DIARY - 22 MARCH 2005 - BR5-49
BR549 - TANGLED IN THE TRACKS
hard not to fall through the cracks and grease up that machine/ but I'm
payin' the bills and movin' the country in Nashville, Tennessee."
- Movin' The Country - Chuck Mead-A Murphy
BR5-49 made a whirlwind trip to Sydney in 1998 to launch the Western
Pacific version of CMT it enticed music industry moths with retro
The quixotic quintet charmed the mobile phone and briefcase-toting
tsars who supped from their deep well and rapidly decamped.
Sure, they lapped up the joyous music of a band, managed by expatriate
Australasian Barry Coburn, but none of them took a punt on their music
on radio or tours.
innovative cable TV show, later doomed with refried rock and bucolic blues,
their interest withered on the sales vine.
The short shelf life Sydney shakers returned to the mainstream and the
band had an internal revolution in 2002 before morphing into a vastly
It's that new unit with hyphen surgically removed that emerged with one
of the finest roots country albums of the young millennium.
Chuck Mead, co-founder in 1993, drummer Shaw Wilson and multi-instrumentalist
Don Herron, enlisted guitarist Chris Scruggs and bassist Geoff Firebaugh.
Scruggs is the son of singer-songwriters Gary Scruggs and Gail Davies
and grandson of Country Music Hall of Fame member Earl Scruggs.
Firebaugh previously played in Seattle and Nashville punk and rockabilly
After Gary Bennett and Jay McDowell fled they returned to Lower Broadway
where they first won acclaim at Roberts Western Wear with a live disc.
"We didn't know what was going to happen," Mead revealed, "We
were at a loss as to what to really do. The best thing we knew to do was
to go back to Lower Broadway."
They're the real deal on 12-track sixth album Tangled In The Pines
(Dualtone-Shock.) "It's like putting a new engine in a really great
old car you love and don't want to give up," Mead says. "They
bring a different dynamic to the band. It's not any better or any worse.
It's just different and, to me, it's great. I really love it. They had
to pass tests with older fans. But they passed, and everyone loves them."
They entrée with Mead's co-write with Raoul Malo on That's What
I Get and segue into Mead's sardonic I'm All Right For The Shape
I'm In that borrows melody from the Haggard song book.
Loans from that great country music library in the sky are not uncommon
but they're tasty - Mead-Scruggs tune Ain't Got Time purloins an
image from Shel Silverstein's Cover Of The Rolling Stone to nail
a hedonistic message.
Equally derivative - Mead gems She's Talking To Someone (She's Not
Talking To Me), No Train To Memphis and Scruggs Honky Tonkin'
They temper their modern musical mayhem with retro rhythms without suffering
the fate of so many peers - drowning in quicksand as prisoners of the
Devastatingly accurate are vitriolic Movin' The Country and the
Mead-Scruggs tune No Friend Of Mine.
The former is a music business parody - not as nihilistic as the work
of Robbie Fulks, recently lampooned by Todd Snider, and Dale Watson.
"I think Nashville gets a bad rap about music," Mead explains.
"It's all like, 'Austin has the integrity.' Well, maybe they do,
but Nashville does, too.
"Everybody has to make a little bit of money, right? You can't hold
it against those people."
Despite such altruism the band suffered theft in Seattle and Nashville,
losing Herron's 1952 Fender triple-neck steel guitar, Wilson's 1949 Gretsch
kit and Firebaugh's four-string Danelectro Rumor Bass.
INTERVIEW FROM 1998
BR5-49 FOR SUICIDE, PATHOS, ANYTHING
retro country band BR5-49 cut third album Big Backyard Beat Show
they weren't fazed by the Nashville fad for positive love songs.
Singer-guitarist Chuck Mead drew from the Appalachian murder ballad tradition
for Goodbye Maria - one of their creative peaks on the Arista disc.
The disc, ignored by commercial radio but featuring heavily on discerning
community and regional radio shows and ABC, is an eclectic island in the
"It's a true story about a friend of my girlfriend's sister who she
went to school with," Chuck told Nu Country.
"She had been around a little bit and he thought he could change
her. He was head over heels in love so they got married. She plays house
for a while and comes home one night and says 'I don't want to play house
any more and here is a list of the people I have slept with since we've
been married.' He goes back to this hotel in Wichita, where they spent
their honeymoon, and writes this letter to her and proceeds to put the
barrel of a gun in his mouth and do himself in. I thought that was a pretty
good country song - it was real life and did happen. We didn't want to
bum everyone out so we set it to a Mexican polka."
