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Hitting the number with BR5-49
By Jon Johnson

BR5-49 bassist "Smilin'" Jay McDowell is perfectly aware of how some in Nashville would have liked to market the group.

"We were having a great time (before signing with Arista) and some people would approach us with business cards from a small label we'd never heard of," he says. "And the only ones that seemed to interest us as far as a label we'd heard of, the first thing they'd say was, 'Well, we'll get you guys a keyboard player and maybe update your clothes a little.' And we realized right away that wasn't the reason we were doing it. "

So why are they doing it?

Why are five guys in their 20's and 30's playing country music and dressing more like it's 1956 than 1996?

And why are they getting so much attention while doing it?

BR5-49 have been packin' 'em in as the house band at Robert's Western World in Nashville since 1994, playing four- and five -our sets three nights a week and building a large regional following in the process.

It's not an unusual situation for many bar bands; the difference being that BR5-49 have avoided the usual route of playing Garth Brooks and Little Texas covers.

Instead, they've attracted attention because of a growing feeling that something intangible - yet important to country music - had been tossed aside at some uncertain point in the past few years. BR5-49 (the name comes from a phone number on an old recurring Junior Samples sketch on "Hee Haw") have made their name by mixing their own material with covers by the likes of Johnny Horton, Bob Wills, the Louvin Brothers and other titans of country's golden age, basing their sound and appearance on a time when a gallon of gas still cost 15 cents and the Grand Ol' Opry was still broadcast every Saturday night from the Ryman.

This led eventually to the 1995 Arista deal, a live EP, an August appearance on NBC's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," tours with the likes of the Mavericks, Junior Brown and the Black Crowes and a full-length album in September.

The group was started by guitarists/vocalists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett in early 1993, shortly after they both arrived in Nashville.

"We all had kind of a romanticized version of Nashville in our heads," McDowell says in a recent telephone interview. "We all came to town and were very disappointed that it wasn't that way."

"There was a lot of music happening, but it was mostly stuff like songwriters because it had turned into such a business," he says. "I heard some good songwriters, but most of it wasn't the reason I came here for, which was the real country music and honky-tonk stuff. What I was hearing was more like '70's rock; a lot of Eagles-style songwriting."

The group's early line-ups went through a couple of changes here and there.

McDowell himself, for example, joined the group several months after they started playing; having originally played guitar in a Nashville rockabilly band called Hellbilly.

His new band settled in early on as the house band at Robert's Western Wear, a small clothing store/bar, McDowell refers to it as "boots 'n' beer"-on Lower Broadway in Nashville, with members also occasionally playing after-hours shows at Tootsie's, across the street from Robert's.

"A record deal was the last thing we were trying to achieve with all this," he says. "We went down to Lower Broadway and started playing at Robert's because it was the place where we had the freedom to do what we wanted to do. Everything just happened naturally and fell into place. "

Besides McDowell, Bennett and Mead, the group also includes drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson - possessor of the coolest thin black mustache in music today - and multi-instrumentalist Don Herron playing steel guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

A rave 1994 article in "Billboard" started a feeding frenzy among indie and major labels.

"The editor of 'Billboard,' Timothy White, came to town for some reason, and he came into Robert's just by chance, saw us, and then called us up and wanted to do a big story on us. Before that. . . nobody had really talked to us from the majors, except RCA."

"But they were one of those that had said, 'You guys don't mind if we use session musicians on the album...? '" McDowell says.

"Once the 'Billboard' piece came out, [executives from] New York and L. A. started coming in just to see us - Geffen Records, Rounder Records and Hightone," McDowell says.

"And at that time we started taking notice that something was brewing here," he says. "But, really, from the beginning, we knew that Arista Records was the most successful, down-to-earth label. And when they came around and offered it to us, they and Sony were the two labels that said, 'It works because you guys are yourselves, and we don't want to change a thing. '"

The band ended up signing with Arista largely because of what they perceived as being a strong focus on the artists' happiness at the highest levels. The first taste of what was to come was the "Live From Robert's" EP, released in May. The EP was an unusual marketing move in the country and western industry - a live debut release sold at a budget price in order to establish the band's name in the public's mind. Those who heard "Live From Robert's" heard a band that could almost perfectly reproduce the Louvin Brothers' 1956 version of the haunting traditional murder ballad "Knoxville Girl," but could also sound surprisingly contemporary on originals like "18 Wheels and a Crowbar."

Though the label and the group seem to have had no official expectations for the EP's success on radio, it nonetheless attracted attention at many stations, with "Me 'n' Opie (Down By the Duck Pond)" getting the most attention.

"We put out the live EP, and we didn't give it to any radio stations," McDowell says. "Arista did that on purpose just to see how many of them started calling them for it. And I think they were pretty happily surprised that a lot of the radio stations did get to them and say, 'Hey, why didn't we get a copy of this?'"

