BR5-49 – Touch Acts To Follow
As singers, Mead and Bennett sound so similar that it takes some careful listening to tell them apart, but their songwriting is more distinguishing. From Mead, the wittier and wilder of the two, comes “18 Wheels And A Crowbar”, a driving rock ‘n’ roll song about a homicidal trucker, and “Out Of Habit”, a hilarious confessional by a man with some mild vices and a nagging sweetheart. He also contributes “Goodbye Maria”, perhaps the world’s only polka about a suicide.
Bennett’s songs are more emotionally rooted. And while nothing on this record approaches, to my mind, the poignancy and visceral truth of “Lifetime To Prove” from the self-titled first album, “Storybook Endings” is a nicely crafted ballad, while “Pain, Pain Go Away” pulls together all the quintessential elements of the BR5-49 sound: quirky melancholy, twangy guitar riffs, and throngs of pedal steel. It’s also easy to fall for his “You Flew The Coop”, the purest Western swing tune the band has recorded and one of the more athletic displays of puns about chickens you’ll ever hear.
Therein lies, forgive me, a bone to pick. For all the good times on Beat Show, it can leave a country fan hungering for something heavier and closer to the soul. Even the serious subjects on the record are dealt with through a party fog of irony. These guys have a sober side, and hopefully we’ll hear more of it on coming records.
For now, however, you can hear it on the Ralph Stanley project. Mead and Bennett chose “Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet”, a beautiful allegory about death and salvation in waltz time that the Stanley Brothers learned from a Maddox Brothers and Rose album in the 1940s. Bennett sings first, in an edgy, plaintive voice. Mead’s is a little more nasal, less drawly. The Hank Williams influence on both is palpable. And when Stanley joins in on the chorus, way up high and wavering so perfectly, it’s a few moments drenched in recognition, respect, and history.
It’s as good a cut as there is on a record loaded with today’s best country singers. And it serves nicely to put BR5-49’s appreciative frontmen in a musical context. “Over the last couple years we’ve gotten to meet a lot of our heroes, and that was the one time…” says Bennett, his voice trailing off. “I was so wound up I couldn’t eat.”
BR5-49’s biography is now an oft-told tale; no artists in the whole twang resurgence of recent years have been covered more extensively. Mead, of Lawrence, Kansas, and Bennett, of Cougar, Washington, met in 1993 while picking for tips in the dives of Nashville’s Lower Broadway, long before an economic revival would bring Planet Hollywood and the NASCAR Cafe to the city’s eclectic hub. Both were music hounds, weaned on the Carter Family and Ray Price but lusty for anything raw and real, from polka to bluegrass to punk rock.
The two would double up four-hour solo shifts into eight-hour duet marathons and piece together bands from whoever was hanging around. Eventually, Mead and Bennett talked McDowell into leaving his gig as guitarist for the band Hellbilly and switching to doghouse bass. Then each called on an old musical collaborator to round out the group. Bennett, playing gigs in Portland, Oregon, had gotten to known Don Herron, a scorching talent on fiddle, pedal steel, mandolin, and other things with strings. Mead was old friends with drummer “Hawk” Shaw Wilson back in Kansas.
Their respective decisions to move and get involved with a real country band at a time when the industry didn’t care about such things weren’t driven by much more than an admittedly “romanticized” vision of Nashville and the promise of life on a sub-poverty wage. But through an improbable mix of timing and talent, the result was a karmic balance: a powerful atomic clock of a rhythm section, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, and two talented but copacetic singer-songwriter frontmen.
Thus began two-and-a-half years of now-famous nightly gigs at Robert’s Western World, a throwback bar and bootery around which much of the Lower Broadway life and aesthetic revolves. BR5-49 got a free pass around the mandatory demo hustling stage of their career because they were always on stage.
Countless hours of gigging at Robert’s gave them the chance to gel as a band and learn a huge repertoire of great American songs (Mead says about 500). By taking any request they could passably play and learning the rest during the day for future shows, they were able to do two vitally important things: hone the intimate relationship they enjoy with a wildly diverse audience, and survive entirely on tips.
It’s a modus operandi that continues to this day. Not long ago in Oxford, Mississippi, somebody wanted to hear “Pretty Boy Floyd”, and it was one of two Woody Guthrie songs Mead knew, so they were off. “It may not sound real polished, but we don’t care about that,” says Bennett. “When you start doing that for people, that’s when the wall goes down and it’s a party in the room. It’s not anymore about we’re up here and you’re down there. We try to get em into it from the very first beat.”
In the fullness of time, BR5-49’s talent, audience and buzz reached a critical mass. Suddenly there were multiple offers for records on major labels and press, lots of it. They’ve been in Rolling Stone, USA Today, and the big news magazines. They were the central subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story in 1996 about the Nashville renaissance by Peter Applebome, who went on to feature them in a book about the Southernization of American culture.