BR5-49 - Biography
With a band name high-jacked from a recurring Hee Haw gag, eccentric thrift store wardrobes and a hardcore hillbilly throwback musical approach, BR5-49 seemed a highly unlikely candidate for success in late-1990s Nashville. Nonetheless, they rose from scruffy obscurity to a major label record deal and high-profile tours with major—albeit wildly disparate—names like The Black Crowes, Ani DiFranco, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, managing all of it through an uncompromising fealty to classic country music. It was a highly unusual methodology in Music City. Playing for tips at a three-nights-a-week residency at Robert’s Western World on the town’s hardscrabble Lower Broadway (an offbeat business that sold both County & Western apparel and booze), the band began pulling in large crowds that soon included the likes of Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood and Marty Stuart. One night, country star John Michael Montgomery challenged them with an offer of “$25 dollars for each Hank Williams song” they could play, and the band pried loose from his wallet $575 (they were actually owed $600, but “gave him ‘Jambalaya’ for free”).
Gradually formed during 1993-1994 by a handful of recently arrived transplants—first as the duo of guitarist-singers Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett, followed by bassist Jay McDowell, drummer Shaw Wilson and multi-instrumentalist Don Herron—BR5-49 combined original songs with a host of honky-tonk, Western swing, rockabilly and old-timey numbers. By 1995, their gigs at Robert’s, along with occasional Monday nights at the fabled Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, had created quite a stir along Music Row, resulting in a deal with Arista Records that same year. Their debut EP Live at Robert’s came out in early 1996 and did strong enough business that the label issued a full-length album, BR5-49. Their version of “Cherokee Boogie” earned them a Grammy nomination, and the music press embraced BR5-49, as tours with like-minded acts like Junior Brown and The Mavericks afforded the group valuable national exposure. Although country radio programmers treated them like lepers, the single “Cherokee Boogie,” significantly, did reach the Billboard country chart’s Top 40 and their two other singles, “Even If It’s Wrong” and “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts),” subsequently made it to the 68 and 61 spots. Their 1998 follow-up, Backyard Big Beat Show (Arista) was just as well received and the following year, a live set, Coast to Coast—recorded while on a national tour with former Stray cat Brian Setzer—won them more critical favor.
A move to short-lived Epic subsidiary Lucky Dog in 2001 resulted in a hyphen-free billing, and the more contemporary country-slanted album This is BR5-49 (Sony Music) kept the band going. However, the switch in style coincided with a somewhat decreased public interest—the retro-fixated audience tended to resent any off-the-beaten-path creative efforts. Lucky Dog, too, soon gave up on them and after road-weary co-founder Bennett and longtime bassist McDowell quit the group, the remaining members returned to playing the Lower Broadway gigs that first made them famous.
In 2004, BR5-49 reformed, this time with singer-guitarist Chris Scruggs and bassist Geoff Firebaugh, and went the indie label route for Tangled in the Pines (2004 Dualtone). They hit the road again, performing US and European tours. Along the way, several dates opening for Bob Dylan resulted in Herron accepting Dylan’s invitation to join forces as the famed singers fiddle and steel player. Shaken up again, BR5-49 stayed on course as best it could, with the addition of Mark Miller on bass (replacing Firebaugh), for their final album Dog Days (2006 Dualtone).
While BR5-49 lasted just a little over a decade, theirs was an impressive—and surprisingly successful—flouting of Nashville’s pop-prone standards and practices.