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BR549's energetic synthesis of Buck Owens and Ernest Tubb started packing 'em in during pass-the-hat gigs at Robert's Western Wear -- a Nashville haberdashery on the wrong side of the tracks -- in early 1996. When the band's self-produced EP Live at Robert's juiced up the buzz to a deafening roar, a subsequent bidding frenzy led to a major label (Arista) reissue of the EP and huge critical expectations: another band primed to usher in a harder, hipper, younger country sound.

Two ultimately failed major-label deals later, BR549 makes its indie debut with a set that rocks harder and yet sounds more country than anything these guys have ever done, proving they'd rather play real music for fewer people than churn out the crud the Industry insists is "country." Chuck Mead's rowdy, heartfelt vocals still hit the spot, while his songwriting keeps getting better and better, with a blend of humor and sincerity that attains near-perfection. The band chews up the material and spits fire -- "Way Too Late (To Go Home Early Now)" and "I'm All Right (For the Shape I'm In)" would've been instant honky-tonk classics had they surfaced 25 years ago. Like Mead, multi-instrumental wizard Don Herron is also at the top of his form, dropping gritty pedal steel into "No Friend of Mine" and tasty Williams Sr.-style fiddle into "Honky Tonkin' Lifestyle." And on the more rock-oriented tunes, BR549 proves it can hold its own energetically and attitudinally against any of today's flavor-of-the-month garage bands.

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J. Poet