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Five Alive

Four years ago BR5-49 was being hailed as the new Nashville guard, proof that country music's fat cats had finally come to their senses. After gaining a rabid following as the house band at an unlikely venue on the fringe of Nashville's music scene -- a combination boot store/ saloon -- BR5-49's classic, kicked-in the-pants country earned the band a major label deal with Arista Records. Y'all-ternative types took it as a sign that the industry's doors would soon open to a herd of other insurgent country acts hell-bent on overthrowing Music City's establishment. Today, it's obvious the up- rising never happened. Country's upper crust is less country than ever, and Nashville's bottom line is even more dependent on such crossover pop-tarts as Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride. Garth Brooks is still the King, and George Jones -- despite the appeal of his back-from- the-brink-of-death record, Choices -- isn't allowed to play a full song on the Country Music Awards show. So much for the coup.

Somehow, though, multi-instrumentalist Don Herron and his mates in BR5-49 (vocalists/guitarists Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett, bassist Jay McDowell and drummer Shaw Wilson) have managed to tread the town's tepid musical waters. They're steadily gaining momentum in the land of shlock and Western, despite being ignored continually by country radio. "Right now," Herron admits in a polite West Virginia drawl, "the way country radio has gone, it's really heading toward the pop scene. And there's a whole bunch of pressure on the major labels, and Nashville is having a tough time these days. I think it's because they abandoned a lot of their country people and a lot of them have turned to other things. But our crowd is growing more and more, and we're making the best of it. We're pretty lucky the way it's worked out, and hopefully the people here won't try to change us too much."

Based on BR5-49's let's-buck-the-system track record, the odds of that happening are slim. For starters, the band is still on Arista, even with sales deemed modest by industry standards. Since signing, Herron and company have worked harder than a one-armed oyster-shucker, opening for both mainstream country acts like Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson and an A-list of non-country artists that includes Bob Dylan, the Black Crowes and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Additionally, the band's recordings have featured original compositions and the members' own performances, not the usual songs-for-hire and Nashville session players. Each of BR5-49's releases have been pressed on good ol' vinyl -- a rarity in the C&W majors. The band's brand-new release is equally rare in its approach. It's a live, straight-to-ADAT recording (made during a stint with Setzer and company), a glorified board tape marked by lo-fi sound, rough edges and zero overdubs.

The band's assault on Nashville's sensibilities began in the early '90s. Herron's traveling musician lifestyle landed him in Nashville, where he was soon joined by Gary Bennett (an ally in Portland, Oregon) who brought along fellow frontman Chuck Mead. The trio joined forces with Wilson and McDowell and began gigging regularly at Robert's, a boot vendor and bar in Nashville's semi-seedy Lower Broadway section. Soon the band was drawing size-fourteen crowds and turning heads with its waist-deep catalogue of true-grit twang. The lines snaking outside Robert's during the band's frequent shows caught the attention of various A&R people, who came close to offering record deals. There was, of course, always a catch. "We had labels talk to us," Herron recalls, "but they were always wanting us to add studio pickers or change this and that. They were all thinking, 'We could probably bend this band and make it mainstream enough to where we could pop it through.' And we could have gone that route, and I might be sitting here with a platinum record on my wall. But you know, that's a little too close to dancing with the devil for us."

The band's big break, Herron says, came when BR5-49 landed on the cover of Billboard magazine, a Cinderella stroke of fortune that sent record labels scrambling to sign them. The group eventually inked with Arista Nashville, with whom it released a debut live disc, Live From Robert's, two studio recordings (a self-titled offering and Big Backyard Beat Show) and the current live platter, Coast to Coast. While even Herron admits that the band's studio work is a shade smooth for his tastes, such cleanliness is nowhere to be heard on the new CD. It's a rewarding honky-tonk record that features almost-true-to-the-original covers (including Don Gibson's "Sweet, Sweet Girl," Earl Green's "Six Days on the Road," and Bob Wills's "Brain Clouding Blues") and old-style, souped-up BR5-49 originals like "Tell Me, Mama" and "Better Than This." But Steve Earle it ain't, and its feel-good mood and sunny kookiness might make it a tad unsatisfying to those alt-country types hungry for anger and looking for a bloodletting in their music. But for fans of tweaked vintage country and the roadhouse music that keeps truckers on the road overtime, it's darn good drivin' music. The searing tones and close-to-the-edge playing of the band's soloists (particularly Herron, who smokes on steel guitar, fiddle and electric mandolin) add to the group's updated country goodness. So does the fact that BR5-49 spikes their shows with a dose of cornball humor and rock-and-roll energy.

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Marty Jones

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