In the mid-1990s, mainstream country music had evolved into a commercially successful pop-music hybrid that left many young traditionalists out in the cold. Such performers longed to combine modern rock sound with the influence of the big legends of country music, including Hank Williams Sr., Webb Pierce, Carl Perkins, and Merle Haggard. Acts like Wayne Hancock, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, and the Derailers existed outside popular country’s mainstream, carving out a sound all their own and playing in small clubs that otherwise featured the indie rockers of the time. BR5-49, named for a telephone number in a Hee Haw television skit, came together in country music’s heartland, Nashville, Tennessee, and rose to the top of this crossover country-music insurgence.
BR5-49 was founded around 1993 when aspiring songwriters Gary Bennett and Chuck Mead met at an audition night at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe. Both were recent transplants to Nashville who had come to Music City to find their way into the heart of the American country music scene. They were interested in pursuing country music that had its roots in the music they had been raised on. Bennett grew up in the logging town of Cougar, Washington, where most citizens were fans of
Members include Gary Bennett (born 1964, Las Vegas, NV), vocals, acoustic guitar; Don Herron (born September 23, 1962, Steubenville, OH), steel guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar; Chuck Mead (born December 22, 1960, Nevada, MO), vocals, electric and acoustic guitar; Smilin’ Jay McDowell (born June 11, 1969, Bedford, IN), upright bass; “Hawk” Shaw Wilson (born July 10, 1960, Topeka, KS), background and harmony vocals, drums.
Formed group in Nashville, TN, c. 1993; became the house band at Robert’s Western Wear in Nashville; signed to Arista Records, 1995; released debut EP, Live at Robert’s, 1996; released debut full-length album, BR5-49, 1996; toured frequently, 1996–2000; released live album, Coast to Coast, 2000; signed to Sony imprint, Lucky Dog Records, 2000; released This Is BR5-49 and Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal, 2001.
Addresses: Record Company —Lucky Dog/Sony Nashville, 34 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203. Website —BR5-49 Official Website: http://www.br549.com.
country and gospel music. The town was so remotethat television and radio signals were poor, and the family entertainment consisted of recorded music. He sang harmony with a local gospel country group called the Carroll Family as a teen, but he also picked up a guitar and started playing with punk rock and country bands. Over the years, he worked to develop his songwriting talents.
During the late 1940s and the 1950s, members of Mead’s mother’s family performed as the Wynes Family. As a kid, Mead performed “hillbilly gospel,” as he told Billboard magazine, with his parents in a group called the Family Tree. Mead’s parents put a drum set in front of him, and he spent weekends playing music and earning money. He cites influences as diverse as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Carl Perkins, and later, the Ramones and the Clash. While attending the University of Kansas, he played with a group called the Homestead Grays—named for a Negro League baseball team—which released an EP, Big Hits, in 1988, and a full-length CD, El Supremo, in 1991. Neither release was successful, and Mead made his way to Nashville.
After jamming together in Nashville bands, Bennett and Mead decided to form a band together. Jay McDowell was a guitar player for a group called Hellbilly when the two recruited him to play upright bass for their new group, in an attempt to recreate the string-band sound of country’s early days. Don Herron also came on to play mandolin, dobro, and fiddle. Herron, an old band-mate of Bennett’s from Portland, Oregon, was raised in West Virginia and is a great fan of the Western-swing style of music and of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Mead rounded out the lineup with a former bandmate of his, drummer and percussionist “Hawk” Wilson, with whom he had played in Kansas.
The new group soon began playing as the house band at a venue in Nashville’s restored downtown district on Lower Broadway called Robert’s Western Wear, a Western gear store that served as a beer-and-music joint at night. When they saw Junior Samples use the two-digits-short telephone number BR5-49 in a comic skit on television’s Hee Haw comedy show, the group took the number for its name. The band’s shows grew to be exuberant four-hour affairs, after which they rallied the audience for tips. BR5-49’s blend of honky-tonk and rockabilly drew large crowds to Robert’s, including honky-tonkers, punk rockers, and many music-industry and record-label people who fought to sign the band. “They’re doing what countless guitar-toting dreamers have been doing since the glory days of the old Ryman Auditorium,” wrote Jim Bessman in Billboard, “playing pure, hardcore country music for tips at one of the decrepit bars bordering the former home of the Grand Ole Opry…. Except that the Ryman’s been restored, the tip jar’s full, and so is Robert’s Western World, home of BR5-49, a band that has single-handedly transformed Lower Broadway into the hippest place in Music City.”
