Country-music renegades BR5-49 made their name as a live band in the mid-’90s, when their high-spirited shows at Robert’s Western Wear, a boot shop and sometime bar in the Nashville’s then-still dicey Lower Broadway district, turned them into the talk of Music City. Performing there several nights a week for tips, the band would do four- or five-hour sets loaded with country classics, rockabilly gems and their modern traditionalist originals.
After the group — bassist Smilin’ Jay McDowell, drummer “Hawk” Shaw Wilson, multi-instrumentalist Don Herron and pair of singer/songwriter/guitarists: Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett — signed with Arista Records in 1996, the label released a live EP, Live at Robert’s. This six-song recording, however, only gives a glimpse of the band’s on-stage magic. The new Bear Family CD/DVD BR5-49: One Long Saturday Night, provides a broader picture of why they created such excitement on Lower Broadway. U.S. street date is set for November 20, 2015.
BR5-49: One Long Saturday Night captures the young band at peak form. Shortly after their self-titled studio debut, they toured in Europe, where their authentic brand of American roots music had already developed a following. In October 1996, they appeared on the German TV program Ohne Filter, which let bands play live in the studio. Chuck Mead states that this performance “really captured us at the top of our game and I look back on that time as an experience of a lifetime.”
For nearly an hour, BR5-40 tore through a spirited set where they mixed rejuvenated classic country hits like Johnny Horton’s “Ole Slewfoot,” Moon Mulligan’s “Cherokee Boogie,” Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never” and even Gram Parsons’ “Big Mouth Blues” with their own timeless-sounding tunes, from Mead’s honky-tonkin’ “My Name Is Mudd” to’s country boogie number “Even If It’s Wrong.” The guys’ fun-loving sense of humor cuts loose on their punk-rock-girl-gone-country ditty “Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)” and “Bettie, Bettie,” their ode to a certain pin-up icon.
“We saw it as our duty to bring the spirit of Robert's Western World to every place we went,” explains Mead. “When I see and hear this DVD and CD set, it feels like we actually did that.” One Long Saturday Night, in fact, features several songs that were Robert’s show staples but never made a proper BR5-49 album. Hank Williams’ “Lone Gone Lonesome Blues,” Ray Price’s “Heartache by the Numbers,” Carl Perkins’ “Gone, Gone, Gone,” Carl Smith’s “Go Boy Go,” Hawkshaw Hawkins’s “Lonesome 7-7203” and a two tunes Bob Wills popularized — “Right or Wrong” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” There is even a previously unreleased Chuck Mead song, “Hometown Boogie.”
The DVD and CD both contain all 19 songs BR5-49 played on Ohne Filter, and the CD adds four soundboard recordings taken from a concert the band played in Japan one week after their German TV show appearance. These bonus tracks include three standards that were regulars in the BR5-49’s concerts — “Knoxville Girl,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” (the latter two are on a BR5-49 album for the first time) — along with Gary Bennett’s “Hillbilly Thang.”
BR5-49’s own “Hillbilly Thang” began after Bennett met Mead at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. While Bennett hailed from Washington state and Mead from Kansas, they found themselves to be musical compatriots. The two started playing at Robert’s Western Wear with a loose ensemble of musicians that formalized as BR5-49 with Mead’s old bandmate, drummer “Hawk” Shaw Wilson, Bennett’s roommate, multi-instrumentalist Don Herron, and “Smilin’” Jay McDowell, a buddy of Mead’s, on standup bass.
BR5-49 (their name taken from an old Hee-Haw sketch) made two studio albums and a live one for Arista before moving on to Sony/Epic’s Lucky Dog Records. After one album there, where they went by BR549, Bennett and McDowell left the band. Mead led the group through a couple more CDs before they went on hiatus, although they have had periodic reunions.
One Long Saturday Night offers a chance to why they were such a breath of fresh air in the Country Music scene when they appeared in the mid-’90s, and how they helped blaze the trail for the Americana music movement.