The quirky quintet, who played at the launch of the revamped Western Pacific
Rim edition of CMT in Sydney on May, 26, 1998, proved they were a dynamic
live act with a celebrity studded audience including actor Jack Thompson
who discovered them at Roberts Western World on Lower Broadway in Nashville.
sauntered into the downtown Music City honky tonk when he was making
the movie Last Dance with Sharon Stone - the belle who rang
for fellow actor Dwight Yoakam.
That was in the early nineties when the band played for tips before
lured uptown by expatriate Australasian manager-publisher Barry Coburn
who guided Alan Jackson to superstardom.
The band played an earthy mix of tunes dating back to the moonshining
days of the Dixie desperadoes who lived outside Yankee city laws.
It was also an expensive time for Kentucky chart topper John Michael
Montgomery who offered them $25 for each Hank Williams tune they could
graciously quit when Montgomery, a man with a penchant for the evils of
hard liquor, had run up a Hank tab of $600.
BR5-49 signed with Arista in September 1995 and cut a vinyl EP, Live
At Roberts Western World, in January-February, 1996 - it was re-released
on CD with an extra track, Bettie Bettie.
By the time the band released its self titled studio album it was touring
with a diverse mix of peers - from stone country acts George Jones and
Johnny Paycheck to rockers Sheryl Crow, Black Crowes, Wallflowers, Dylan,
Ani De Franco, Prodigy and Beck.
But that was preceded by a chance meeting between the band's major writers
Mead and Gary Bennett at audition night in 1993 at the famed Bluebird
Café - subject of River Phoenix's last movie The Thing Called
Mead, born in Missouri and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, and Vegas born
Bennett who was reared in Cougar, Washington, retreated to Lower Broadway
where roots country reigned.
It was just down the street from Tootsies Orchid Lounge where Loretta
Lynn's twins Peggy & Patsy later worked incognito as the Honk-A-Billies
before signing to Reprise as The Lynns.
BR5-49 took its name from a used car salesman's phone number in an episode
of TV show, Hee Haw, starring Junior Samples.
Another canned laughter concoction, the Andy Griffith Show spawned breakthrough
"hit" Me 'N Opie (Down By The Duck Pond).
The song, a salacious satire of characters getting stoned in a missing
episode of the former top rating TV show, earned the band infamy in the
bible belt country music capital and launched them beyond cult status.
"I've never heard back from Andy but I know Ron Howard acquired a
copy of the song," says Chuck, "it's all in good spirit. The
Dillards (a veteran bluegrass band) played the Darlings in the show. And
we just had fun taking the mickey out of the characters such as Ernest
T and Opie."
"They even sang along with Me 'N Opie (Down By The Duck Pond)
in Holland where the show had never been screened. In countries where
radio didn't play our music we were well known because of our videos on
CMT and even MTV."
The band reprised its original tune, 18 Wheels And A Crowbar, from
the live disc for the new album that features nine original tunes.
They also reach back to late heroes Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Webb
Pierce, Gram Parsons, Moon Mullican and still living Ray Price, Buck Owens
and Billy Joe Shaver for material and mine the motherlode of their small
home towns for My Name Is Mudd, You Flew The Coop, Out Of Habit, Pain,
Pain, Go Away, Change The Way I Look and You Are Never Nice To
the band learned Wild One - not from the original version by
late Sydney writer Johnny O'Keefe - but the Jerry Lee Lewis cover
And it wasn't the Moon Mullican version of the Buck Trail-Louis Innis
tune Seven Nights To Rock that inspired the quintet.
"It's got a real Bill Haley feel to it but we actually copied
our version from the Nick Lowe version," Chuck revealed, "he
did it on Rose Of England. Gary sings his butt off."
It was a similar story to their cut of Cherokee Boogie from
the second album.
"Again we did the Johnny Horton version - not the Moon Mullican,"
Mead chuckled, "we didn't even know Moon Mullican had done it
till we got publishing information."
for movie Hope Floats spawned Bennett song Storybook Endings.
the offer to write in L.A. but by the time I got done they had locked
in to something else," Gary explained, "at least we got a song
out of it. I wrote most of it on a bus going down the road - it took a
while to write. I had a specific thing to write for in the movie where
a little girl's mum and dad were getting divorced and her mum had a new
boyfriend and the little girl hated that - she was 7 or 8 years old. She
was jealous of the guy and tried to get them to split. He tried to explain
he and her mum were in love. Life, as she knew it, was going to end but
she could get something positive out of it."
