Sign up for newsletter
From the Country Standard Time Archives

BR5-49 , the future of country music?

Johnny D's, Somerville, Mass., Jan. 19, 1997

By Jeffrey B. Remz

SOMERVILLE, MASS. - To paraphrase, if BR5-49 is the future of country music, then we will be in great hands.

The band is gaining more and more acclaim with virtually no airplay of their combo of hillbilly and traditional music mixing covers from country's greatest to their own tunes in some backwaters sections of the country - Boston included.

Decked out in their circa 1940's, thrift shop outfits, BR5-49 showed why they ought to be the next big thing in country today in a fun, lively, on-the-mark show before an appreciative SRO house.

BR5-49 (the name comes from a phone number given out by Junior Samples on the "Hee Haw" televisions how) is being touted by some as the future of country after a period in which hat acts and watered down, pop-oriented country music dominated the airwaves. A surprise Grammy nomination won't hurt BR5-49 either.

But with sales numbers down and the genre in somewhat of a slump, the Nashville suits may be looking elsewhere for their salvation. Arista helped get the word out on BR5-49 with"Live From Robert's," an EP put out by the band last spring to limited publicity, but showing the band playing out at its home base of Robert's Western Wear in Nashville.

During the fall, a full-length self-titled CD came out to strong reviews.

Of course, the question always arises as to whether a band is worthy of the buzz.

Based on the nearly two-hour show, the answering is a thundering "yes."

Some could dismiss BR5-49 as a good bar band, but the quintet is far more than that.

If concert goers were expecting a mere rehash of the CDs, they would have been sadly mistaken. BR5-49 sandwiched their recorded tracks amidst covers and presumably unrecorded songs. At some shows, that would prove asking the crowd for too much. But here, the songs were easy to get into. The band's enthusiasm and hyperkinetic energy were infectious.

Obviously, they pay a great debt to the masters of country of yesteryear - Hank Sr. ("Settin' the Woods on Fire"), Bob Wills ("Right or Wrong" and "Take Me Back to Tulsa"), Webb Pierce ("Even If It's Wrong" and "Honky Tonk Song"), Faron Young ("If You Ain't Lovin', You Ain't Livin'"), Johnny Horton ("Ole Slewfoot" and "North to Alaska"), Ray Price ("Heartaches By the Numbers"), and Moon Mullican ("Cherokee Boogie," the song for which they received the Grammy nomination).

And they infuse the past with energy and more importantly conviction. They don't just pay homage, they make the songs come alive for a new generation of country fans interested in hearing real country.

The band's own songs stand up as well. They mix heartache and humorous takes on life ("Me "n' Opie (Down by the Duckpond),"the "true story" of the last episode of the Andy Griffith Show where they go off smoking marijuana. "Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)," tells the transformation of a punkette to a girl who has gone "hillbilly nuts."

"Lifetime to Prove" is about the search for the better life, while the Tex-Mex feel of "Chains of This Town" describes busting out from one's roots.

Lead vocals were shared by Gary Bennett, more of a gritty stylist, slightly hoarse and Chuck Mead, smoother sounding and a Robert Redford lookalike. Time and again, one would kick in on backing harmonies, giving vocal depth to the song.

Band members also are accomplished musicians. The real star here is Don Herron, who tripled on pedal steel, violin and some mandolin, adding a zest to the songs. And the rhythm section of upright bassist Smilin' Jay McDowell and skins man "Hawk" Shaw Wilson maintained a steady beat, keeping the songs chugging. McDowell, in fact, smacked his bass so much, he had no strings left by the time the closer, "!8 Wheels & a Crowbar" ended.

Canadian star Charlie Major opened the show with a pleasing 55-minute set. Mining country rock, Major's voice is a somewhat smoother Bruce Springsteen. He delivered a set of well-written and paced songs, though at times too much sameness prevailed.

Despite that, Major's songs are superior to much of what you'd hear on radio today.