist Nita Strauss, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus are but a few to share their unique gifts at the church in ways not typical for them as performers — or for a Baptist congregation.
During social isolation, the church shifted to live-streaming for worship and “Viral Vespers” — which include both spoken and musical offerings from the ministerial staff. The music, the ministers noticed, drew a larger online audience.
So Jim reached out to some musician friends to see how they were doing when unable to hit the road. As a result, the church decided to sponsor a series of Saturday night home concerts available on Facebook Live.
The church pays $250 “sponsorships” to the artists for the house concert — which are carried on both the church’s Facebook page and the musician’s. This allows for reaching a larger audience — with fans of the musicians learning about the church and for artists to sell some of their merchandise to help support themselves during this hard time.
“Our people are excited about this,” said Dant, who put the schedule together. Artists include folk singer Bobby Jo Valentine, bassist Adam Nitty, bluegrass band Arkansauce, and singer-songwriter Pat Terry.
Pat Terry is best known as a pioneer in contemporary Christian music with his three-man band that toured college campuses and churches in the 1970s. After some solo albums, Pat found success in Nashville as a songwriter.
The Atlanta area resident penned top hits for country singers Travis Tritt and Tanya Tucker. His songs have been recorded by Kenny Chesney, John Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys, B.J. Thomas and many others.
In recent years he has taken to the road again to sing his original songs — including newer ones that address the challenges and hopes of daily living.
“Artists have to have audiences; songwriters write songs so people can hear them,” said Pat in a recent interview with Nurturing Faith. “It means something to know people are listening.”
The virus-caused shutdown of live music venues is just the latest challenge facing professional musicians, he noted. Other changes are related to technological advances and industry shifts.
“The big thing that’s changed is people stopped buying entire albums,” he said. “When going from selling eight to 10 songs per album to selling one song to someone the revenue for that is so tiny.”
The shift from purchasing records to streaming subscriptions, he added, means the revenue for writers and artists has become “so small it’s hardly comparable.” So live performances have become essential for many artists.
“Even to sell records online, the artists have to be visible,” he noted, which is hard when gathering in crowds becomes a life-risking experience. So Internet technology becomes the best available option.
“You have to look beyond the problem and find ways to let that be a springboard to different kinds of success,” Pat added. “The younger generation of artists are coming up in this system that’s developed over the last 20 years and they navigate it better than artists having to make the adjustment.”
One advantage of the online music scene, he noted, is that most artists have their albums for sale directly on their websites.
“So for anyone who wants to be supportive, it’s a good time to buy some products of your favorite artists,” said Pat, “and to support online concert series.”
While Lee Bains sings hymns in his Atlanta living room, scribbled signs on his backdrop fireplace invite listeners to make gifts to food banks in Georgia and Alabama. His compassion is deeply rooted in a faith tradition that brought both blessings and curses.
“I grew up with plenty of people trying to cram beliefs and ideas and shame down my throat, so that’s the last thing I want to do to anybody else,” he said. “With this [weekly] live stream, I just wanted to make sure people understood that these songs were being sung in a way that was open to anybody, and celebrated people’s diversity of identity, belief and experience rather than judge them for it.”
Lee is part of The Church at Ponce & Highland, a historic Atlanta congregation where such openness is well displayed.
“My first experiences singing in church were with my grandparents at their small Methodist church, where my grandmama was the choir director,” he recalled. “My granddaddy and I would sing duets, and I heard in their music a gentle, affirming, loving, open faith that was much more attractive to me than the lambasting that could sometimes come from the pulpit.”
Lee wants his online “Inclusivist, Liberationist Hour of Gospel” to sound such a positive note.
“After doing the latest show, reading back through the comments was so powerful to me,” he said.
“We heard from people who hadn’t heard those songs or set foot in a church in 20-plus years — because they’d been harmed by the messages and behavior there, and from people who were atheists, and Jewish, and faithful Catholics and back-row Baptists.”
“It all felt like beloved community,” he added. “People just visiting with each other, and hearing each other’s fond memories and present struggles.”
While times and technology change, one consistent reality is the unique role music — with all its vast variety — plays in our lives. We are moved by the lyrics and sounds to the depths of emotions — from tears to smiles, from despair to hopefulness.
And during an unplanned, extended time of fear and isolation, music has risen from every corner to serve as a needed companion.
Whether it was Elton John’s “Living Room Concert for America” — streamed on YouTube — that raised millions for Coronavirus relief — and showed the world what his kitchen cabinets and dishwasher look like, or a pianist at home playing “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and sharing it with a few Facebook friends, music has showed itself to be a timeless, comforting presence.
Music and musicians are there for us in our times of isolation and uncertainty. So if music gets us through our hard times, we might look for ways to help musicians get through theirs.