BR5-49 – Honky-tonk heroes of the western world
In the shadow of the new metroplex behemoth (what one distinguished local has dubbed “Y’all Hall”) emerging from a block-wide hole lies a serious strip of American music history. Known as Lower Broad, this is where giants once walked among us, stomping on the terra from the back door of the Opry to Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge.
Many moons have since passed. The lower end of Broadway has fallen into fits of decay and kitschy renewal. Three doors down from Tootsie’s is a place called — what else — Three Doors Down, a.k.a. Robert’s Western World).
In the past year or so, the Lower Broad scene has received an infusion of young blood. One of the most promising acts, a charter member of this roots revival of live music in downtown Nashville, is named after the phone number on the sign country comedy savant Jr. Samples held up while selling used cars on Hee Haw: BR5-49.
These folks are mining the classics with real love and a feel for the stuff, but not to the point that the compositions feel like museum pieces. Ray Price shuffles and Webb Pierce whiners can be found alongside the songs of young upstarts like that Parsons boy from Florida. Sprinkled in amongst these gems are their original tunes. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between what’s a classic and what’s homemade. Their compositions are straight outta honkdom. Often the only way to identify their originals is by hearing someone on the stand declare, “THAT’S a true story!”
Head yodeler Chuck Mead once told a confused and horrified Crook & Chase, “There’s not that much difference between Hank Sr. and the Ramones.” Another oblique comparison could be made between the evolution of this band and the Beatles during their Hamburg days. “We’ve just kept on pickin’. Up until August we were playin’ six nights a week,” Mead says. Then and now, all compensation for live performance derives from a jar labeled “TIPS”. So, uh…hey aren’t playing this music for the money. (At least not yet.)
“It all started a little over a year ago,” Mead said. “I got there (Nashville) in April of ’93, and Gary landed in May, he says, referring to Gary Bennett, the other primary songwriter in the band. “I first saw him at a writers’ night audition at the Bluebird. We both passed the audition but wound up on Lower Broad. We both knew about 20 of the same Johnny Horton songs.”
Mead later ran into Bennett at Robert’s Western Wear. “Robert (the owner) had him in a band. He (Robert) got ’em all together,” Mead recalls. “One night the guitar player got sick so I got invited. We sang together and liked the same songs.”
Smilin’ Jay McDowell became the next permanent fixture. “He was playing in a band called Hellbilly at the time, but one night we played with Nick Lowe at 328 (Performance Hall), and afterward I saw Jay and said, ‘Why don’t you get a dawghouse bass and come play with us?’,” Mead said.
Rounding out the orchestra are Shaw Wilson (“stirrin’ up the beats”) on drums and “The Professor” Don Herron on fiddle, mandolin and vintage Fender steel. “I talked Shaw into moving down around June of ’94, and Gary knew Don from playing around Washington and Oregon,” Chuck said.
In performance, they are a joy to behold. They appear to be a traditional country-western string band — “We started out just wearin’ ties on the weekends but…if you’re gonna play hillbilly music, you gotta wear a suit!” Mead says — but after a few tunes, like an old big block gettin’ warmed up, you start to notice things.
The rhythm section of Shaw and McDowell is like a steel cradle (with tuck-and roll-interior by Nudie, of course) that carries the rest of the band. Bennett’s solid rhythm on his old arch top Gibson makes you realize what Freddie Green of Basie’s band might’ve sounded like in a tonk situation. Mead focuses the blast of his Gretsch through an old blond ’62 Fender Bandmaster with a Duane Eddy-cum-Billy-Zoom vibe at times. And last, but certainly not least, is The Professor. Whether it’s Bob Wills-esque fiddlin’ or Speedy West-channeling-Hendrix steel playing, there’s never a dull moment when Don Herron is settin’ the house a’far!
All this sonic firepower backs up some of the finest high ‘n’ lonesome vocal stylings heard in Nashville in a long time. Mead and Bennett blend nicely, swapping parts flawlessly. “Gary’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard,” says Mead, who can holler with the best of em’ himself. Mead’s words would be high praise from anyone who’s spent more than a week in Nashville, let alone somebody who has closed tonks on Lower Broad six nights a week for over two years.
And now for the silver lining: BR5-49 recently signed with Arista.
“All of a sudden these music biz types started showin’ up,” Mead says. “We didn’t think they’d be interested…just look at the stuff they’re turnin out. I mean, I’m not knockin’ Garth or anybody. Obviously he’s workin’ hard to be that successful. We just wanted to play more homespun music.”
A live EP is scheduled for release this spring, with a full-length disc due in stores by summer. Many are hopeful this could signal the demise of “test your motor skills here” boot-scootiesque recordings being churned out in Nashville. Then again, as you read this, some guy is having his head measured for that Resistol, thus endearing him to Ralph Emery and all those drugstore truck drivin’ guys and gals. If this gives you the blues, just dial BR5-49. Your faith will be restored.