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New label, new name, BR549 seeks elusive hit

By By Jon Johnson, July 2001

The three years since BR549 released their last studio album, 1998's "Big Backyard Beat Show," have been eventful ones for the group. They've lost a label (Arista), gained a new one (Lucky Dog/Sony), gotten a new tour bus (purchased by the folks at Jack Daniels) and have recorded a fine new album out in late June, "This is BR549," including the album's first single, "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal."

"I think we've made a record this time that can be played on the radio," says singer/lead guitarist Chuck Mead, 40, in a telephone interview during a stop in Little Rock, Ark. "There's been lots of radio people that always liked us, but thought that, for one reason or another, they couldn't play the songs all the time. I think we've got a good chance this time."

Co-produced by Paul Worley (perhaps best known these days for his work with the Dixie Chicks) and Mike Poole, the new album finds the retro-sounding group sounding much the same as always, though with production that's a bit more radio friendly, but with the usual mix of vintage covers and catchy originals (written by Mead and co-lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist Gary Bennett).

The group's lineup remains the same as on their 1995 Arista debut, with Mead and Gary Bennett on lead vocals and guitars, drummer "Hawk" Shaw Wilson, bassist Smilin' Jay McDowell and Don Herron on steel guitar, fiddle and electric mandolin.

"It wouldn't be the same without all five of us," says Mead of the group that once upon a time was the house band at Robert's Western Wear in Nashville. "We've found that out on a bunch of occasions. Even when we're just riding down the road in the bus it feels weird until all five of us are there, and then we're the band on the road."

The band's two Arista studio albums were bookended by two live releases, including their last album for the label, "Coast to Coast," which was released mere weeks before Arista's Nashville office was due to be closed because of cost-cutting measures at the label's parent company, BMG.

At the time, the band was uncertain whether they'd be absorbed into RCA's country roster or dropped.

"It was very strange because I don't think anybody knew exactly what was going to happen to them and it was just like a state of limbo. The Arista people were all a tight-knit bunch. Hardly anybody had left from the very beginning when they started (the Nashville branch). As a matter of fact, I just ran into a bunch of them having an Arista reunion at lunch that they have every Tuesday. It's a standing thing. Even Mike Dungan - who's the president of Capitol now - still hangs out with the old bunch."

"We really didn't know what was going to happen with us either. We kind of assumed that we'd be some of the fat that was cut off by condensing Arista into RCA. Amazingly enough, there were a lot of triple A stations that played the songs on the record. We sold quite a few of them."

The label change drips with irony. The first major label to offer the band a contract was, in fact, RCA, who chose in the end to drop the group. And in the feeding frenzy that led to the Arista signing, the other major suitor at that point was Sony.

"There's a lot of the same people down there at Sony. At the time the president of the label was Paul Worley. We always felt like he really understood us. We really liked Paul, and we really hit it off with him, and he wanted us over there, but we just ended up going with Arista. It was nothing against them at all. And then when it came up that we were going to go to Sony, we were all really excited. Those guys are all crack pros over there. They know what they're doing, and we feel really comfortable that everything's being taken care of. And that means a lot."

"And think of all the great Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan records we can have for free!"

Though Mead's and Bennett's harmony vocals have always been reminiscent of famous sibling acts like the Louvin Brothers and the Delmore Brothers, up until now the band has never tackled an Everly Brothers number.

However, for the new album the group has recorded a version of the Everlys' 1965 single "The Price of Love," a probable future single for the band and a major hit for the Everlys in Europe, though not in the U.S.

"Paul found that for us. I hope they hear our version of the song because I think we did them justice. Everybody always asked us to do Everly Brothers songs, and we just never did any. That's just one aspect of our act that's never been fully exploited on the records."

"Sometimes our mothers can't tell who's singing lead and who's singing harmony. Instead of BR5-49 we almost ended up as 'The Weaint Brothers.' 'Cause people would come up and say 'Are you guys brothers?' And we'd say, 'Naw, we ain't brothers.'"

Included on the group's last studio album was a cover of "Seven Nights to Rock," perhaps best known to modern audiences from British singer/songwriter Nick Lowe's 1985 version. On "This Is BR549" the band again tackles a song associated with Lowe, "Play That Fast Thing One More Time," originally recorded in 1980 by Lowe's band Rockpile.

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