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The number to call remains BR5-49

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 1998

BR5-49's past is no secret: playing free gigs at Robert's on Lower Broadway in Music City with tips their pay, wearing thrift shop clothing on stage and belting out what some might consider a retro sound in rejuvenating songs from country's bygone era of Hank, Johnny Horton, Moon Mullican and a host of others.

But don't tell that to Gary Bennett, one of the quintet's singers and songwriters.

"I hate the word retro," says Bennett just a few weeks before the release of "Big Backyard Beat Show," the band's third disc for Arista. "God, I hate that word. It's almost a novelty thing. I moved to Nashville to be a songwriter."

While a definite playfulness exists both live and on the silver platter, this is a band that takes itself seriously.

For starters, nine of the 15 songs on the new release are penned by the band, compared with six on 1996's self-titled debut.Fellow lead singer Chuck Mead and Bennett do almost all of the writing.

While many artists are content to say they want the best songs, Bennett says the inclusion of more band originals was no accident.

And it was part of the game plan to appeal to country and non-country crowds as well.

"Probably the biggest thing we could really get across was more originals," Bennett says. "Chuck and I have been writing songs since we were kids. When we got together, we all these songs kind of backlogged. We pulled them out and did ones that sort of fit in this band. A lot of songs we've played since we started. We were anxious to get a lot of the early stuff on a record because it's been such a part of our live shows all along."

For those who have seen the band before, many songs indeed will sound familiar, such as "Out of Habit," a swing song, "18 Wheels and a Crowbar," which first surfaced on the band's initial release, the EP "Live From Robert's" and the cover of Billy Joe Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train."

Bennett downplays the band's get-up on stage where some of them look like they stepped out of a 40's or 50's scene with hats, suspenders, jackets and ties.

"Without a picture or a cowboy hat, the music is really kind of the sum of your parts," says Bennett, who grew up in Washington and worked as a logger. "We've always done originals, and the first couple of records had them on there, but it needed to be a bigger ratio of originals to get our sound across."

Bennett seems to indicate it's time to move past the image and focus on the music. "We knew were capable of having a (musical) identity in the first place. We always felt we did. Sometimes those things get distorted. God bless the media. That has been a huge part of our success especially from early on."

"When people see a picture of you a certain way, the old 50's look, it's almost distracting," says Bennett. "It almost takes the focus away from the music. Personally, i know we're not doing a heck of a lot of changing or anything."

Bennett recalls one comment that particularly hit home. "'It seems that these guys are the country Sha Na Na," Bennett recalls. "I heard somebody say that one time. I said, 'Oh my gosh. I don't want that happen. I'm a Nineties person.'"

"That would be a huge shame and a distraction to the music," Bennett says.

The live show is what has sold the public on the band. A heavy duty touring schedule has taken them throughout the U.S. and to Europe a number of times. They have opened concert tours for the Black Crowes and Bob Dylan.

Doing so, of course, brought them to very varied, not necessarily country audiences. Bennett says it was not unusual for the band to be told "We don't like country music, but we like you guys."

The new disc could spread their wings further. They did fine on their last disc, selling 175,000 albums without the benefit of any sort of hit single.

That is quite unusual for country where singles all but rule record sales. "Cherokee Boogie," which earned the band a Grammy nomination, made the charts, but barely.

The touring pace - all done with Arista's support - also was unusual due to the failure to score a hit.

The album title pretty much explains where Bennett, Mead, upright bassist Smilin' Jay McDowell, fiddler Don Herron and drummer Shaw Wilson are coming from.

"It's not really a contrived concept," Bennett says. "Our crowds our so diverse...It's a true representation of us - the diversity of it. The title is conducive to a lot of different things going on in a show. A lot of different vibes."

Mead's "Out of Habit" mines the popular big band swing sound now in vogue ("this swing thing is happening," Bennett says), while "Goodbye, Maria" taps a Mexican/polka sound.

"My Name is Mudd" and "Storybook Endings (If You Stop Believin')" are country ballads, while "18 Wheels" (reprised here to cater to a European market) and "You Are Never Nice to Me" are fast-paced country chuggers.

"Goodbye, Maria," written by Mead, is based on a true story. "Chuck was listening to the radio and a guy come on there and was telling a story of a guy who committed suicide in a hotel," Bennett says. "It was where he spent his honeymoon. Same room, called her on the phone and shot himself. Chuck Mead being the ironist that he is put it a polka beat so you could dance to it."

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