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BR549 slims down, heats up with "Dog Days"

By Brian Baker, January 2006

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By the summer of 1997, BR549 had scored a Grammy nomination, been cited on Rolling Stone's Hot List for the year and made an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.

In order to get back to the studio to record their second full length, the band had to turn down an offer to do a four-week tour with John Fogerty.

1998's "Big Backyard Beat Show" and 1999's live "Coast to Coast" (recorded during the band's tour with Brian Setzer) were equally lauded and garnered them yet another Grammy nod, but trouble was brewing.

Behind the scenes, Arista's country division was absorbed in the Universal Music Group merger and one of the hottest country acts in America was suddenly without a label.

Sony seemingly came to the rescue, adding BR549 to the roster of their budding alt.-country imprint Lucky Dog and releasing "This is BR549" in 2001.

The band moved toward a more streamlined, contemporary country sound with the album - which may or may not have contributed to the departures of McDowell and Bennett not long after the album's release, who claimed roadburn as the reason for their exit from the band - but the label ultimately proved less fortunate than its name as Sony hedged its alt.-country bet and folded the imprint, leaving BR549 adrift once again.

"When Jay and Gary left, it ceased being one thing and started being another thing. I'm not mincing any words," says Mead. "We felt like we'd done enough that we wanted to continue playing together, but things change. It's just being able to stay in the music business and try not to have a job. I've worked long and hard not to have to work long and hard."

At this point, BR549's future was murky. While Mead, Herron and Wilson considered their options, they returned to the scene of their earliest triumphs - Nashville's Lower Broadway section - and began playing informal weekly jam sessions with the Hillbilly All-Stars, a loosely connected collective of some of Nashville's off-kilter country talent. It turned out to be a wise move.

Rejuvenated by the downtown crowd's energy and the All-Stars' passion, Mead, Herron and Wilson decided to resurrect BR549.

The first order of business was to refurbish the line-up, which they did by inviting All-Stars bassist Geoff Firebaugh and guitarist Chris Scruggs to join the band.

Firebaugh had relocated to Nashville from the Northwest where he had gained a reputation as a spirited punk and rockabilly bassist, while the teenaged Scruggs came to the group with unquestionable talent and lineage as the grandson of legendary Earl Scruggs and the son of respected musician Gary Scruggs and scrappy country singer Gail Davies.

With their line-up settled, BR549 barnstormed through the U.S. and Europe, receiving the same kind of adulation and acclaim that had greeted them early in their career. When they returned to Nashville in mid-2003, they were ready to hit the studio but had no label deal in hand.

Rather than seek out a contract, the band simply paid for its own studio time and recorded the material that coalesced into "Tangled in the Pines."

Eventually, Dualtone expressed interest in the project and signed the band, releasing the album in 2004. Returning to the eclectic urban hillbilly sound of their earlier works, BR549 once again earned great accolades for their efforts.

But just as quickly as it came, the resurrection of BR549 was cut short with the losses of both Firebaugh and Scruggs. The remaining trio had already committed to the band's continuance with the departed members hirings so the decision to carry on in the wake of this second set of defections seemed almost cavalier.

After the addition of veteran bassist Miller, the general consensus was to keep the band a quartet for the time being.

Following several months of rehearsals, BR549 was poised to head back to the studio to begin work on their seventh album, but fate intervened in the form of a job opportunity for Herron that was too good to pass up - multi-instrumentalist for Bob Dylan's 2005 tour.

"We were originally supposed to record this record back in March, but then we got sidetracked because Donnie joined Bob," says Mead. "It kind of got postponed until the dog days of August; it was an obvious name."

By the time Herron returned from Dylan duty, Mead had finished a number of songs for the upcoming album. For the first time in the band's history, they were preparing to go into the studio with material that they hadn't previously road tested.

"The songs came fresh because we hadn't been out on the road at all," says Mead. "Donnie didn't know half the songs I'd written while he was on the road. We'd been out of it, and we threw it all together at one time. It's a very in-the-here-and-now kind of record. It's the first time we've ever done that because before, we were playing 200 dates a year, so we'd been playing the songs we were gonna record for months."

After expressing a desire to do something different, Dualtone honchos Dan Herrington and Scott Robinson directed Mead to look into different producers, which led to Keane's involvement. By the time Keane became attached to the project, the general consensus was that BR549 should remain a quartet.

"We'd been talking for a long time about doing something a lot more stripped down and less like what we usually do," says Mead. "Because that's still part of what we do, and you always want to do something a little bit different and keep it interesting for everyone involved. So we didn't really set out to do anything different. We just felt like doing something different, and it came out different."

Different has been nearly a way of life for BR549 from the outset, from the band's any-gig-for-a-buck beginnings to their label troubles to personnel shufflings to shifts in the way they've made their records. Chuck Mead knows all too well that nothing stays the same for very long, and he welcomes the change that change brings.

"The only thing that doesn't change is change, and I'm not the first one to say that. It's a pretty obvious thing," says Mead. "But sometimes you forget it, and you get stuck in one mode, and you think there's never going to anything else, but that's not true. There's always going to be something else. Believe you me."

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