The Back Row Baptists–Broken Hearts & Bad Decisions
Much like it never occurred to us that iced tea could be “out of season,” it never once crossed our minds that someone might not know what “Back Row Baptist” meant. These Birmingham, Alabama musicians chuckle (politely, of course, to themselves) every time someone asks about the “Backroad Baptists” or where “Bagrow” is. The Ole Miss Center for the Study of Southern Culture is the academic authority on phrases, food culture, religion, and history in the Deep South, so that’s where we turned for a definitive explanation:
I can’t immediately find an answer to who, if it’s possible to identify anyone, first started using the term. I think it’s theologically meaningful, because the Baptists have so much emphasis on going forward to the altar–you can’t have “back row” Episcopalians or even Presbyterians. It’s also important because unlike other groups that emphasize going forward and making a commitment or testimony, various pentecostal groups for example, Baptists have a reputation for conservatism, so staying in the back is a way of being in between the action at the front and staying out of it altogether. (Source: Ted Ownby, personal email, 22 June 2010)
The Back Row Baptists bring together political controversy and kickin’ country music much like Lynyrd Skynyrd did. Throw into the mix multiple lead singers, including the amazing jazz-influenced Sarah Green, and you’ve got crank it up, party down country rock that you will love, even if it might make you think or tick you off. It’s hard to narrow down their standard three-hour live show to one CD, but their first label-backed release allowed them the luxury of a horn section and a less rushed atmosphere. They are influenced by the subversive lyrics and themes of Boston underground hip hop, the multi-instrumentation of The Band, and punk-ish Black Flag, which unveils itself in dark, uncomfortable themes within a rocking country sound. As Chris Porter says, “A sign of a good Southern city is a great cemetery.”
The band is defined by their Southern history, including the unpleasant and seedy reality of racism, exclusivity in religion, and eternal judgment in life and death. They embrace their cultural history while throwing their more progressive, open-minded, and inclusive beliefs right in the face of fans who might be blatantly ticked off by it. The Back Row Baptists’ music shamelessly challenges the status quo from within the culture. Porter writes and sings from a character’s point of view rather than personal experience, while his sweeter love songs are generally sung by Green. Porter is greatly influenced by literature, and uses those themes as conceptual starting points for many of his songs, taking a turn of a phrase and making it Southern, throwing in a touch of a Cops episode, resulting in a statement on the death penalty. Tactful writing can get a controversial political message across without ticking off your audience.