Although that song hit the cutting room floor two other BR5-49 tunes -
Even If It's Wrong and Your Brown Eyes - have surfaced in
Drummer Hawk Shaw Wilson penned 18 Wheels And A Crow Bar with Mead
while bassist Smiling Jay McDowell and Don Herron (fiddle, mandolin, steel,
dobro and banjo) are renowned for their hot picking and visual dynamics.
The band also features revamps of Buck Owens tune There Goes My Love,
Ricky Skaggs lead guitarist Keith Sewell's Hurting Song and Billy
Joe Shaver's historic Georgia On A Fast Train, also cut by Georgian
gaucho Randy Howard.
BR5-49 surpassed the creativity of most peers - because of a gregarious
genre cross fertilisation catalysed by their healthy hybrid of rockabilly,
swing, Tex-Mex, Cajun, retro and cutting edge country laced with a dose
of nineties cool.
ain't ashamed of the way she was/ she hears old Hank, she can't get enough/
her punk records are gathering dust/ Little Ramona's gone hillbilly nuts."
- Chuck Mead.
Little Ramona's Gone Hillbilly Nuts, is the saga of a precious
punkette who discovers real music - country.
It was one of several songs spawned by embryonic years playing in the
family band in Lawrence, Kansas.
"A lot of my friends discovered the same edge that existed in Hank
Williams was in The Ramones," Mead recalled, "there's a real
kindred spirit there in all sorts of music that dates back to the mountain
people who played for people, then for money and travelled around the
region with a show wandering up and down the region. On the street - you
just play because you play. That's the whole spirit behind the music -
bands like The Ramones were playing music the way they heard it. So was
Hank, so was Albert King - it's all the same spirit."
Mead traces his band's music back to pioneers like Emmet Miller.
"He was a black faced minstrel guy who did the original Lovesick
Blues that Hank Williams did and the original Right Or Wrong,"
"All the guys were copying Emmet Miller. They all talked about him
but no-one knew who he was. They came out last year with a CD of his music
- he has the Dorsey Bros playing on it when they were really young back
in the 20's. Even Al Jolson was a contemporary of Emmet Miller."
Mead also wrote Lifetime To Prove and Chains Of This Town
about his escape from his hometown but it was BR5-49's fertile font in
Nashville that sparked One Long Saturday Night.
"When you're an entertainer you have to be the life of the party
all the time," Mead chuckled, "you have to make everybody feel
this is it - this is the party every Saturday night. To us it's one just
long Saturday night."
The band's eclectic music and fan base has long been a plus.
"We opened a whole bunch of shows for the Black Crowes," explains
Mead, "we come out in hillbilly outfits and the crowd likes us just
as much. Pretty soon the Crowes are coming out and singing with us on
the stage. We're showing there are no real lines in music - they're all
drawn by the people in the business, just marketing. The same happened
when we were toured with Dylan - he really knows all that old hillbilly
music - he was playing Rock Island Line and Knoxville Girl
(from the BR5-49 live disc) 30 years ago and Stanley Brothers songs.
Of course there would be real chaos in record stores if there wasn't cataloguing."
So how did
BR5-49 hook up with Barry Coburn - one time CEO of Atlantic Records, Nashville,
and founder of Spurs cowboy bars in Melbourne, Geelong and Canberra.
He was also promoter of Australasian tours by acts diverse as Boomtown
Rats, Roxy Music, Gillan, Eagles, Emmylou Harris and Burrito Bros.
"Barry had actually been coming down to Robert's Western World the
longest," Mead recalled.
"He wanted to talk to Gary Bennett (the band's other major songwriter)
and me about publishing. We never knocked on one door on Music Row because
we were just down there playing - we shied away from business. We had
no aspirations but we knew Barry had done good things for Alan Jackson
and had a broader understanding of what we do than any of the other managers.
By the time we were getting a manager we already had a record deal.
We had the record deal before we even had a demo out. But we gave the
demos to our mums."
Coburn previously punted on other U.S. artists - Mark Germino, Lacy J
Dalton, Bell & Shore, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, Emmylou
Harris, Keith Sewell, Holly Dunn, Suzy Bogguss, Diamond Rio, Billy Yates
and George Ducas.
He was also financier of the late larrikin A.P. Johnson's Greatest
Hits & Ex-Misses and guru for some of the Dead Livers Greatest
Misses - first two releases on the Nu Country label.
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