Sons of Pioneers

Ready for the Strait-jackets: BR5-49

Five years ago BR5-49 was hailed as proof that country music's fat cats had finally come to their senses. After gaining a rabid following on Nashville's fringe, BR5-49's classic-but¯kicked-in-the-pants country earned the band a deal with Arista Records. Y'all-ternative types took it as a sign that the industry would soon be overthrown by a herd of more insurgent country acts hell-bent on justice.

Today it's obvious the uprising never happened. Nashville's bottom line is even more dependent on such crossover pop-tarts as Shania Twain and Faith Hill, and Garth Brooks is still king. Meanwhile George Strait cops out while collecting his recent CMA award for his and Alan Jackson's cover of "Murder on Music Row," Larry Cordle's anti-Nashville diatribe. With Cordle in the audience and country purists around the nation watching, Strait betrayed them all by swearing he thought the song's anticorporate country sentiments were a joke. So much for the coup.

But despite these realities, BR5-49 has managed to stay afloat in Nashville's pop-addled waters. And while the band's Arista relationship has ended (Arista Nashville was put to bed when it merged with RCA Nashville), the group quickly resurfaced on the Lucky Dog/Monument imprint, a subsidiary of Sony. Multi-instrumentalist Don Herron and his mates in BR5-49 (vocalist-guitarists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett, bassist Jay McDowell, and drummer Shaw Wilson) are still carrying the torch for true-grit twang.

"Right now," Herron admits in a polite West Virginia drawl, "the way country radio has gone, it's really heading toward the pop scene. And there's a whole bunch of pressure on the major labels, and Nashville is having a tough time these days. I think it's because they abandoned a lot of their country people. Our crowd," he adds, "is growing more and more, and we're making the best of it."

Some of that success can be attributed to BR5-49's work ethic. Since signing with Arista, Herron and company have worked harder than a one-armed oyster shucker, spending time both in and out of country's mainstream. They've opened for acts such as Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson and an A list of noncountry artists that includes Bob Dylan, the Black Crowes, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

The band has also been able to hang on to its rock-band ethics. Past recordings have featured original compositions and their own performances, not the usual songs-for-hire and session players that Nashville records typically employ. Also, each of BR5-49's releases has been pressed on good ol' vinyl as well as plastic, an unheard of gesture among C&W acts. The band's current release is equally oddball compared to those of its Nashville peers. It's a live, straight-to-ADAT recording (made during a stint with Setzer and company), marked by lo-fi sound, rough edges, and zero overdubs.

The band's little war on Nashville's slick sensibilities began in the early '90s. Herron's traveling-musician lifestyle landed him in Music City, where he was soon joined by Gary Bennett (an ally from Portland, Oregon), who brought along fellow frontman Chuck Mead. The trio joined forces with Wilson and McDowell and began gigging regularly at Robert's, a boot store/bar in Nashville's semi-seedy Lower Broadway section. Soon the band was drawing size-14 crowds and turning heads with its waist-deep catalog of vintage twang.

The lines snaking outside Robert's on the nights of the band's shows caught the attention of various A&R people, who came close to offering record deals. There was, of course, always a catch. "We had labels talk to us," Herron recalls, "but they were always wanting us to add studio pickers or change this and that. They were all thinking, We could probably bend this band and make it mainstream enough to where we could pop it through. And we could have gone that route, and I might be sitting here with a platinum record on my wall. But you know, that's a little too close to dancing with the devil for us."

Instead BR5-49 held out for a better offer, which came along via Arista Nashville. The company released the band's debut live disc, Live from Robert's, two studio recordings (a self-titled offering and Big Backyard Beat Show), and the current live platter, Coast to Coast. While even Herron admits that the band's studio work is a shade smooth for his taste, such cleanliness is nowhere to be heard on the current CD. It's a rewarding honky-tonk record that features almost-true-to-the-original covers (including Don Gibson's "Sweet, Sweet Girl," Earl Green's "Six Days on the Road," and Bob Wills' "Brain Clouding Blues") and old-style, souped-up BR5-49 originals, including "Tell Me, Mama" and "Better Than This." Steve Earle it's not, and its feel-good mood and sunny kookiness might make it unsatisfying to altcountry types hungry for more-serious fare. But for fans of neocountry and the roadhouse music that keeps truckers rolling overtime, it's darn good drivin' music.

The disc's unpolished sound, Herron says, is a response to the glut of glossy music emanating from Music City. Such glamorized fluff, he says, "is like taking a girl who's pretty as she is and slapping a bunch of makeup on her and giving her plastic surgery. After a while there's something wrong with her. She looks nice, but you wanna see something else. You know, give me a freckle or two. We like an edge and a little grit and crunch.

"We love Hank Williams to death," he continues, "but we don't sound exactly like him or Bob Wills. We put our own sound to it, and that's what I look for in a band. I think that might be one reason why we got signed before some of these other bands: because we weren't so conservative in that respect."

The band has just finished recording its Lucky Dog debut, which should appear in stores in June and will feature a few changes in style: tunes penned by Nashville hired guns among its antique covers and BR5-49 originals. It might also be the band's best shot at cracking the mainstream market, since it's being produced by Paul Worley, producer of the last two Dixie Chicks recordings.

In the meantime BR5-49 is hitting the highway with tour support from the makers of Jack Daniel's bourbon. The sponsorship deal serves as 86 proof that, even when it attempts to cash in a little, BR5-49 does so with a hint of good ol' boy rebellion.

"It's not exactly politically correct," Herron says of the Jack Daniel's deal. "Country radio, they don't want whiskey- or beer-drinking songs anymore. And I don't want to mention any names, but there's been a few bands that had the opportunity before us to work with Jack Daniel's, but they turned it down. They were afraid they might offend somebody. Sometimes," he chuckles, "offending people is what we do.

"Most of our crowd," Herron admits, "are people that come up and say, "We don't like country music, but we think you guys are all right.' We have fans that go from Deadhead fans to hillbilly nuts to rockabilly people. And we have people that travel all over to see us because they can't get this music on the radio.

"They call this town "Nash-Vegas,' and it is an industry here," he says. "But with all industries, it's good to see you can dig out something that's not the standard thing. And that's the beauty of music. If you love it a lot, you'll go seek things out. And if you don't, you'll turn the radio on and hear what everybody else listens to. And that's cool. But they keep us around here, I think, because we're like a pet project or something."

Nashville's head-cutters have become industry darlings? What about the revolution?

"I think one day the people here are gonna decide to try something new," Herron says, "since this flavor-of-the-month thing they're doing isn't working. Well, the longer you last and the longer you survive, your flavor will come around; that's how we look at it. And when it does, whether we pop it loose or somebody else does, hopefully they'll turn in our direction and the door will get blown wide open."

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