Stories of interference by executives in the recording process are rampant in the record industry, but despite the time, money and attention that Arista has spent on BR5-49, this doesn't seem to have been the case.

Quite the opposite, in fact: "We had one A&R guy come down to the studio for two hours during the recording of our studio record, and we didn't even let him hear anything," McDowell says. "Basically, they all heard the record when we handed it in, and they were completely happy and satisfied with it. We gave them what I'm confident is a very strong album. "

"BR5-49" hits stores in September. Produced by Jozef Nuyens and Mike Janas, the album features six originals written by Mead and Bennett, plus five covers, including the Byrds' classic "Hickory Wind" (a longtime staple of the band's live shows), Webb Pierce's "I Ain't Never," and "Cherokee Boogie"- the album's first single.

"It's an oldie. Moon Mullican (famed honky tonk pianist of the '40's and '50's) wrote it, and we know it by Johnny Horton. Arista released it [in July] in Dallas to test market it and we happened to be down there playing a show. It was really a thrill for me because I'd walk into a 7-11 and they'd see the bus. They'd ask what band it was and all this time I'd have to say, 'It's BR5-49; you wouldn't know who we are. ' And the lady behind the counter said, 'Oh-'Cherokee Boogie!' I like that song! '"

The band actually handed in enough material to Arista for two albums, in fact.

About 22 songs were recorded during the sessions that resulted in "BR5-49."

As to what might happen with the extra material, McDowell says,"We've got 'em and they might come out on the second record. We got it to at least be 11 songs. I hate buying CDs that have 10 songs on them. You've got all that wasted space. But 10 songs is standard for a country record. That has to do with all the publishing laws. "

The group has attracted some of country music's biggest acts to Robert's to check out their act. The Mavericks, Marty Stuart, Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson and ex-NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson (now a top Nashville songwriter) - just to name a few - have been in the audience at Robert's more than once.

An early legend that grew around the group was the night John Michael Montgomery caught the group's Wilson and Shaw playing a Monday night set at Tootsie's.

"They were playing their set, and a limo pulled up, and John Michael Montgomery came in, sat down, and I don't think that Chuck and Shaw recognized him. He said that he'd give $25 for every Hank Williams song that they could do. So Chuck said, 'Let's see the cash. ' So Chuck did a couple and asked, 'Do you want me to keep going? ' And (Montgomery) said, 'Yeah. ' John Michael ended up giving Chuck $575 and Chuck gave him $600 worth. Chuck's line now is that he gave him 'Jambalaya' for free. "

McDowell makes it clear that the group loves interacting with their audience.

The group's fabled tip jar - utilized when the group was still playing for a couple of hundred people a night at Robert's - has made the transition to the bigger venues that the group played over the summer with The Mavericks and others.

"The best thing is when they come up and they'll ask me, 'Who did that song you sang about killing the girl?' (a reference to "Knoxville Girl"). And two weeks later they'll come in and request another song by that artist. That shows me that it's reaching people. "

An early August appearance on Conan O'Brien's show also reached people, gaining the group a lot of attention they would not have been able to get strictly through occasional appearances on TNN.

An eyebrow-raising summer tour with the Stones-influenced rockers Black Crowes also gave the group a rare opportunity to reach out to a wider potential audience.

"That was great," says McDowell. "It totally surprised me because before we did it I was thinking, 'How is this going to go over? Are they going to see us as poseurs doing silly country music? ' And that was not the case at all. They were really receptive. And I think the people who go to see the Black Crowes are people that like music. I think that people appreciate that. That's exactly what they hear, whether we're at Robert's or opening for the Black Crowes. "

If there's been a single criticism of the group, it's the theory that BR5-49's sound and image are nothing more than a marketing ploy; that a style and image that were contemporary circa 1950 are, at best, ironic nearly 50 years later - at worst, contrived.

"If I saw this from the outside, I'd have a hard time believing that it wasn't some record company guy saying, 'Okay, we're going to get these guys together, we're going to dress them up in old western wear, we're going to put them in this really weird bar, and have them start playing all the time. ' But the people who were (at Robert's early on) knew that it was real because we weren't trying to put anybody on. "

"When I joined the band, I remember the very first night I got up onstage with them, and I started playing and I really didn't know what my role was in the band yet. I turned to Gary [Bennett] and I said, 'Man, I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing up here.' And he looked at me and he said, 'What do you mean? You're just supposed to be yourself.' And as soon as he said that, it took all the pressure off, and I realized that's why people like 'em. "

"We can't afford to buy the nice Manuel jackets and all that stuff. So it's partly out of necessity that we have to get stuff that's cheaper. I don't want to walk into a club and have three guys wearing the same shirt as I am. "

And how much do they wear those old clothes when they're not performing? Says McDowell, "Pretty much all the time. "

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