By Lauren Wise
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By Amanda Savage
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BR5-49's recent Grammy nomination for Best Performance by a Duo or Group could be considered a fluke. If it weren't for the producers of the 1999 film Happy, Texas, who included the group's "Honky Tonk Song" on its soundtrack, the cut -- which originally appeared on the band's 1996 self-titled studio debut -- would have been just another good track that no one had ever heard of.
Still, it's impressive that the song, a lively cover of a classic dance-hall shuffle penned by Buck Peddy and Mel Tillis, was noticed on a soundtrack full of recordings by heavy hitters such as Emmylou Harris, Kim Richey and Alison Krauss. And BR5-49's five members were truly happy to be considered for best performance. Again.
This year marked the third time BR5-49 had been nominated for a Grammy in this category.
Touted as far back as 1996 -- in a feature story in The New York Times Magazine, no less -- as "the next big thing" in country music, BR5-49 has been Nashville's most exciting act for much of the past decade, even if it has yet to break the charts.
BR5-49 evolved from the experiences and vision of Gary Bennett. Weaned on a musical diet rich in hard-core C&W -- Hank Williams and Faron Young, for instance -- the now 35-year-old songwriter/vocalist/guitarist eventually drifted to Nashville from Washington state, hoping to find a niche. After a while, he started gigging, solo and with various bands, at a combination beer hall and boot emporium known as Robert's Western World in the then-crapped-out Lower Broadway area of downtown.
Meanwhile, just a few doors down the block at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a longtime hangout behind the old Ryman Auditorium, Kansas native Chuck Mead (a onetime bandmate of Vince Ramirez, local notable and drummer for Valley twangers Flathead) was also playing regularly to small crowds, hoping for his big break. One night the two men crossed paths, and Bennett invited Mead to sit in at Robert's. When they discovered they both knew the words and chord changes to the same obscure country tunes, they formed a natural partnership. They began performing together.
"We got to be friends first off because of the common denominator in the influences," Bennett says. "Then also, we were both songwriters." While the duo first attracted attention by reviving mostly forgotten melodies for audiences composed of equal parts Nashville geezers and curious students from Vanderbilt University, they gradually began to learn and play each other's original compositions, too. As the chemistry crystallized, they pieced together a band that came to include "Smilin'" Jay McDowell on upright bass, "Hawk" Shaw Wilson on drums and the versatile Don Herron on everything from fiddle to Dobro to mandolin to cello to lap steel.
The quintet dubbed itself BR5-49, an allusion to a telephone number the late Junior Samples used to try to recite in a recurring used-car salesman skit on the cornball TV show Hee Haw. The group began to dress in decidedly retro fashion: lots of bib overalls, pearly-buttoned cowpoke shirts, string ties and, of course, pointed-toe boots. And the members gelled, evolving into a legitimately "alternative" country sensation in a city not exactly known to encourage non-formulaic music making.
As the local buzz intensified, Robert's Western World suddenly became the hip place to hang. After a while, Tim DuBois, president of Arista/Nashville, couldn't help but take notice. Impressed by BR5-49's mastery of a long-gone sound, its encyclopedic knowledge of the genre's roots and its growing catalogue of intelligent originals, as well as its capacity for onstage humor and musical experimentation, he signed the group to a recording contract. The EP Live From Robert's was quickly released, followed shortly thereafter by a self-titled studio debut.
While the rise-to-success story might have ended there, with BR5-49 becoming simply a flash in the pan, it didn't. The exposure provided by the big-time record label led to opening slots on tours for C&W demigods old and new, from George Jones and Marty Stuart to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, as well as three appearances at the Grand Ole Opry.
Proving indisputably that it wasn't your typical Nashville hat act, BR5-49 went on to tour with a variety of classic rock headliners such as the Black Crowes, Nick Lowe, John Fogerty and even Bob Dylan. But the band also played major festivals overseas on bills with younger rock acts like Smashing Pumpkins and Beck. The last time BR5-49 blew through Phoenix, the duo was fronting the program for the Brian Setzer Orchestra. (As New Times readers may recall, Mead and McDowell stopped in that same night to perform at the Buck Owens tribute in Tempe, running through an inspired take of "Playboy" with a contingent of locals.)
Such cross-cultural, hard-to-pigeonhole appeal underlies the band's unique charm, as well as its failure thus far to find a place on radio.
Take "18 Wheels and a Crowbar," off the band's latest studio record, Big Backyard Beat Show, for instance -- the meanest truck-driving anthem to thunder down the pike in years, the ultimate road-rage psychobilly song, blending the "screw you" ferocity of punk with a C&W arrangement. It kicks off with the rhythm section's sledgehammering a menacing groove while a fiddle squeals some nasty invective. Lyrically, it's the first-person ravings of an amphetamine-fueled trucker who has transformed his big rig into an assault weapon: "Twenty-one days, not a wink of sleep/Got a belly full of pills and a bottle of heat." Mead growls the lines, recounting disdainful tales of intentional highway mayhem. One sample: "Pinhead, pencil-pushing loudmouth geek/Cut me off at mile marker 33/I made him pay for the move he made/Put his Pinto in a fiery grave."
But for every badass rebel's strut on BR5-49's latest disc (including the rocker "Wild One" and the hilarious swing tune "Out of Habit"), there's also something sweet. "Storybook Endings" features Bennett strumming acoustic guitar and crooning over a waltz tempo while mandolin, piano and other instruments create a lush background. Bennett's quivering, nasal vocal delivery enhances the mood as he sings that "Castles and tales where the prince finds the princess ain't real/If you stop believin'."
"We're becoming more focused, realizing what we really are -- instead of a novelty cover band or whatever, you know," says Bennett. "We're doing almost all originals now on stage." With a newly released live album, Coast to Coast (which, ironically, doesinclude a clutch of covers from Bob Wills and Charlie Daniels to Gram Parsons), the band is touring, seemingly incessantly, while Bennett and Mead continue to write songs.
While three Grammy nominations (all for cover tunes, it's worth noting) over the past four years isn't bad for any band, Bennett believes that BR5-49 has not yet fulfilled its potential, especially as a catalyst in reinvigorating the country scene. "I think it's pretty obviously at the end of a cycle. A lot of people hate to see that, and a lot of people are glad to see it," he says. "Nothing new can start without sort of a tearing down of the old guard or the current establishment. And I think that's what's happening in country music."
BR5-49 is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, April 18, at the Bash on Ash in Tempe, with the Road Kings. Showtime is 8 p.m.