According to Mead in Bessman’s Billboard article, there was no better place than Robert’s in Nashville for BR5-49: “We were drawn to Lower Broadway because of the real honky-tonks—the real spirit of country music. We’re not interested in Music Row or Opryland, which is so fake and plastic.” In the same article, Bennett expressed interest in recording and touring but vowed the band would be at Robert’s Wednesday through Saturday nights “for the rest of our lives!”
In 1995, after assurances from Arista Nashville that they would not be asked to change their sound, BR5-49 signed a recording contract with the record label. As Arista released the 1996 six-song EP called Live at Robert’s, BR5-49 was hard at work on their first full-length studio release. BR5-49 was released on September 17, 1996, Hank Williams Sr.’s birthday. BR5-49 included original numbers—which “have a newness that’s amazing,” Mavericks drummer Paul Deakin told Billboard— along with the band’s favorite country classics. The band’s tongue-in-cheek “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)” describes a punk rocker’s musical conversion and “One Long Saturday Night” describes the life of a working band. The deep-cut covers include “Cherokee Boogie” by Moon Mullican and Chief William Redbird, “Honky Tonk Song” by Mel Tillis and Buck Peddy, Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never,” and “Hickory Wind” by Gram Parsons and Buck Buchanan. The release displayed BR5-49’s “encyclopedic command of the honky-tonk canon,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Mark Coleman. Though he was unsure whether the band would really progress as songwriters or “devolve into a novelty act,” Coleman stated that “BR5-49 deliver a barroom kick at a time when we could use one.”
BR5-49 was sure to be ignored by mainstream contemporary country radio stations, so the band built its national and international following the hard way—they toured almost non-stop. Fueled by the hype in 1996 that they would be the “next big thing,” BR5-49 toured relentlessly. They were on the road more than 300 days per year in the United States and abroad to promote their new brand of country. In addition to their own headlining shows, the group played as the opening act for Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, George Strait, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and the Black Crowes. The band stopped long enough to record 1998’s Big Backyard Beat Show and the Bonus Beats EP. In 2000, they produced their final release for Arista, a live album called Coast to Coast. While at Arista, BR5-49 received two nominations for a Grammy Award.
Exhausted and frustrated at the end of a long tour with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the band contemplated calling it quits and took two-and-a-half months off in early 2000. “I was getting to the point of ‘I’d rather get a job,’” Mead told Jim Patterson of the Associated Press. “We were doing a lot of things and we didn’t see that we were getting much out of it, money-wise or career-wise. It didn’t seem like it was moving forward.” Rather than disband, BR5-49 rallied together and renewed their commitment to do whatever it took to make the group a success. They started by signing to a new label.
In 2000, BR5-49 left Arista for Lucky Dog, a Sony imprint. They wanted to work with producers Mike Poole and Paul Worley, the duo who produced the wildly successful Dixie Chicks. “We got to do whatever we wanted at Arista,” Bennett told Billboard, “but after your first record doesn’t go gold, you feel that the rest of them don’t get the same effort behind them.”
The group reintroduced themselves in 2001 on This Is BR5-49, their first release for Sony and Lucky Dog. After working hard but missing the rush of success that never came, “BR5-49 may finally be in the right place at the right time,” Stereo-Type critic j. poet predicted. The album, with a mix of originals like “Fool of the Century” and covers of the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love” and Rockpile’s “Play That Fast Thing,” “may finally get this exceptional group the attention they deserve,” poet concluded. They followed up with Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal later that year.
Live at Robert’s (EP), Arista, 1996.
BR5-49, Arista, 1996.
Big Backyard Beat Show, Arista, 1998.
Bonus Beats (EP), Arista, 1998.
Coast To Coast (live), Arista, 2000.
This Is BR5-49, Sony Nashville, 2001.
Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal, Sony, 2001.
Larkin, Colin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK Ltd., 1998.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, editors, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Associated Press, July 2001.
Billboard, July 15, 1995, p. 1; July 27, 1996; February 10, 2001, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, September 27, 1996, p. 81; May 3, 1996, p. 79.
Fortune, May 1, 2000, p. 358.
Gallery of Sound: Stereo-Type, August 2000.
People, March 10, 1997, p. 26.
Rolling Stone, November 28, 1996, p. 132.
Stereo-Type, August 2000.
“BR-549,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 27, 2001).
Additional information provided by Sony Music publicity materials, 2001.
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