Most “alternative” country acts have sought to emulate ideals established in roots music before rock ‘n’ roll and adult pop infiltrated the scene. In contrast, the five cowpokes of BR5-49 honor that moment in time directly after the genre was altered, when honky tonk, rockabilly, Western swing, bittersweet storyteller swill and Sheb Wooley all commingled in search of proper homes in the evolving country landscape. With an arsenal of obscure cover choices and the talent to properly recreate them, the group — vocalists/guitarists Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead (who alternate songwriting duties), multi-instrumentalist Don Herron, bassist Smilin’ Jay McDowell and drummer Shaw “Hawk” Wilson — poised themselves as authentic defenders of the faith, but a name taken from a recurring Hee Haw skit and a predilection for campy vintage clothing threatened to make them alt-country’s answer to Sha Na Na. Indeed, the handful of memorable original songs BR5-49 recorded are fun, energetic novelties that possess all the right rustic trappings yet none of the obligatory dirt — much like the group itself.
BR5-49 honed their performance skills at Robert’s Western Wear, a boutique/bar on Nashville’s Lower Broadway. Live From Robert’s captures those early days, complete with overstated tavern clamor and constant reminders from the stage about tipping the waitstaff and the band. Bennett’s songwriting efforts shine the brightest: the twang of “Hillbilly Thang” is straight from a truck stop jukebox circa 1961, and “Me ‘n’ Opie (Down by the Duck Pond)” is a riotous bluegrass tale of Mayberry’s inhabitants lighting up that stresses BR5-49’s rib-nudgin’ appeal. Mead’s “18 Wheels & a Crowbar” is more conventional low-end country-rock — Commander Cody meets Brooks & Dunn — and his singing isn’t quite as infectious. (Another original, the Bettie Page ode “Bettie Bettie,” is mysteriously absent from some copies of the disc.) Covers of the traditional “Knoxville Girl” and Johnny Horton’s “Ole Slewfoot” show just where these cats are coming from (or at least where they want you to think they’re coming from). As a whole, the EP is a compelling glimpse of a band with abundant enthusiasm, a creased and ironed stage act and an overwhelming, almost vulgar need to entertain.
BR5-49 is the group’s inevitable and not altogether successful move from saloon to studio. If the longplayer’s eleven songs were pared down to a six-song blitzkrieg like the EP, it would kill. Bennett is in top form with Yoakam-like capers “Even If It’s Wrong” and “Are You Gettin’ Tired of Me.” Mead also excels with the rockabilly-fueled “One Long Saturday Night” (a reminder of his days in Lawrence, Kansas revival rockers the Homestead Grays) and “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts),” an obvious wink at both faddish Ramones fans and country’s crossover appeal. The band’s remake resources strike gold in the Bob Beckham classic “Crazy Arms” and Moon Mullican’s “Cherokee Boogie,” which runs alongside Junior Brown’s Hawaiian fixation as the goofiest thing modern cowboys have to offer. But other covers — Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” and the Mel Tillis-penned “Honky Tonk Song” and “I Ain’t Never” — are as generic as they are heartfelt, and Chuck’s take on flamenco (“Chains of This Town”) and a woeful mid-tempo sing-along (“Lifetime to Prove”) fall flat.
But just as the bolo tie and big belt buckle were going back in the closet, along came Big Backyard Beat Show, a much more savory slab of hillbilly hooey. It’s the same song ‘n’ dance — a few moldies, a bunch of drawling originals with a few out-of-place pop-culture references — but the routine is more consistent, as is the songwriting. Gary puts on his blue suede shoes for the rock-a-tonky “You Are Never Nice to Me” and “You Flew the Coop,” and actually gets away with likable weepy crooner schmaltz on “Storybook Endings (If You Stop Believin’).” Chuck more than makes up for a couple of stinkers — “My Name Is Mudd” and a rehash of “18 Wheels” — with “Goodbye, Maria,” a surefire Tex-Mex wedding selection to get grandma grooving, and “Out of Habit,” great goof-country (“I can’t be held responsible / It helps me unwind”) with old-school guitar leads and slap bass. The covers are all solid tributes except for an annoying country-pop take on the overdone “Wild One” that makes even Iggy Pop’s rendition seem relevant.
Taken from a session with legendary producer Steve Albini (Pixies, Nirvana), Bonus Beats is a promo EP included with some copies of Big Backyard Beat Show. The six rough tracks allude to how much cooler BR5-49 would be without the Nashville polish, but nothing truly miraculous occurs (as, say, the Johnny Cash-Rick Rubin union produced). The live Coast to Coast can be recommended for its slew of otherwise unavailable remakes, including Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider” and Dave Dudley’s standard, “Six Days on the Road.”
Then the shit-kickers hit the fan. Arista’s country division dissolved in a merger, forcing a label move to Epic’s Lucky Dog imprint. With This Is BR549, the group lost its hyphen, its antiquated look and any chance in hick hell of being considered “alternative” to anything, let alone contemporary country. Also out with the bathwater went longstanding producers Jozef Nuyens and Mike Janas, whose clientele also included Jason & the Scorchers and Stuck Mojo, in favor of Paul Worley, the man responsible for the Dixie Chicks’ slick cornpone shtick. Granted, Nuyens and Janas had their flaws (the Albini sessions prove that), but Worley robs the band of any identifiable characteristics, no matter how cartoonish they may have been. Covering Nick Lowe’s “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)” is a nifty idea that simply doesn’t pay off, but redoing an Anne Murray hit (“A Little Good News”) is just plain mean. The only track worth consideration is an update of the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love,” which successfully proposes a fiddle-laced modern-rock sound, but it’s absolutely nothing like the BR5-49 of yore.
The attempt to transform the group into Rascal Flatts tanked and Lucky Dog dropped them. Bennett and McDowell left, replaced by bassist Geoff Firebaugh and guitarist Chris Scruggs, the 20-year-old grandson of banjo legend Earl Scruggs. Without a record deal, the band self-released Temporarily Disconnected, a five-song EP of studio and live cuts. The cover choices are quirky, as is the sense of humor (“Onie’s Bop” is by Onie Wheeler, the only performer ever to die on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry), and the originals (especially Scruggs’ “I’ll Be Yours and You’ll be Mine”) are back in shape. A fine return to form.
The Best of BR549 is a 17-track import containing almost all the Robert’s EP, a sampling of the first two full-lengths and, thankfully, nothing from the Lucky Dog fiasco.