BR5-49 – Touch Acts To Follow
The theme of all these articles was, to one degree or another, BR5-49’s role in the revival of Nashville as a nexus of hipness and, potentially, the artistic redemption of Music Row. Two years after all the fuss began, it’s nice to report that, whether it was BR5-49’s doing or not, there actually is something of a movement going on in roots country, and downtown Nashville is safe (and usually a pretty good time) after dark. The band won’t take credit for any seismic shifts in the culture, but Bennett does think they were one of the first to tap into a latent desire for musical adventurism and category-smashing.
“[Arista] took us on because there had been something proven down there [at Robert’s] — that people were looking for variety,” he says. “And that same group of people who were looking for something different down there at Robert’s, if you go to St. Louis or Hamburg, Germany, it’s going to be the same crowd out there. And it’s growing. We were on the West Coast for the first time in February, and at every show there were people dressing up like it was the 1950s and these rockabilly guys, everything. It’s progressed, the whole scene. There’s a lot of bands doing it.”
For these bandmates, who so value eclecticism in music, the diversity of their audience is another profound source of gratification. Mead lights up talking about the older folks who come to their shows. “Some old woman came up to me and said ‘Sign my record. I really like you guys. I saw Webb Pierce.'” Bennett has met kids who’ve brought their parents and even grandparents to shows and told stories of reconnecting as family members because this music gives them something they can both relate to.
Tonight’s audience, for example, couldn’t be further from the congregation up in Ralph Stanley country or the Lower Broadway mob. BR5-49’s heavy blue and chrome country star bus is pulled up by the shores of Lake Eden, home for the weekend to several thousand hippies, folkies, boomers, kids, and assorted left-of-center happy campers. The site of the Lake Eden Arts Festival was built as a sort of summer camp for intellectuals by the erstwhile Black Mountain College. In its heyday, it hosted the big thoughts of Albert Einstein, William deKooning and Walter Gropius. Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome here, it is said.
Twice a year now, these hills are opened up to an eclectic musical offering: old-time fiddle and banjo, dulcimers, conga drum circles, Celtic funk. On this fine Saturday, a New Grass Revival ripoff band has gotten everybody through dinner. By dark, File, a Cajun and zydeco band from Lafayette, Louisiana, has churned up everyone’s blood and sweat. Says Mead: “This is our kind of crowd.” Three hours later, they’ve proved it, whipping everybody into a state of ecstatic twisting and shouting.
“Thanks, folks. Welcome to the big country show,” says Bennett before launching into “Honky Tonkin'” and then leading the band through a 29-song set that spans the whole genre like a survey course. We get Bob Wills’ “Time Changes Everything”, with Herron soloing on three different instruments, and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Waiting For A Train”, where Mead offers up some accomplished yodeling.
The climax of the show is the totally insane “Me And Opie”, a degenerate imagining of the final lost episode of “The Andy Griffith Show”. Never mind that we’re just down the road from Mayberry. It scores. Maybe the only awkward moment comes when the band makes a plea for tips. Out of habit, one guesses.
As with their recent recordings, there’s just a hint of something deeper in BR5-49’s well. It comes when Mead and Bennett chill the blood with their version of “Knoxville Girl”, an ancient and graphic murder ballad that’s been recorded by every pair of harmonizing brothers that ever mattered, from the Louvins to the Stanleys to the Blue Sky Boys. But it’s not the lineage of the song or even the song itself that makes it an essential ingredient of the evening; it’s the way Mead and Bennett mine it for emotional riches. Their powerful voices locked in harmony and their evocation of unspeakable woe come closer to the country ideal the band talks of than anything else they play all night.
BR5-49 has come so far so fast doing what came naturally on Lower Broadway that they have had little time or occasion to ask themselves what they’ll become eventually. And through no fault of their own, they straddle worlds that are difficult to reconcile. They write terrific songs but excel as a cover act. They sell records like real industry players, but they can’t get on country radio. Moreover, they’ve got to fight the curse of having been the next big thing last time. There’s almost no way they can duplicate the kind of media attention they enjoyed two years ago.
Arista is certainly grappling with these questions. To broaden the band’s potential reach, they’re thinking about releasing a harder-rocking version of the album’s first single (yet to be determined) to alternative rock and college radio. BR5-49 hopped up to Chicago in May to re-record at least two songs that had already been etched on the record, with Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Pixies, Robbie Fulks, ad infinitum) in the producer’s chair.
Only good can come from the band’s natural desire to seek out new audiences of country music neophytes to preach to. Likewise, this is a band that profits from stretching out in all the directions their musical mentors point, from Johnny Cash to the Clash. The unexplored territory ahead lies in connecting that hunger and drive with the emotional realism that surfaces from time to time in their music today. When Mead and Bennett write about their own experience and turmoil, as in “Chains Of This Town” and “Lifetime To Prove”, they hint at what’s to come.
They already know secrets that most so-called country acts of today and tomorrow will never know. When BR5-49 talks about old country music, it could be John F. Kennedy talking about Jefferson, or Watson and Crick marveling at the structure of DNA. Their humility in the face of history is an essential ingredient to their charisma onstage, and to the power of their singing. That, and their essential tightness as a band, is what has the Dylans and the Grandpa Joneses of the world so excited.
Those who have heard what BR5-49 is capable of can’t help but want them to do more. This doesn’t mean changing their sound or their style — it simply means not selling themselves short in the aspects of country music that have made the genre more than just a hot time on a Saturday night: confession, interpretation, narrative, and truth. A party is great, but it can only go on so long.
Craig Havighurst is a Nashville-based journalist and songwriter who tries to play too many kinds of music to do any one of them very well.