Gary Bennett – Second act, naturally
He knew it was a dream, for he’d nurtured it carefully all those years back home in Cougar, Washington, and then down the road in Portland, Oregon, where he tried it out onstage in some pretty bleak bars. But even a decade after BR5-49’s abrupt leap into the spotlight from the cramped stage of a boot shop and bar in a Nashville neighborhood nice people didn’t visit…even now, the memory leaves Gary Bennett counting lucky stars.
When the dream subsided, he spent a long, hot summer counting bags of mulch, but that, too, passed. The record that grew from of all that — Bennett is 40 now, and finally has an album with just his name on the cover — is called Human Condition, and was released by Landslide in late February.
“You build Nashville into this big thing in your head for all these years,” Bennett says. “Should I go? Am I good enough to go?”
Finally he went, and in some ways there wasn’t much left when he got there in 1993. In other ways the city was wide open, for there on Lower Broadway, playing for the tourists and the tips and the pleasure of each other’s songs, were people like Greg Garing, Chuck Mead, Paul Burch, Kenny Vaughan, and Don Herron.
Mead and Bennett quickly created BR5-49 (with Herron, Smilin’ Jay McDowell and Hawk Shaw Wilson), sharing lead duties so they both had a voice at the end of the night. And that ended up being the band from Lower Broadway that made it. Or nearly made it, anyhow. Tours with Dylan and Fogerty, three Grammy nominations, a half-million albums sold, more good press than you could eat.
Chuck Mead still leads a band called BR549, and it’s still a pretty fair bar band. But the band lost its hyphen, and then its major-label deal, and finally, in 2002, its co-leader. No hard feelings.
In the telling, their split plays out like a trial separation that went permanent. “It was expected, actually, that we were going to slow way down and just kind of do some other things,” Bennett says. “So I went and bought a bunch of recording equipment with my savings, and built a little studio. I wanted to concentrate on being a songwriter; that’s really why I moved here.
“And my head was just cluttered. I needed to just step away and let it clear, see how I felt about everything.
“After about three months of that,” he chuckles, “I realized, ‘I don’t have much money left. I guess what I better do is get a job,’ because I didn’t feel like going out and playing right then.”
So the next time some of Gary’s friends from Music Row saw him, he was loading mulch and cement and whatever else they needed into their trucks at Home Depot.
“It was funny to see their reactions,” he says, and there’s that country thing Hank Jr. used to sing about in his voice. “Like, ‘Hey, man, I’m still me. I don’t care.’ I don’t have any kind of pride to say I can’t work or anything like that.”
He got by.
And he wrote songs. R.S. Field stopped by and said he’d produce. “I had some stuff that was really more rock,” Bennett says. “I don’t try to write a style, I just try to write what comes out of you, and that’s kind of what it was.
“And then I thought, historically, when a guy leaves a band, the next record better be the best damn thing he ever did. Or else it’s over. So then I started rethinking and thinking I should probably do it more country. So I held him [Field] off for another year or so while I wrote some more songs, and did that like twice, actually.”
There’s more to it, of course. His favorite nephew was shot and killed, and then his best friend, a guitar player named Lin Paulson who’d followed him out to Nashville, died in a car wreck. The same week.
“I’m pretty cocky to think that I’ve got all this time,” he says. “So I dealt with that. And decided you’ve just got to get out there and burn it while you can. Come what may.”
What came were songs such as “Things That Mean A Lot To Me” and “Ain’t Gettin’ No Younger” and, especially, “Steel Ball”, which transform that knowing into tightly rendered country songs. They’re not sad, they’re just smart.
OK, some of ’em are sad. It is country music; Gary met Harlan Howard once or twice, and it shows on “Ship In A Bottle”, the kind of song Glen Campbell could’ve made a hit between Jimmy Webb covers. But they lack the youthful certainty — the fancy clothes and knowing nods — of BR-549.
It’s all smartly played by his old friends: Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Jimmy Lester on drums, Mark Winchester on bass. Plus Kenny’s boss, Marty Stuart, on one track, and five cuts with legendary steel guitarist Lloyd Green.
Come what may, Bennett’s dream has acquired a different kind of urgency. “My nephew would write me poems from prison, and he was good at it,” Bennett says. “I’ve got a hatbox full of letters I can’t even stand to lift the top off of. And there’s all that wasted; nobody will ever know about that except for his family. I don’t know how much of a talent I’ve got; I think I’ve got a certain amount that I’ve tried to develop. And I’ve also got a chance to do something with it, at least on whatever scale. And I’m going to do it. There might not be too many more chances.”