BR5-49 – Touch Acts To Follow
It’s the eve of a stormy Memorial Day weekend, high in the Clinch Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. Jimmy Martin’s enormous green tour bus has just barged its way up the winding road to Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home park, a rough and tumble campground, surrounded by lush, knobby hills and weathered chain link. Hand-painted plywood signs, faded to near illegibility, proclaim the site home to Stanley’s bluegrass festival, now in its 28th year.
In a time when big bluegrass festivals like Telluride and Merlefest have reached an urbane, upscale audience, this is pure country. No Volvo wagons or Master’s degrees up here. No Deadheads twirling. The thousand or so people in attendance are a hard, sunbeaten lot — average age over 40. There are scrawny old men in sagging overalls and feed caps, stern-eyed veterans of wars and 50-year marriages, women who can their own food, and ham-shouldered young bucks in generic mirror shades and ball caps. A paunchy guy with a banjo is selling leather goose outfits out of a camper (I’m not making this up; they have little hats).
The lineup is gospel-heavy, the sponsorship low-key and local. It conjures up with clarity the kind of grass-roots gatherings that have been the staple of Ralph Stanley’s audience for over 50 years and that put country music on the American map. Soon, Jimmy Martin, another old warrior, the self-proclaimed “King of Bluegrass,” will take the stage in a rhinestone-encrusted suit and feathered hat to charm the boots off an adoring audience.
But now Stanley himself is holding court, singing “Pretty Polly” and “How Mountain Girls Can Love”. Then he’s talking about country music and its place in the lives of everyone there, his velvety old pipes as extraordinary in speech as they are in song. And then he’s telling them how proud he is of his new record and all the people who helped him sing on it: Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless…He goes methodically through the list of about 30 artists, from memory. George Jones and Verne Gosdin get the biggest applause. And then Stanley comes to a group most everybody in this audience has never heard of — somebody or something called BR5-49.
One day later, and 60 miles to the south near Black Mountain, North Carolina, BR5-49’s Chuck Mead looks wistful and says, “We’re just happy he remembered our name.”
The mountain folk may not know who BR5-49 are yet, but the fact that Stanley does, and that he invited Mead and fellow frontman Gary Bennett to sing on his new Clinch Mountain Country project, testifies to how far this Nashville honky-tonk jukebox/dance marathon of a band has come in the last three years.
As they prepare to release their second full-length record, Big Backyard Beat Show, they can look back at two years any band would envy. They’ve sold over 176,000 copies in the U.S. of their first record on a major country label (Arista Nashville), sparked a resurgence of neo-traditionalism in Nashville, and toured the world sharing stages with country and rock acts as diverse as Marty Stuart, Smashing Pumpkins and the Black Crowes. And nobody made them stop wearing their classic country outfits or stop playing Hank Williams songs in concert.
But for Mead, Bennett and the rest of the quintet, there have been more sublime rewards, like earning the respect of some of the very artists who inspired them, at least the ones who are still alive. By tapping into the venerable and almost forgotten genre of American art and entertainment that they fell in love with as kids, BR5-49 is making not only a living but a mark.
One kindred spirit for whom they’ve been a regular opening act is Bob Dylan, who, when he was about as old as BR5-49’s bass player “Smilin'” Jay McDowell, articulated and made meaningful for at least two generations the legacy of America’s greatest folk, country, and blues artists. There’s just something inherently likable about a band of guys who count as one of their most gratifying moments the night Grandpa Jones stomped and applauded for their set at the Grand Ole Opry, shouting, “Sign ’em up!”
The cover of the new record plays off this kind of unbridled enthusiasm and the whole idea of intergenerational torch-passing. Robert Matheu’s photograph shows the band sitting in the audience before a little homemade stage out on somebody’s lawn. Up in the limelight is a band of little tykes in country and western outfits. It suggests that for BR5-49, even more than most bands, what’s on the record is not nearly as important as the promise of a good show.
This group discovered its niche and made its name by embracing not just the sound and the songs of classic country music, but also the ethos of doing whatever it takes to show the folks a good time. Call it the entertainer gene — the force that sustains the Grand Ole Opry and that makes all of country music’s kitschy artifice not just acceptable but essential. Put another way, it’s the reason Roy Acuff balanced a fiddle bow on his chin, and why it was so cool.
That said, Big Backyard Beat Show rocks and swings and shuffles through nine original tunes and five covers, spanning most of the styles BR5-49 embraces in concert. As the title implies, it’s a party record, a full-tilt boogie that lets Don Herron stretch out instrumentally, especially on pedal steel and fiddle. And while it goes further than their first record in showcasing the band’s songwriting strengths, it’s bookended with the kind of choice covers BR5-49 was born to revive.
Kicking things off is one of Buck Owens’ more obscure tunes, “There Goes My Love”, which serves up from the first note the melded, buzzing harmony of Mead and Bennett singing together. Beat Show wraps up with “Georgia On A Fast Train” by Billy Joe Shaver, a criminally underappreciated country artist who penned many of Waylon Jennings’ biggest hits.