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Hitting the number with BR5-49

By Jon Johnson, September 1996

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."

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