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Hitting the number with BR5-49

By Jon Johnson, September 1996

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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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