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.
Considering BR5-49's big-budget home, the new disc's unpolished sound is a bit of a shock. But Herron says the minimalist feel is just what the band ordered. "It's hard to get pumped and excited in the studio, especially compared to playing live," says Herron. "And on this tour we played before big crowds, from a couple thousand to 15,000 people a night. We wanted to capture that excitement." The bare-bones sound of the CD is also a response to the glut of highly polished music that stems from the band's hometown. Such glamorized music, he says, "is like taking a girl who's pretty as she is and slapping a bunch of makeup on her and giving her plastic surgery. After a while, there's something wrong with her. She looks nice, but you wanna see something else. You know, give me a freckle or two. We like an edge -- and a little grit and crunch.
"We make the music our own," adds Herron, whose bygone heroes include Stuff Smith, Milton Brown and Speedy West, and whose current Nashville faves include Paul Burch, Tommy Womack and Jason & the Scorchers. "I mean, we love Hank Williams to death, but we don't sound exactly like him or Bob Wills. We put our own sound to it and that's what I look for in a band. I think that might be one reason why we got signed before some of these other bands, because we weren't so conservative in that respect. We were like, 'These are our heroes, but we want to sound like ourselves. Let's put the influences in our music, but let's also be BR5-49.'"
On its current tour, BR5-49 will be playing under the economic influence of Jack Daniel's, who, as part of a sponsorship agreement, has provided the band with a bus and a season's supply of Tennessee's liquid treasure. With the deal, BR5-49 proves that even when it attempts to cash in a little, it does so in its own way, with a hint of good ol' boy rebellion. While commercial country artists like Faith Hill sings the praises of Pepsi, BR5-49 is celebrating an alliance with much stronger stuff. Granted, to many country fans, a honky-tonk band and a bourbon distiller go together like Waylon and Willie and George Jones and a fifth. But to music-business people, the arrangement is hard news. "It's not exactly politically correct," Herron says of the Jack Daniel's deal. "Country radio, they don't want whiskey or beer-drinking songs anymore. And I don't want to mention any names, but there's been a few bands that had the opportunity before us to work with Jack Daniel's, but they turned it down. They were afraid they might offend somebody. Sometimes," he chuckles, "offending people is what we do." In addition to flying the Jack Black flag, the company has asked BR5-49 to spend stage time talking about the distiller's efforts in promoting the new Country Music Hall of Fame, now under construction in Nashville. The museum is scheduled to open in 2001.
If the band's hooch allegiance ruffles Nashville's accountants, Herron's not worried. BR5-49's audience is hardly a standard country crowd. "Most of our crowd," Herron says, "are people that come up and say, 'We don't like country music, but we think you guys are all right.' We have fans that go from Deadhead fans to hillbilly nuts to rockabilly people. And we have people that travel all over to see us because they can't get this music on the radio.
"They call this town 'Nash-Vegas,' and it is an industry here," Herron says. "But with all industries, it's good to see you can dig out something that's not the standard thing. And that's the beauty of music. If you love it a lot you'll go seek things out. And if you don't, you'll turn the radio on and hear what everybody else listens to. And that's cool. But they keep us around here, I think, because we're like a pet project or something."
Nashville's head-cutters have become industry darlings? What about the revolution?
"I think one day the people here are gonna decide to try something new, since this 'flavor of the month' thing they're doing isn't working. Well, the longer you last and the longer you survive, your flavor will come around. That's how we look at it. And when it does, whether we pop it loose or somebody else does, hopefully they'll turn in our direction and the door will get blown wide open."